Were your ancestors among the millions who claimed federal lands under the Homestead Act of 1862?
We’re coming up on the 150th anniversary of this groundbreaking (pun intended) legislation that accelerated the country’s westward expansion. Look for opportunities to learn more about your homesteading ancestors.
President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862. Beginning Jan. 1, 1863, a homesteader could receive up to 160 acres of public domain land by applying for a claim (which required a filing fee), improving the land, living on it for five years, and then filing for a patent.
Anyone who was 21 or older or the head of a family—women, immigrants and freed slaves included—who’d never taken up arms against the US government could file an application to claim land.
The first person to claim land under the act was Union Army scout Daniel Freeman on Jan. 1, 1863. The story is he’d met some officials of the local land office at a New Year’s Eve party and convinced them to open the office shortly after midnight so he could file his claim before reporting for duty.
Homesteading ended in 1976 in most of the United States and 1986 in Alaska. The last claimant under the act applied for 80 acres on Alaska’s Stony River and received his deed until 1988.
Only about 40 percent of those who ever filed completed the application process and received land titles. More than 2 million homesteads were granted, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Between 1862 and 1934, 10 percent of land in the United States was privatized under the act.
Use these links to research your ancestor’s homesteading experience:
General Land Office Records Online
The BLM’s General Land Office (GLO) was charged with overseeing the homestead application process. It’s free to search for and view more than 5 million federal land patents issued since 1820. (If your ancestor applied for a homestead but never received title to his or her land, there won’t be a record here.) You’ll also find a reference center with a land records glossary, FAQ and more.
Using Land Patents
This free FamilyTreeMagazine.com article has tips for using the GLO online records website.
Nebraska Homestead Records
Fold3 is digitizing the National Archives‘ homestead records for Nebraska. You can search the collection, which is 39 percent complete, for free. The files, from the Records of the Bureau of Land Management, consist of final certificates, applications with land descriptions, affidavits showing proof of citizenship and more. And here’s a video about the homestead records digitization project.
Homestead National Monument of America
This national monument near Beatrice, Neb., explains the Homestead Act and its impact on the United States. Click the History and Culture link to learn more about the act, see its text, view maps, “meet” well-known homesteaders and more.
BLM: Commemorating 150 Years of The Homestead Act
This BLM site has a Homestead Act timeline; videos about historic homesteads, building a frontier home and more; and a Q&A.
National Archives: Ingalls Homestead Records
This article from the National Archives’ Prologue magazine (Winter 2003 issue) discusses my favorite homesteaders—the Ingallses and Wilders of Little House on the Prairie fame—and shows portions of the families’ homestead records.
Family Tree Magazine resources to help you research your ancestors’ land records (whether federal records such as land entry case files or local records such as deeds) include:
- Research Strategies: Using Land Records, a Family Tree Magazine article digital download from Family Tree Shop
- Land Records Research Value Pack, a discounted package deal in Family Tree Shop that includes the above Using Land Records article, our Land Records 101 Independent Study Course and two video classes on platting your ancestors’ property.
- Land Records 101: Using Deeds, Plats, Patents and More, an instructor-led Family Tree University course that shows you how to do genealogy research in all types of land records