13 April 2016

Using Available Homestead Records on Ancestry

Two weeks ago I was apprised of a newly available set of Homestead records by genealogy blogger Randy Seaver, in a post at his blog "Genea-Musings". These records are available at Ancestry and are images of original Homestead records for the states of Arizona, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, and a portion of Iowa. While the aim of a site like Ancestry is to allow subscribers to search for documents related to their family history, many of the available records hold some applicability to house history research. Indeed, the relevance is clear in this case. If you live in a state where federal land was dispersed through this mechanism, then you just might find some neat information on your land's history.

Homestead Act of 1862

If you are unfamiliar with "homesteading" or the U.S. federal government's Homestead Act of 1862, it served an integral purpose in the settlement of the American West. According to the National Park Service, approximately 10% of the land area in the United States was settled and conveyed to private citizens under this legislation's purview. A much-simplified summary of how the process went is as follows (information via NPS):
  1. An interested citizen (including women and former slaves) visited the nearest federal Land Office and applied for a specific parcel of land, usually paying $12 in fees and commissions.
  2. The citizen spent the next five years improving the land parcel, by erecting a dwelling structure and farming the land.
  3. After the 5-year period, he/she returned to the Land Office with another $6 fee, plus signatures from two other persons as an affidavit testifying to the land's improvements.
  4. Final processing of paperwork resulted in a land patent being issued to the citizen, which he then would file at the local courthouse for recording.
Historical photo by noted photographer Evelyn Cameron; accessed via Ravalli Republic newspaper
Many of the dwellings built on homestead claim lands were of a more primitive and non-permanent nature; constructed of thatch, sod, branches, and other cheap and readily-available natural materials. According to this very detailed piece about homestead frontier homes, produced by PBS, claimants found little incentive to erecting permanent homes before the land was officially theirs, as many applicants were not successful in reaching that point. Further, simple shanties and shacks provided flexibility in that sometimes they could be relocated to other claim lands for which they applied. Once they received their land patent, they could then feel more comfortable to build, say, a log cabin. Even then, out in the tree-less plains, some were still further subjected to sod dwellings built into the landscape, until the advent of the railroads made frame-dwellings more of a possibility in these areas.

The PBS piece also includes the text of the traditional folk song "The Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim" to further paint the picture:
"I am looking rather seedy now while holding down my claim, and my victuals are not always served the best. 
And the mice play shyly 'round me as I settle down to rest, 
In my little old sod shanty in the West. 
The hinges are of leather and the windows have no glass, 
While the roof lets the howling blizzard in; 
And I hear the hungry ki-yote as he slinks up in the grass, 
'Round my little old sod shanty on my claim. 
But I'm happy as a clam, 
on the land of Uncle Sam, 
in my little old sod shanty on my claim."

The Public Land Survey System

The above is all well and good for historical background information, but if you are reading this blog post then it isn't likely you are currently living in an old sod shanty. However, if you do live in AZ, IN, OH, NE, NV, or IA then perhaps your land, or some nearby, could be found in these records available online to give you some further information about what may have been on the land prior to currently existing development. Ancestry adds that "additional records will be added in future updates". While the easiest way to search these records would probably be with the name of a person who may have been a claimant, for house history research we may not always have that luxury-- we might only know the location. Alternatively, you can see if there are any Homestead records on file for the township where your land is located.

An aside is necessary, then, to introduce the Public Land Survey System. Whereas land in the original colonies of the eastern U.S. could be traced back to original land grants (such as those grants by William Penn in Pennsylvania), the federal government began acquiring additional territories, it established a rectilinear surveying system to subdivide land to the west of the colonies. Thus, land in 30 of the 50 states can currently be located via this rectilinear Public Land Survey System. This public domain land was divided into townships measuring 36 square miles each. Townships are then divided further into a 6x6 grid of sections measuring 1 square mile each. Sections can be divided further as necessary.

So let's say you live in one of these 30 states. Your land can be found in a section, within a township. A helpful online interactive map which can aid you in finding the specific township and section is provided by the Bureau of Land Management at http://www.geocommunicator.gov/blmMap/Map.jsp?MAP=OG. Just keep zooming into your specific area and the grid system will come into view, with accompanying labels. Let's take one of the included states in this records collection, Indiana. Some Google searching found this website dedicated to the history of land surveying in Elkhart County at the north end of the state. There, I was able to find an original plat map of the various 36-square-mile townships within the county, including Elkhart Township.

Cadastral Map for Elkhart Township, Indiana. Present-day Goshen, Indiana and surroundings. Subdivided into a grid of 36 1-sq-mile sections and even further into 144 quarter-sections. Notice "T 36 N R 6 E" written in the center: Township 36 North, Range 6 East. Courtesy of Elkhart County Surveyor's Office.

Interactive map by the Bureau of Land Management, zoomed into Elkhart County at Goshen, Indiana. The designation "36N 6E" is highlighted. 

In the captions for both images above, notice that I've highlighted the legal description of the township location: Township 36 North, Range 6 East. What does that mean??

Well, each township is located within the country as it relates to a given base point. This map by the Bureau of Land Management shows the various base points throughout the country which are governed by the Public Land Survey System.

Map of Principal Meridians and Base Lines. Public Domain image, via U.S. Geological Survey.
The base points are established by north-south lines called meridians, as well as east-west lines called base lines. You can see a meridian line running north-south just west of the center line of the state of Indiana. A base line runs from west to east at the southern end of Indiana.

This map below, also from the Elkhart County Surveyor, illustrates townships as they are numbered in relation to these two reference lines. The "Township" geographical reference refers to a distance north or south of the base line-- "Township 36 North" is the line in the grid 36 townships north of the east-west base line near the south end of the state. The "Range" refers to a distance east or west of the meridian line-- "Range 6 East" is 6 townships east of that north-south meridian line. Elkhart Township "Township 36 North, Range 6 East" is highlighted in the state map.

Map of Indiana via Elkhart County Surveyor's Office. Meridian and Base Line highlighted by author. "Township 36 North, Range 6 East" highlighted in blue by author.

Experimenting with the Records on Ancestry

Now that we know how to locate a specific township and section using the Bureau of Land Management interactive map, we can then theoretically search for Homestead records pertaining to that specific township on Ancestry. Remember, only six states are currently available (AZ, IN, OH, NE, NV, part of IA). Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that the State of Indiana had by far the fewest number of records of the six states-- there were no search results in all of Elkhart County, let alone this particular township. There were only 29 results in total when searching the collection for homestead locations in the entire state of Indiana.

Screenshot of Indiana search results at Ancestry.com
Shucks, well okay. For the sake of illustration of what these records hold, let's work with one of the 29 available in Indiana. I chose the second result from the top, the record of Charles C. Bradley, with a final certificate date of May 9, 1903 (later found to actually be February 9 after looking at the record image). Clicking on the link to "View Record" takes us to a screen with a more detailed summary of this record and some of the basic facts:

Screenshot of record index summary for Charles C. Bradley in the U.S. Homesteads Records collection, at Ancestry.com
Those basic facts are that Charles C. Bradley was 57 years old in 1903 when he received his final papers. He was born in Indiana (circa 1846) and applied for his claim through the Brookville-Indianapolis land office. Also given is the location of the claim land using the Public Land Survey System-- Township 08 North, Range 02 East, Section 5. Let's locate this on the Indiana state map I showed earlier, as well as on the BLM interactive map:

Same state map as above. Township 8 North, Range 2 East is highlighted in blue.
BLM interactive map, east of Bloomington, Indiana. Township 8 North, Range 2 East is outlined in blue; Section 5 is highlighted.
From the BLM map, we are easily able to tell that this section of land is located near Bloomington, Indiana, to the east of Monroe Lake.

Now, to the record images available on Ancestry. Clicking on the record image on the summary page (or the word "View") will take you to the actual scanned images within Charles Bradley's claim file. There are over forty of them, so I won't describe or share them all here. To summarize, however, the files include: Mr. Bradley's original application; various receipts of fee payments; correspondence between the land office and the local newspaper near Bradley's claim regarding the public notice to be published about his claim; the affidavits of Bradley as well as two of his proof witnesses; and the final certificate from the land office. There is even additional correspondence addressed to Bradley stating that an affidavit is required from one of his witnesses to clarify that Washington Parks and George W. Parks are the same person.

Voucher from the Homestead file of Charles C. Bradley, documenting the Land Office's purchase of a newspaper notice advertising Bradley's intent to prove his claim. Accessed via Ancestry.
To speak to some of the more substantive content in these papers, we find that Charles Bradley applied for the homestead claim in December 1894. It encompassed a 40-acre portion, known as "Lot 9", of Section 5 (a 1-sq. mile section being 640 acres) According to his and his witnesses' testimony, he relocated to the claim land in October (or November) 1895 and lived there with his wife, two children, and one grandchild. Bradley erected a log house, a log stable, and a cistern with a total value of $100 (this land's first house!). [Aside: Charles Bradley, farmer, is listed in the 1900 census here in Washington Township, Brown County, Indiana along with his wife, Mary, and their 14-year-old grandson Bernice (maybe Bernie??) Hatchet; the two children mentioned in the homestead documents are not found in the household, but several other Bradleys are listed on the same census enumeration sheet; perhaps several family members settled here).

Charles Bradley's testimony given to prove his claim; The land and his improvements upon it are vaguely described; Accessed via Ancestry.
He subsequently farmed about 7 acres of his claim for five growing seasons. The land itself was described as partially timber (wooded) and partially as farming land. Charles Bradley himself described it as "hilly". Having never moved off of the land for any significant amount of time, Bradley appears to have met the requirements of the Homestead Act to receive patent to the land. In December 1902, he gave the land office notice of his intent to prove his claim before the clerk of the Circuit Court. In January 1903, he and his witnesses gave their testimonies. After the subsequent clarification of the name of one of his witnesses, he received a final certificate in February of that year.

Copy of the Final Certificate which Bradley received after his proof of claim was accepted by the land office in 1903; Accessed via Ancestry.
The legal description as described in these homestead documents for Charles Bradley's claim is "Lot 9, Section 5, Township 8 North, Range 2 East, 2nd Principal Meridian, Indiana". This description is much simplified as opposed to a detailed metes and bounds survey description, yet still very accurately gets one to the exact piece of land. For us, the only difficulty is that we do not have access to any plat map designating how to find the 40-acre "Lot 9"-- the 640-acre Section 5 is as precise as I can locate right here, right now. Using, again, the BLM interactive map, I've located Section 5 and then roughly outlined that same area on a Google Maps aerial image to get greater detail and a better overall sense of the terrain.

Section 5, Township 8 North, Range 2 East, 2nd Principal Merdian, between Belmont and Nashville, Indiana outlined on a Google Maps aerial image (subdivided further into sixteen 40-acre areas).
Indeed, much of this area does appear hilly and wooded even to this day. I always find it interesting how section and township boundaries remain evident even today, as seen at the clearly distinct farm lot outside the northwest boundary of the section. Perhaps one of the farmed areas along Route 46 was Bradley's Lot 9. We can't really know here, but it would likely be possible to find out with more research. We do, however, know that Bradley claimed 40 acres (1/16 of the 640-acre Section 5). I've divided Section 5 into 16 roughly equal areas, which could correlate to the way the section was subdivided. The unincorporated town of Belmont sits just to the west, from where all of Bradley's homestead witnesses hailed.


What I have just done here is essentially the reverse of what someone that currently lives on Lot 9 could have done. If one lives in this particular area, the Homestead records could have instead been searched directly for Township North 8, Range 2 East in Indiana to access these records relevant to their current land.

On Ancestry, searching the Homestead Records collection and restricting results to each of the six states individually, I found the following numbers of homestead records for each:
  • Arizona: 2,517
  • Indiana: 29
  • Iowa: 808
  • Ohio: 101
  • Nebraska: 77,257
  • Nevada: 579
This group of roughly 81,000 records (as of April 13, 2016) represents about 10% of over 800,000 records from the 30 homestead states. It appears that those folks in Nebraska have the highest likelihood of finding Homestead records at present, as this state was the first to have its records digitized, according to the National Park Service. It also appears that we can someday expect to have all 800,000+ records available online, at some point in the future, so keep checking back if you live in a homestead state.

If you do not have a paid Ancestry.com subscription, further information on requesting yet-to-be-digitized homestead records directly from the National Archives can be found here.


  1. What a wonderful blog post. I was curious about how these homestead records came to be online at Ancestry and you had the best answer. I had just ordered 6 files from the National Archives about land in South Dakota. It looks like I would have had to wait a long time for those records to be online.

  2. For me, the BLM General Land Office website: http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/default.aspx is the best place. Maybe Ancestry will eventually get all these records on their site but as Lisa posted the National Archives have the complete files. And what a gold mine they are if you have homesteading families. I found a gg grandfather's death date in a land record when it can't be found anywhere else.

  3. Thanks Lisa, I'm glad you found it useful! And thanks, Gary, for the additional resources. The homestead files are indeed all at NARA just not all digitized/online. Hopefully in the future.