Are You an American Homesteader—or a Descendant of One?

(Top) The states with land included in the Homestead Act of 1862 are shown in yellow. (Bottom) R. Chamberlain, teacher in a 1910 schoolroom. Images from Homestead National Monument of America.

It's the true grit stuff of legends and dreams, the inspiration for TV series and countless books: homesteaders overcoming adversity to gain free land on the American frontier. The Sesquicentennial of the Homestead Act of 1862 will be celebrated in 2012, and if you're a homesteader or a descendant of one, the staff at Homestead National Monument of America would like to hear from you.

The park, located in southeastern Nebraska, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act with two events next year, along with an ongoing effort to locate and record the experiences of the homesteaders and their descendants who are still with us today.

Between the first claim under the Act (by Daniel Freeman in Nebraska in 1863) and the last (by Kenneth Deardorff in Alaska in 1974), some two million individuals used the Homestead Act to attempt to earn the patent to a piece of land. According to information from the park, their claims totaled from 270 to 285 million acres, or about eight percent of the land area of the United States.

The Homestead Act was the quintessential door to opportunity. According to a park publication, "A homesteader had only to be the head of a household or at least 21 years of age to claim a 160-acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of 'proving up' and keeping this 'free land'".

"Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to 'prove up'. A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers."

Those stories of sacrifice and hard work will be recognized in the pair of events next year, and the park staff is looking for volunteers from each of the 30 states where people obtained land under the Act to be part of the Sesquicentennial celebration.

Participants will include people who received land through the Homestead Act of 1862 or their descendants. Volunteers will carry their state’s flag in a commemoration to be held on May 20, 2012, and in the Homestead Day parade on June 16. For the parade, participants must be able to carry the flag for a distance of 1.2 miles. Volunteers will not be expected to carry their state flag at both events unless they wish to do so.

Some of the 30 Homestead Act states may surprise you. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Those interested in volunteering for the 2012 events are asked to submit a brief one-page nomination form that includes their contact information and a brief explanation of their connection to the Homestead Act of 1862. A copy of that form is available at this link.

Even if you aren't able to participate in person at the events next year, Homestead National Monument of America would like to hear from you if you are a homesteader or a descendant. The goal is to locate and record the experiences of remaining homesteaders before the opportunity is lost, so if you fall into either category, the park hopes you'll help by sending your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address to:

Friends of Homestead
Homestead National Monument of America
8523 W. State Highway 4
Beatrice NE 68310

You can learn more about the effort to collect and share the stories of homesteaders at the Friends of Homestead webpage.

The park has planned an interesting variety of events for the upcoming Sesquicentennial, and the park website includes an impressive amount of information about the Homestead Act, including tips on how to research information about potential homesteaders from your own family's past.

You'll find information to help plan a visit to the park at this link.