By Lisa South - Certified Genealogist
The first Homestead Law was enacted in 1862 and was intended to encourage settlement in the West. As with the Donation Lands, the only requirement was to live on and improve the land through cultivation. A very small filing fee was all that was required.
Although only an estimated 780,000 people received patents under the Homestead Law, 2 million applications were made, dispersing approximately 285 million acres.
Applicants initially had to be a head of household, over 21 if single, a citizen or have applied for naturalization, and had not "borne arms against the government". Single women and widows could apply in their own right. The final application for the certificate of patent could be made five years after the completion of the residency requirements. If a homesteader died, his widow or heirs could continue to qualify for the claim, meeting the same requirements.
Subsequent laws enlarged and expanded the homesteading provisions - such as the one allowing Union veterans to apply their service time, up to 4 years, to the residency requirements. After 6 months, a homesteader could "prove up" and change his homestead to a cash-entry and pay for the land at $1.25 an acre. Once the final certificate was received, it entitled the claimant to a patent for his homestead.
Homestead application records are only available at the National Archives. They have not been microfilmed. Copies can be obtained from the National Archives using NATF Form 84 which can be ordered online. Fees for the case files are $17.75.
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