The Homestead Acts: A Family Historian's Guide

The Homestead Acts: A Family Historian's Guide

The Homestead Acts were a series of laws passed by the United States government between 1862 and 1916 that granted free land to settlers. These laws were instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States, and the records created in the process offer a wealth of information for family historians.

The Homestead Acts allowed any adult citizen or head of household to claim 160 acres of public land. To claim a homestead, the applicant had to file a claim with the government and live on the land for five years. After five years, the applicant could then file for a patent, which gave them full ownership of the land.

The Homestead Acts were passed for a number of reasons. One reason was to encourage settlement of the western United States. Another reason was to provide land for former slaves and other marginalized groups. The Homestead Acts were also seen as a way to promote economic development and self-sufficiency.

The records created during the process of homesteading can be a valuable resource for family historians. By searching the Bureau of Land Management - General Land Office Records database, you can determine whether your ancestors claimed homesteads. The information in the database will include the name of the individual, the location of the homestead, and the date the homestead was claimed.  That index can be found here:

If you find an ancestor who homesteaded, you will want to examine their complete homestead file from the National Archives, because it often contains a wealth of information that would be of interest.

For example, you can learn more about their age, marital status, occupation, and financial resources. You can also learn about the home they lived in at the time, the way they were managing their land, and other information related to their socio-economic status.

In addition to this basic information, homestead records can also provide insights into your ancestors' values and beliefs. For example, if your ancestor chose to homestead in a remote area, this suggests that they may have valued self-sufficiency and independence. If your ancestor homesteaded with their family, this suggests that they may have valued family and community.

Although some homestead records have been digitized, the majority can be found only at the National Archives (NARA).

Not only are homestead records a valuable resource for family historians, but they also offer a unique glimpse into the lives of homesteaders and the challenges they faced and can provide us with a valuable record of the history of the American landscape.

If you’re interested in learning more about your homesteading ancestors, contact me today so I can help you get your ancestor’s homestead file from the National Archives.


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.