Do you have anyone in your family who took advantage of the Homestead Law of 1862? It is estimated that 2 million individuals applied for up to 320 acres of free land and your ancestor might be among them. What kind of records did the Homestead Law generate? How can you find out if your ancestors filed claims? What does a case file look like? September is “back to school month,” so get ready to learn the answers to those questions and find the value in homestead records.
Every class needs a good textbook and my personal favorite for land records is Land and Property Research by Wade Hone (affiliate link). I reference it often while researching my ever-migrating ancestors. The lure of new land kept our families moving west and generated a lot of records. Because land ownership was so important, individuals would even re-register their land deed if the county courthouse burned. Transactions such as paying taxes on the land, buying or selling land, or disbursement of land upon a death offer important research opportunities for us. The Homestead Law of 1862 provides us with an especially rich group of documents that can give important context for our ancestor’s life and even clues about kinship and naturalization.
Let’s start class with a little background on how land was distributed in the United States. Land was distributed either by the colony/state or by the federal government, thus the terms “State Land State” or “Federal Land State.” The FamilySearch Wiki article “United States Land and Property” features this map that shows which category each state falls under. Just remember that the 20 state land states are all the states on the Atlantic seaboard (minus Florida) plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. The land in these states was primarily settled by the time of the Revolutionary War or distributed by the state. The 30 federal land states include all the rest.
After the Revolutionary War, the new federal government found itself greatly in debt. Luckily the new nation had one commodity that all of it’s citizens wanted – land. The government set up a system to survey and sell the unclaimed land that was in the public domain. The land was divided into 36 square mile townships, which were further divided up into one square mile sections (see the FS Wiki article “Rectangular Surveys” for visuals.) The federal land states used this system for describing each parcel of land that our ancestors acquired. You’ll see a land description like “the northwest quarter of section 22 in Township 4 north of Range 32 east N.M.P.M.” throughout the records. Although this may sound confusing, it is actually fairly easy to understand and enabled our ancestors to know exactly what land was theirs.
The government tried all sorts of ways to distribute this public domain land, some more successful than others. The influx of immigrants in the 1850s and the aftermath of the Civil War created a need for land to be claimed and settled by the masses. Hence, the Homestead Law of 1862 was created. The initial law enabled a settler to receive up to 160 acres of land once they had met the requirements. The enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 doubled the amount of land to 320 acres. Under this act, if a settler had applied for the original 160 acres, he or she could then apply for an additional 160 acres. By 1909, the land being settled was arid land in the Southwest and the Midwest plains and a settler simply needed more acres if he was going to make a go of it.
What hoops did our ancestors have to jump through to get their free land? To apply under the initial Homestead Law of 1862, a settler could qualify if he or she paid the entry fees and met certain provisions. For the land to become fully his and receive a land patent, he had to meet another set of qualifications.
To apply, the requirements were:
– Over twenty-one years of age
– Head of household (could be a widow or a single woman over 21)
– A United States Citizen, or at least have filed a Declaration of Intent (first papers)
– Could not presently own 160 or more acres of land (if the applicant already owned land, he qualified for the difference between that amount of land and the 160 acres)
To receive a land patent, the requirements were:
– Begin living on the premises within six months of the initial payment of fees
– Live on the land for five years (shortened to three years in 1912)
– Make improvements to the land such as building a home, raising crops, or livestock
– Show that he was a United States citizen (showing final papers if an immigrant)
– Not be absent from the property for more than six months during any given year
– Not maintain a residence anywhere else
– Submit the final application for patent certificate within two years of completing the residency requirements
A settler could obtain his land patent early (commutation) if he paid $1.25 an acre before the five (or three) years had passed; this generally happened when the land increased in value and the settler wanted to sell and move on; a homestead acreage could not be sold unless a patent had been issued. When the settler had met the requirements above and was ready to close on the property, he was required to publish his intent in the newspapers or some other way. He filled out an application and sought witnesses to prove that he had lived on the homestead for the required amount of time. When he had completed all of the paperwork, he was granted an official land patent.
I’ll use the case files of my great grandfather Robert C. Royston and his daughter, Effie D. Royston Huntley to give you an idea of the process and what you might find in a Homestead case file.
Commutation of Homestead Claim – Robert C. Royston 1906-1909¹
Robert gives us an interesting example of paying up early to get his land patent. It would seem that the government wanted a good paper trail associated with the land because his case file includes many documents.
As you read through the abstracts of information from each document, think of what genealogical value is included and what other records could be searched.
4 August 1906 – Robert’s homestead application states that he is “of Parks, I.T” [Indian Territory] and is “applying to homestead the northwest quarter of section 22 in Township 4 north of Range 32 east N.M.P.M.” [New Mexico Prime Meridian]; he swears that since 1890 he has not acquired title to nor claims any amount of land that will exceed 320 acres combined with the land described previously.
4 August 1906 – Robert’s affidavit of identity; The U.S. Court Commissioner H. R. Putnam certifies Robert’s affidavit that he is who he says he is; having been identified by an O.R. Gable.
6 Aug 1906 – Receipt for payment of $16.oo by Robert C. Royston for the entry of NW of Section 22 in Township 4 N of Range 32 E.
28 May 1908 – Robert gives notice that he intends to make Final Commutation of proof to establish his claim to his Homestead Entry no. 9393 and presents four possible witnesses; he pays a $7 fee for the Melrose Enterprise to publish his intent for six consecutive weeks.
21 July 1908 – The register at the Roswell, New Mexico Land Office certifies that he posted notice of Robert’s intention to make Final Commutation for 43 days from 9 June to 21 July 1908.
21 July 1908 – A.C. Stackhouse, Publisher of the Melrose Enterprise provided an affidavit that he published Robert’s intention to make Final Commutation weekly for six consecutive issues from 11 June 1908 – 16 July 1908. An original clipping of the notice is attached to the document.
21 July 1908 – Homestead Proof – Testimony of Witness; Neil Thompson and Albert L. Carpenter sign a document stating that Robert C. Royston did indeed settle the homestead and resided there, using the land for agricultural purposes.
21 July 1908 – Final Affidavit of Robert Royston swearing that he has met all the requirements needed to perfect his claim.
5 November 1908 – Notice that his offer of commutation of proof has been received and he is to send $200 within ten days or his proof will be rejected. He can pay with a draft on the Roswell Bank, in currency, express or a post office money order.
9 November 1908 – Final certificate stating that Robert Royston, residing at Melrose in Roosevelt County, New Mexico, has made payment of $200 and shall be entitled to receive a patent for the land mentioned above.
18 January 1909 – Robert submits his Homestead Proof – Testimony of Claimant. Interesting facts Robert provides:
– He is 60 years old and was born in Alabama.
– On 15 October 1906 he began permanent occupancy in a wagon house
– On 25 October 1906 he began permanent occupancy of a house 1/2 dugout 14 x 31 feet, shingle roof, 1 door, 4 windows.
– Other improvements were a barn, 12 x 36 feet, a well of water, about 100 acres fenced land, 50 acres plowed land, $50 worth of fruit trees; total value about $600
– His family consists of his wife, one child, and himself; they’ve resided continuously on the land
– He was temporarily absent from the land about 30 days in August of 1907 on account of sickness and two deaths in the family.
17 June 1909 – Land patent issued to Robert C. Royston
Bringing it Home
I found the land patent on the Bureau of Land Management website several years ago but didn’t realize that the homestead case file included so many documents with pertinent information. Up to this point, I had Robert and Isabell Royston living in Indian Territory in 1900 and Arkansas in 1910. I had no idea what happened in between those two census years. Now I can picture the older couple and their 14 year old son, Everitt, working this land. Robert was 58 and Isabell was 48. Not spring chickens to be attempting to homestead. It is no wonder that Robert chose to pay early to get his patent so he could sell the land and move on. He died in 1915 and Isabell stated in her widow’s pension application that the last two years he had the mind of a two year old. Could it be that his mind had begun failing and it was necessary to get out from under the homestead obligation?
What other records can I now search from clues in the Homestead Land Case File?
-Curry County land records to see when he sold his land
-News articles and notices in the Melrose Enterprise, the newspaper that published commutation of proof
-Census records to learn about the two witnesses he chose to verify his claims
-County histories to learn more about the early settlers and the context of homesteading in New Mexico
Complete Homestead Claim – Effie D. Royston Huntley²
Robert’s daughter, Effie, also received a land patent through the Homestead Law of 1862. Unlike her father however, Effie lived on the land the full five years. She applied for her land as Effie D. Royston, a single woman over the age of 21. Just a few months later, she married Grover C. Huntley and together they made the required improvements on the land: a house, a barn, a well, etc.
In 1912, Effie applied for additional land and by then the residency requirement had been lowered to three years. Since she had married and was now going by Effie D. Huntley, she had to write a separate affidavit attesting to her marriage, giving her marriage date as 11 October 1908. In 1915 she applied for her land patent, proof that the land was hers.
After all of the documents were filled out and signed to the satisfaction of the land officials, Effie received an official patent from the United States government. Effie’s process was similar, yet different enough from her father’s it deserves study. Her case file included the following documents. As you study these, think of other records that could now be searched how you could use similar information in your genealogical research.
13 April 1908 – Receipt for $16 for the land entry fee, paid by Effie D. Royston
13 April 1908 – Homestead Entry Application; Effie D. Royston female, a resident of Melrose, Roosevelt Co. N.M., native born, unmarried, over twenty one years of age & a “femme sole”
5 August 1912 – Affidavit signed by two witnesses that Effie is who she says she is in her application for an additional homestead entry of 160 acres
12 August 1912 – Need for an affidavit as to the change of her name; that Effie D. Royston and Effie D. Huntley are one and the same person and that her husband is not holding an unperfected claim under any U.S. law.
17 August 1912 – Effie swears in an affidavit that she is the identical person who made a homestead entry on 13 April 1908 as Effie D. Royston; “that on Oct 189th 1908, she the said Effie D. Royston was married to Grover Huntley. Affiant further states that her husband the said Grover C. Huntley now holds no unperfected claim under any law of the United States.”
21 August 1912 – An additional Homestead entry allowed for Effie D. Huntley of Plain, New Mexico.
21 January 1915 – Effie gives notice that on 15 March 1915, she will make final five year proof to establish her claim to her land along with two witnesses. Noted that Effie has paid $7 in full for the publication of the proof notice for five weeks in the Pioneer News.
5 February 1915 – Notice that Effie D. Huntley, formerly Effie D Royston of Plain, N.M. has filed notice of intention to make final five year proof; Lee Norris, foreman of the Pioneer News published weekly at House, N.M. swears that a copy of the attached clipping was published weekly for five consecutive weeks. from 12 February – 12 March 1915.
15 March 1915 – Effie’s Final Proof – Testimony of Claimant gives many interesting details:
– Effie is 28 years old, resident of Plain, New Mexico, born in Oklahoma
– She is married with a husband and two children.
– Her husband was born in North Carolina and has not made a Homestead entry since their marriage on 2 October 1908.
– They established residence on 6 October 1908.
– They were absent several times from the homestead:
– 1 June – 9 October 1909
– 15 Nov 1909-15 March 1910
– 20 June 1910 – 1 Sept 1910, “returned to gather our crop”
– 15 Nov 1910 – 1 May 1911 “was working at Clovis N.M. to earn a support and the means with which to buy a team.
– She described their crops for each year:
1909 10 acres in maize; a failure
1910 10 acres in millet, maize, & corn; harvesting a light crop of forage
1911 10 acres in beans, maize & corn; harvesting 300 lbs beans, some grain & forage
1912 30 acres in maize, beans, cane, & corn; harvesting a good crop of grain & forage
1913 42 1/2 acres in wheat, 2 acres beans, 2 acres maize, 15 acres cane; harvesting a light crop of each
1914 47 1/2 acres in corn, maize & cane; harvesting 120 bushels corn, 20 tons maize and good forage crop
1915 17 acres wheat planted fall 1914
– Improvements on the land: one frame dwelling house 9 x 20, with addition 10 x 16, one rock hen house 8 x 10, one barn 8 x 10, shedding for stock 14 x 50, one 20 ? cistern, 47 1/2 acres under cultivation, SW quarter fenced with two and three rivers; total reasonably worth $400.
15 March 1915 Final Proof – Testimony of Witness – Charles W. Rhoades swears that the entrywoman resided on the land, leaving for a few months to earn a support; he passes her place at least 12 times each year, his home being in the valley 2 1/2 miles distant
15 March 1915 Final Proof Testimony of Witness – George W. Roach, age 72 years of Plain, New Mexico swears that the entrywoman resided on the land giving the dates they were absent “to earn a support and the means with which to buy a team. Their best horse died in 1909.” He sees her land “at least 50 times or once each week. I live in plain view of her place.”
6 April 1915 – Notice for Publication for Effie D. Huntley, formerly Effie D. Royston to make final five year proof, to establish claim to the land. The Register of the Land Office certifying that the notice was posted in a conspicuous place for 30 days.
16 April 1915 – The Homestead Certificate states that Effie D. Huntley, formerly Effie D. Royston of Plain, New Mexico has made payment in full for SE1/4, E1/2SW1/4, SW1/4SW1/4, and SE1/4 NE1/4 of Section 3, Township 7N, Range 31E, NMP, containing 320 acres.
26 June 1915 – Approval for patenting given by the General Land office, Local Land Office, Tucumcari, N.M.
Bringing it home
Effie’s case file intrigued me for many reasons. First, the fact that a woman was able to apply for her own land. Our female ancestors just don’t get as much mention as the males, so I loved that this record was all about Effie. Because she applied for her land under her maiden name, then was later married, the record is indexed under both names. That can prove very helpful in tracking down the women in our families. I hadn’t been able to locate a marriage record for Effie and Grover, so I thrilled to read her affidavit that states her marriage date.
The two witnesses adding their own take on things and their proximity to the homestead gave a feeling of community to the whole procedure. Our ancestors didn’t live in a vacuum. They were part of a living, breathing group of people and this was a glimpse into that community.
I can’t find Grover and Effie Huntley on the 1910 census, so when I read that she came back to her homestead in March of 1910, I browsed the pages from Plain, New Mexico, where Effie writes that she resides. Still no sign of the couple. Then I noticed that the page numbers of the census skip and there is a lot of crossing off on the census pages. I checked for the witnesses and could only find one. It would seem that there was an issue with the census taking of the homesteaders of the Plain, New Mexico Post Office. It is certainly possible that Effie and Grover were off in their dates and were traveling when the census was taken, but I do wonder if some of the pages were lost or destroyed.
Her testimonial fills in important details from the years 1908-1915. She lists the crops they planted for each year and the success of each. She also gives a detailed account of their absences for each year. Looking at the crops as well as the absences, it starts to make sense. If a crop failed, the family would need to go elsewhere to make money to continue to homestead. The crops were probably dry crops, dependent on rainfall, not irrigation, so once they were sown, the homesteader could leave and come back to harvest a few months later.
What other records can I now search from the clues in Effie’s Homestead Case File?
-Marriage records in Roosevelt County, New Mexico and surrounding counties
-Land records to find Effie and Grover selling their now patented land
-News articles and notices in the Pioneer News, the newspaper publishing her notice to file for final proof
-Census records for information about the witnesses, pre and post 1910
-County histories to learn more about the early settlers and homesteading in New Mexico
I hope you’ve learned how valuable Homestead Land Entry case files can be. Your assignment is to discover if you have an ancestor who homesteaded after 1862. If so, order their case file and open a new door in your genealogical research!
Steps for Locating and ordering a Homestead Case File:
Approved Land Patents are indexed on the Bureau of Land Management’s website at glorecords.com. You can search by surname and state. Try various spellings in the name search fields as the website only pulls up the exact spelling on the document.
The Land Patent will have a document number that you need to order the case file. You then have three options.
1 – You can fill out the NATF Form 84 and mail it with the $50 fee to the National Archives
2 – You can order the land entry case file and pay the $50 fee online at the National Archives website.
3 – You can hire one of the many researchers who will personally go to the Archives and email you images of the file.
How did I obtain my case files? I hired a friend from my Accreditation Study Group. She combined my order of three land entry case files (the two I shared here, plus one other) with that of two other clients and split the travel costs and parking three ways. She charges $20 an hour. To pull and photograph my three files took 1.5 hours. My total cost was $49.13, a big savings from the $150 I would have paid for ordering directly from the National Archives. My friend took beautiful photographs of each document and sent them to me in a Google Docs format. I then sent a check! I was very happy with her service and am excited to have a contact for onsite research in Washington D.C. Send me an email (email@example.com) if you’d like her contact information.
¹ Robert C. Royston (Curry County, New Mexico) homestead file, serial patent no.67986, Land Entry Papers, Record Group 49 : 1908-1973; Records of the Bureau of Land Management; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
² Effie, D. Huntley, formerly Effie D. Royston (Quay County) homestead file, serial patent no. 481932, Record Group 49 : 1908-1973 Records of the Bureau of Land Management; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Homestead papers can tell so much about the life of a family. Only one of my husband’s ancestors filed under the Homestead Act and I found it interesting that his sons were his “references” so to speak and they all lied. He hadn’t lived on the land previously, at least not for the time period he stated because he and his sons are found on several Arkansas tax lists during the time period when he claimed he was living in Barry County, Missouri. 🙂
Great story! Thanks for the reminder that we have to weigh all of the evidence because our ancestors didn’t always play by the rules! I guess the lure of free land was just too tempting.
My maternal grandfather homesteaded a property in western North Dakota. From its description (no water, rocky, etc.), it made me wonder why he chose it. Sadly, it seems that the local bank foreclosed on a loan so all his work ended up a waste. Fortunately other ancestors had more success with their properties. My paternal grandfather purchased a property from the original patent holder and lived on the property for more than 40 years before he sold it to a family member.
Researching the land can really help us connect to our ancestors. I can’t imagine starting from nothing and some of them did it multiple times!