Homesteading the Homestead
by Ruby Coleman
Often I hear people talk about the old family homestead. Without clarification this could mean the land obtained by the Homestead Act or it could mean the actual old building that they lived in on the property.
The first Homestead Act was passed on 20 May 1862. It was created to distribute land to those who did not own land, plus encourage the settlement of the less developed areas by men who had served in Union Army. The disbursement of land through this act comprises one of the largest collections of land records in the United States.
Approximately 783,000 citizens or those intending to become citizens received land patents. This represented about 285 million acres. There were approximately two million entries made and of those 60% were canceled. Claims date from 1863 through 1917. The Homestead Act was abolished in 1976.
While there were changes made to the original act, basically it allowed 160 acres of federal public domain land to heads of households, widows, single persons over the age of 21 and anyone “who has never borne arms against the United States government or given aid and comfort to its enemies.” Under the act, married women could not claim separately from their husbands. However, if a woman was deserted by her husband she could file a claim. A husband and wife could not both hold separate, unfinished claims.
There were requirements to be satisfied before the land was patented. The property had to be consistently lived or resided upon, built upon and cultivated over five years. The applicant could not own any other property that totaled 160 acres or more. With respect to the residency period of five years, soldiers and sailors could deduct active military duty up to four years. While the soldier or sailor was on duty their family could file, reside on the property and complete much of the residence requirement. Entry papers under the act required that the person was a citizen or had filed a declaration to become a citizen. The property could not be mortgaged unless for purposes of improvement. It could not be sold until the patent was issued. Proving up on the property could not be done until at least fourteen months of residence had passed.
First the applicant had to locate the land, file a claim in person through the local land office or directly to the General Land Office in Washington, DC. The applicant then took an oath that they were over 21 years of age, or married and head of a family. They had to testify about their citizenship. Within two years after their five year residency was satisfied, the final application for certificate of patent was made. If it was not made within two years, it was not valid. A patent to the land was obtained by “proving up” for $1.25 per acre within the five years. Once this was done the claimant was required to publish, in an area newspaper, an intention to close on the property. Once all of the requirements were satisfied, the patent was issued.
First look for patents to land under the Homestead Act in the county where the land existed. Filing systems vary from county to county and state to state. In some there are separate indexes marked “Patent.” Many of the patents to land obtained by the Homestead Act are being digitized and are available on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), General Land Office (GLO) Records Automation web site at
The actual document known as a patent is not the complete file. There is a certificate number or patent number found on the document. That is needed to locate and examine the complete file. With that number the complete file can be obtained through the National Archives in Washington, DC. These files contain extensive information, in some cases naturalization papers, marriage records and statements regarding their applicant’s family. Obtaining a complete file will provide you with much more information and extend your research possibilities.
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