Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act—one of the most significant influences on the growth of the western United States in history. The Homestead Act was an act of Congress that allowed individuals over 21—men, women, or freed slaves—to claim 160 acres in the Public Domain at no cost. The only requirement after filing a claim was to live on the land for five years, build a home, cultivate the land, and make improvements. At the end of five years the settler could “prove up” his claim at the nearest land office and become the legal owner. Approximately 10% of the United States land mass was settled this way, and over 4 million settlers applied. Of course, only about 1.6 million (40%) successfully met the requirements and fulfilled their claims, for a variety of reasons.
Genealogists love the Homestead Act because it produced voluminous land-entry case files packed with personal information about claimants. They generally range in size from 8-25 pages. Regardless of whether or not a claimant was successful, the application files still exist and those are what we seek. These files are housed at the National Archives but are in the process of being digitized through a joint project of FamilySearch, The University of Nebraska, NARA, and Fold3.com. Right now they are about 39% complete.
For text of the Homestead Act, history, photos, maps, and sample file documents check out the websites below.
Here is a link to the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska, site of one of the very first Homestead claims:
And here is a link to the Bureau of Land Management’s commemoration site:
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website has an index to many of the homestead records:
The actual files can be ordered from the National Archives website using the information obtained in the BLM index above:
http://www.archives.gov/shop/ click on “Order reproductions”
Most people do not realize there were many more Acts of Congress that provided settlers with a way to obtain land. A timeline on the BLM website lays it all out:
One interesting little factoid is the politics surrounding the Homestead Act of 1862. As you will recall, the Civil War started in 1861. By 1862 the Southern States had seceded and had no representation in the United States Congress. Prior to 1861 there had been several attempts to pass legislation such as the Homestead Act, but it was controversial because of clashing ideologies between North and South. The Northerners envisioned states where all were free to stake a claim and farm their own land, whereas the Southerners wanted to preserve the plantation/slave economy in the new states that would be created. This was an impasse that prevented any kind of land Act, and Congress seized upon the opportunity first chance they had in May of 1862. The Homestead Act officially began at midnight on 1 Jan 1863.
Happy Trails! And Happy 150th Birthday Homestead Act!