A disabled Civil War veteran journeyed over sixteen hundred miles to claim one hundred sixty acres of Dakota barren wilderness. What could have possibly motivated a man to do such a thing? The promise of free land.
The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of free public land to any U.S. citizen (or a person that had filed intention to become a U.S. citizen) who was head of a household and was 21 years of age or older. The only other requirements for obtaining this free land was to reside on the land for five years and improve the property by building a home and cultivating the land.
Lyman Webster left his home in Chester, New Hampshire, uprooting his wife and two children, in the year 1877. Lyman fought with Company C, of the 13th New Hampshire Infantry during the Civil War and received a small disability pension. According to his pension file, Lyman had an enlarged heart which caused severe shortness of breath. He was described as “emaciated” in a 1877 physician’s report. Lyman was not a good candidate for surviving the backbreaking manual labor of a homesteader and the harsh Dakota climate. But he survived and was granted a patent to the land (a land patent documents the transfer of public land from the U.S. Government to private ownership).
I obtained a copy of Webster’s homestead entry file from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Homestead entry files contain a wealth of personal information about the claimant. Proof of residency, detailed descriptions of improvements made to the land such as houses and other buildings, fences built, wells dug, land cleared, and the type and amount of crops planted can all be found in homestead entry files. They also include dates when the residence was built and often describe the family members residing on the land. Much of this information is included on the Testimony of the Claimant and Witnesses (two witnesses were needed to corroborate the validity of the claim). Other documents which are often in the files are copies of military discharge records (time spent in the military was deducted from the five year residency requirement) and naturalization records (needed for a foreign born person before the final patent was granted).
Lyman Webster received patent to the south east quarter of section twenty-seven in township ninety nine, range fifty three containing one hundred and sixty acres. His testimony papers revealed that he was 45 years old, had a wife and two children, was a natural born citizen. He built a 16 by 20 foot house by 17 May 1878, one stable, dug two wells, fifty five fruit and two thousand forest trees planted, and thirty one acres of wheat, oats, and corn was planted. This information was verified by the testimony of his neighbors, Cornelius Van Ness and John Cutter. The file also included a copy of the application, his military discharge papers, public notice from the local newspaper, final affidavit, and receipts for the filing fees.
For those that had money and didn’t want to wait, there was an option to buy the land for $1.25 an acre after living on the land for a specified amount of time. These are called Cash Entries.
Homestead applications generated many pieces of paper. The U.S. Government kept the paperwork and stored them according to land description. The files are named Land Entry Files. Even those claims that were never completed or “proved up” were kept. Today, over ten million land entry files are stored at the NARA in Washington, DC. Copies can be ordered by using NARA form NATF 84 or by using the NARA online ordering system at www.archives.gov.
To order the file, the land description is necessary. The Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office maintains an online searchable database of completed claims at www.glorecords.blm.gov. The information needed to order the file can be found on the legal land description section of results.
If your ancestor was an early settler in any of the thirty public land states, chances are good that they have a land entry file at NARA. Obtaining the file could give you insight into the lives of your ancestors who helped settle the American West.