Homestead Act Records
Buying real estate or land can leave an important paper trail that can have plenty of genealogy information once you find the records you need. Land deeds are a great resource for any family tree studies.
But the Homestead Act in 1862 is a true treasure-trove of information if you are lucky enough to have American ancestors who took advantage of this land offer. There are very detailed files associated with all the people who claimed homestead land.
The purpose of the Homestead Act was to encourage new settlers to come to the western United States to develop the area. The government would give anyone over the age of 21 a parcel of land equivalent to about 160 acres to develop. Once you registered for your parcel, you would be given completely title and ownership of the land after 5 years as long as you continue to live there the entire time, built a house and otherwise improved the state of the land through crops or livestock. The plan ended in 1976 after millions of acres of land were handed out to willing settlers.
A file for most Homestead Act participants will have their original application, personal narratives about the property, witness statements from two people about the state of the homestead, immigration or naturalization documents and any military documents that the claimant might have. Within all this paperwork, you can find family names, birth dates and locations, occupations, immigration information, military service detail and other details pertaining to the homestead.
Not only are there going to be hard genealogy facts in the Homestead files, but you can see a lot of personal stories and narrative along with it. Reading people’s testimony’s about their homestead can be a real way to touch some history that goes beyond names and dates.
Records from the Homestead Act are kept in the National Archives (Washington D.C). Many of them still exist as paper-only file though some have been microfilmed or otherwise digitally indexed. But you can make requests from the Archives to get copies. Their website has all the details on how to order records.
Before you begin, you will need to get the legal description of the homestead land. This isn’t something they can search by name or region. You have to locate the homestead plot first. The local court house (local for where your ancestor lived) should be able to help you with that.
To get an idea of what is included in a file, the Archives has a sample 24-page homestead file available for online viewing, belonging to the well-known American settler Charles Ingalls (of Little House on the Prairie fame).