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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Homestead Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

June 06, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Many times we ignore land records assuming they will not give us any valuable information in our quest for ancestors. This is a mistake. There are many ways in which land records may prove useful in your genealogical research. There are times when the land record may be the only proof of relationship. In other instances it may indicate where your ancestor was coming from or going to as he either bought or sold land.

Homestead records offer much more than the usual land record, but are still often misunderstood or overlooked. Homestead records are land case files for those who acquired land under the homestead act, a method the federal government had of populating many of the midwest and western states.

Homestead records may be a treasure trove.

Public Land

At the end of the American Revolution the United States began to acquire land, basically the rest of the land that would eventually become what we today know as the United States. As land was acquired there was some discussion as to how this land should be distributed. Was it to be sold? Was it to be payment for military service?

Any of the land the government acquired became known as Public Land. Some of it would be used as bounty land for military service, and some would be sold under the Cash Sale Act of 1820. Eventually some of it would be acquired by individuals through the Homestead Act of 1862.

One of the best places to begin your search of land in publish states, is the Bureau of Land Management General Land Records Web site. Here you can search a database of entries from 1820 to 1908 for public land states.

Not every state in the United States began as a public land state. The original thirteen colonies were already thriving communities before the United States came into existence. A few other states, including Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia were also never public domain states. As a result you will not find these states, with the exception of Texas, listed as choices at the BLM General Land Records Web site.

Homestead Act of 1862

When searching the BLM Web site, you will find that each entry has an "authority" or a reason that the person was entitled to the land. Many of them will say "Cash Sale". Such entries offer no additional information to aid you in your research, as they generally include just the receipt. However, if you see an entry that lists "May 20, 1862: Homestead Entry Original," you will want to order a copy of the land file.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed a person to file for a quarter section (160 acres) of free land. To earn this land there were certain provisions the individual had to accomplish. By the end of five years the entryman had to have built a house, dug a well, plowed at least ten acres, built a fence, and lived on the land.

Because of these requirements the homestead files often contain a great deal of useful information. Many different forms and applications are likely to be found in the homestead file including the application for homestead, the intent to make proof, an affidavit of the entryman's marital status and number of children. You will also find affidavits by neighbors acting as witnesses who testify that the entryman has indeed met with the requirements of the act.

For instance, in the Homestead file for Charles P. Ingalls, father of famed author Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will find 24 different documents. Among other things it details where he was born, including the year of birth, and gives information about where he was coming from when he went to South Dakota and applied for this homestead.

In the past it was difficult to get the information from Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States, who holds these records. You needed to know accession and serial numbers. Thankfully now with the online database from BLM, everything you need is right there and allows you to effectively fill out the NATF Form-84 request for land entry files.

In Conclusion

If you have found your ancestor in land records and it appears that he was already living in the state or county in question, a search of the Bureau of Land Management database may prove useful, especially if the entry in question yields a homestead file.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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