by Richard Pence
The passage of the Homestead Act by Congress in 1862 was the culmination of more than 70 years of controversy over the disposition of public lands. From the inception of the United States there was a clamor for ever-increasing liberalism in the disposition of these lands. From 1830 onward, groups called for free distribution of such lands. This became a demand of the Free-Soil party, which saw such distribution as a means of stopping the spread of slavery into the territories, and it was subsequently adopted by the Republican party in its 1860 platform. The Southern states had been the most vociferous opponents of the policy, and their secession cleared the way for its adoption.
The Act, which became law on Jan. 1, 1863, allowed anyone to file for a quarter-section of free land (160 acres). The land was yours at the end of five years if you had built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed) 10 acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there. Additionally, one could claim a quarter-section of land by "timber culture" (commonly called a "tree claim"). This required that you plant and successfully cultivate 10 acres of timber.
New arrivals to the U.S. and landless citizens were obvious candidates for the homestead lands; however, rather than the established farmer, the homesteaders were more likely to be his children seeking a place of their own. My great-grandfather, who was orphaned at an early age, left Maine as a youth and went to Kansas where he proved up one homestead and then returned to Maine, married and went to South Dakota and proved up on a homestead in the 1880s. His ancestors had been in New England since 1630; descendants still live on the homestead.
My paternal grandfather had three second cousins who were born into a large family in Iowa. The three, one a woman, went to North Dakota together and proved up on adjoining homesteads. As well as being a homesteader, she was the school teacher in the township.
As a youth in South Dakota I knew families whose patriarchs came from Norway, Germany and Finland to homestead there. And in this far northern South Dakota area there was a Black man, said to be the son of a slave, who proved up a homestead which he later sold and then moved to a job in town. (He is buried in the local cemetery in a grave marked by a large monument paid for by fund raisers of the ladies' aid society!) Some, like the third husband of my paternal grandmother's mother, in effect worked for land speculators. He took out a homestead (in a rather arid, godforsaken area near the Missouri River) in the 1890s, fairly shortly thereafter mortgaged it with an Iowa insurance company (which apparently loaned him a little more each year) - and as soon as he "proved up" and received his final certificate, he turned it over to the company and moved on. Such companies often acquired large tracts in this fashion. Meanwhile, those on the homesteads lived off the mortgage and what little they could eke from the land.
By the way, there appears to have been "fudging" on the five-year requirement. In the case of both my great-grandfather Stanley and my great-grandmother's husband, the time from the filing of the initial pre-emption to the date of the final certificate was less than five years, more like four.
Although it remained in effect, with numerous modifications, until repealed in 1977, the Homestead Act was not an unqualified success. The better lands soon came under the control of the railroads and speculators, forcing settlers to buy from them rather than accept the poorer government lands. Even so, by 1900 about 600,000 farmers had received clear title under the act to lands covering about 80 million acres
At the time I did my research for homestead records, one needed to know the legal description of the land before the records could be located. That is, section number, township number and range number as they were recorded in that fashion. If you knew the county you could cut down considerably on how much you had to search. If you knew the township, even less searching was required. However, there has been quite a bit of indexing of the land office records since that time and record indexes for most of public land states east of the Mississippi are now available on CD-ROM. In addition to the particulars of each claim, the CD-ROMs contain the necessary reference numbers that you can use to get copies of the actual records. For further information, contact
Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Attn: Public Services Section 7450 Boston Boulevard Springfield VA 22153(Note that there is generally little information of a genealogical nature in federal land records; however, the record for my great grandfather, Daniel Adelbert Stanley, contained a list of his children with their ages.)
Hibbard, Benjamin, A History of the Public Land Policies, 1965
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