by Todd Arrington, Historian
Homestead National Monument of America
Homestead National Monument of America and several partners recently announced plans to begin digitizing some of the estimated 30 million homestead records housed in the National Archives. Homestead case files contain valuable historical and genealogical information about homesteaders, their families and daily lives, property, and much more. The records also shed light on the lasting changes initiated across the country by the Homestead Act of 1862. The plans were announced at a public event held September 18 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).
The Homestead Act allowed any qualified individual to claim up to 160 acres of public land for the purposes of settlement and cultivation. After a five-year residency period and the successful completion of improvements, the land became the private property of the claimant. The law became effective January 1, 1863 and remained in effect until 1986. Over those 123 years, the U.S. government distributed 270 million acres of land in 30 states. Every homestead claimed generated a paper record that still exists in the National Archives.
Two major developments were announced on September 18. The first was the unveiling of an online index to approximately 65,000 homestead records from the Broken Bow, Nebraska U.S. land office. The National Archives microfilmed these records in partnership with the monument and UNL in 2006; volunteers and staff from those organizations spent over a year indexing them. The online index is available at http://cdrh.unl.edu/homestead.
The second development is the creation of a new partnership to digitize homestead records and put them online for public research. The National Archives has agreed to the digitization of the records of the Nebraska City/Lincoln land office, which operated from 1868 to 1925. This project will create digital copies of approximately 300,000 documents and will involve several partners.
FamilySearch, Inc., is based in Salt Lake City and is the genealogical research organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Trained FamilySearch volunteers will work in the National Archives to make the digital copies. Footnote.com is based in Lindon, Utah, and will host the images on its website. FamilySearch and Footnote are both official online partners of the National Archives. Visitors to Homestead National Monument of America, all FamilySearch libraries, the UNL libraries, and all National Archives locations will be able to access the homestead records on http://www.footnote.com/ free of charge; those researching from home will be subject to Footnote’s monthly subscription fee. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities will provide corrections and enhancements to the general Footnote index. Funding for digital cameras was provided in part by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Representatives of all partners were on hand for the September 18 announcement.
“This project is absolutely outstanding and is an important undertaking for the National Park Service,” said Director Mary Bomar. “The legislation that created Homestead National Monument of America specifically states that it should be a repository for literature applying to settlement that occurred under the Homestead Act. What more important literature is there than the actual records of everyone that homesteaded? We are proud to work with the National Archives and the other great project partners to make the vision of having these records available to the monument’s visitors a reality.”
Lincoln land office documents should begin appearing on Footnote.com by early next year. Once those 300,000 images have been completed, the monument hopes to keep the project moving forward and eventually have digital images of all 30 million homestead records available for public and scholarly research.