Saturday, December 26, 2009

Homestead Records Groundbreaking Genealogy Research

As you all know, Homestead National Monument of America (HOME) does a lot of things that are easily visible to the public. First and foremost the rangers at the park interpret the significance of the Homestead Act and its influence on the shaping of this country to public through exhibits, tours, and presentations. There is also the preservation of the restored tall grass prairie, preservation of the historic Palmer-Epard cabin and Freeman School, and the many special events organized by the monument. But one of the most important, and least visible, projects that HOME is working on is the Homestead Land Records Project which is now in its tenth year.

Paul Abbott (standing) with FamilySearch, instructs volunteers Don and Marilyn Vickers on the use of the dCamX camera at the National Archives and Records Administration.

The legislation creating Homestead National Monument of America in 1936 charged the Secretary of the Interior with making the newly created unit of the National Park Service a “repository for literature applying to settlement” resulting from the Homestead Act of 1862. Accordingly, the monument has since 1999 pursued the goal of making to homestead records available to its visitors and staff for research purposes.

Homestead records are fantastic resource for historical and genealogical information. Along with the legal description of the land and the name of the person filing the claim there can often be found information about a homesteader's date and place of birth, the names of children that lived on the homestead, naturalization information about immigrant homesteaders, notations regarding military service, the types of crops planted on the homestead, trees cleared, fences built, wells dug, the value and kinds of homes and other buildings on the site, and more. If the person filing the claim died and a widow or heirs completed the claim, a date of death is given and relationships are explained. The case files preserve materials of considerable historic and genealogical significance. For instance, the file of Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, includes documentation that his family left their homestead during the winters of 1881-82 and 1882-83 so the children could attend school.

The entire collection of federal homestead records contains an estimated 30 million archival documents. All of these records are currently stored at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. The records exist only in their original paper form. They are printed on acid-based paper and stored in their original acid-based paper envelopes. As are all original documents, they are subject to natural deterioration as well as the dangers of fire and water damage. The records are available to the public but are organized in such a manner than a researcher must know the legal land description of the homestead they wishes to see. No name index to this collection currently exists and due to the size of the collection NARA had no plan in place to microfilm or digitize the collection.

The Homestead Records Project has evolved over time. The first incarnation of the project involved a plan for the acquisition of the homestead records by HOME from NARA. It was determined that this would not be feasible due to the amount of climate controlled space the documents would require and the fragility of the documents themselves. Next, it was decided that records would be microfilmed and made available for public access and research at HOME. This stage included the completion of a pilot project in 2006 in which approximately 60,000 documents from the Broken Bow, Nebraska US Land Office were microfilmed and made available for research at HOME. As plans for microfilming another Nebraska land office’s records were being worked out it was decided that digitization technology had reached a stage where it was a viable access and preservation alternative. The current stage in the projects involves the digitizing of the land records and making them available online. The Broken Bow, Nebraska land office records were digitized first since the process is easier to digitize microfilm than it is to digitize fragile paper documents. A pilot project began in 2009 to begin photographing over 300,000 documents from the Nebraska City/Lincoln US Land Office. As of the writing of this blog article this pilot project is 40% complete with an expected completion date sometime in July, 2010.

It should be made very clear that this project could never have moved forward to the point where it is now without the partnerships of several other organizations. From the very early stages of the project the University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities has been involved with the planning and implementation of the pilot projects and continues to be a valuable partner in this endeavor. Volunteers from FamilySearch are currently in the NARA collections center tirelessly photographing the documents from the Nebraska City/Lincoln US Land Office. After a group of images is indexed it is sent to to be made available on their website. And, of course, the partnership with NARA allows for access to the collections and workspace in which to photograph the documents. In the coming years HOME, along with these valued partners, hope to digitize the remaining homesteading records from Nebraska and other states. These records will be uploaded to as they become available.

Historians, amateur genealogists, and the public have free access to this database through computer terminals in the lobby of the Heritage Center at HOME. This access will also be available at NARA, FamilySearch’s Family History Centers, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Access to the records can also be obtained through by subscription.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Enjoying the Natural Resources in the winter at Homestead National Monument of America

“What a bleak boring, place, I’ll come back in the summer to walk the trails,” is a comment that I regularly hear while working with visitors during the winter months. This is my opening to explain the beauty and adventure that the walking trails at Homestead National Monument of America offers during every season.
Cross country skiers at the Monument
Contributed by Jesse Bolli, Resource Management Specialist
at Homestead National Monument of America

True the winter months don’t offer you the opportunity to see the kaleidoscope of colors that the prairie offers in the summer when the wildflowers are at their peak, but, it is a great opportunity to learn about the mammals of the Monument.

According to a 2004 survey Homestead is home to at least thirty-one different mammals. Winter is a great time to observe mammals. Okay, so not all are easy to see but winter does help for some. Without the cover of herbaceous plants in the woodland the white-tailed deer are easy to spot. As many as 93 have be count on the Monument at once. That still does not guarantee that you will see one.

Mammals that you won’t see in the winter include the bats. Four different species were identified during the 2004 study. It is great fun to watch them at dusk during the campfire programs on Saturday nights in the summer, however, during the winter the Big Brown Bat hibernates, most likely in a cave or other underground structure, the Eastern Red Bat may migrate south or hibernate in hollow trees or leaf litter, the Northern Long-eared Bat hibernates in caves and research still needs to be done to figure out what exactly the Evening Bat does during the winter. Woodchucks and thirteen-lined ground squirrels are the only other animals that hibernate at the Monument. Most of the mammal species remain active all winter long including: white-tailed deer, eastern cottontail rabbits, red squirrels, coyotes, red foxes, armadillos, beavers, muskrats, minks, least weasels, mice, shrews, moles, and voles.

A few however, like the striped skunk, raccoons, opossums, and badgers sleep or enter states of of torpor during bad weather.

So now you are aware that at least 31 species of mammals occur at the Monument why can’t you see any of them? First you need to be patient, observant and quiet. Still many of these species are rather hard to find so I encourage you to use signs to help tell the story. Scat and tracks can take a gray winter walk to a new level.

My three year olds daughter’s favorite book at the time is Who Pooped in the Park by Gary Robson. The book takes you on a walk through Yellowstone National Park, on the trip they have many encounters with fierce animals such as the gray wolf, badger, grizzly bear and mountain lion; however, they are not scary because they are encounters of the “poopy” kind.

On that next warm winter afternoon or after the next snow I encourage you to see who pooped in the park while enjoying the trails at Homestead National Monument of America. While I cannot guarantee that you will see a white-tailed deer or any other mammal, I can guarantee tracks and scat.


Bowers, N., R. Bowers and K. Kaufman. 2004. Mammals of North America. Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY. 352 pp.

Harvey, M. J., J. S. Altenbach and T. L. Best. 1999. Bats of the United States. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Arkansas. 64 pp.

Robbins, L. 2005. Inventory of Distribution, Composition, and Relative Abundance of Mammals, including Bats a Homestead National Monument of America. Missouri. Technical Report NPS/HTLN/HOME/ J6370040013. 19 pp.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Homestead Act Quilt

Homestead Act Quilt

Made by Homestead National Monument Volunteer Rhonda Eddy

This quilt was donated to the park for the 2007 Dedication of the Heritage Center. Mrs. Eddy hand-quilted the top in a similar fashion as pioneers by using a large hoop and spending many hours working on her lap. It took nearly six months to complete. Different colors of thread were used just as a thrifty pioneer would have. Pioneers used what was available.

The quilt is rich in symbolism about homesteading. It began with a pattern, and took on a new life as her creative mind starting filling in meanings.

• 13 pieced star blocks to represent the 13 original colonies

• Flying geese represent immigrants moving west to settle the country

• Large pine tree represents the tree claims many homesteaders used in conjunction with the Homestead Act

• Criss-cross quilting represent the plowed furrows and fences built on the homesteads.

• A horseshoe was replaced with a plow because of the requirement that a homesteader must plow a minimum of 10 acres to prove up on their land.

Several enhancements were made to the quilt pattern. To emphasize the importance of the Homestead Act, the outline of all 30 homesteading states were sewn into the design. States are hidden throughout the quilt as well as along a border that was added to accommodate them.

Quilters interested in quilting Homestead Act quilt squares for sale at the Monument bookstore can contact Ranger Susan Cook at  (402) 223-3514.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Homestead Reading: List Three

Homesteading is uniquely American and much has been written about it. It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin learning about the Homestead Act of 1862 which transformed the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world. The following three lists of 24 books might be a good place to start. It was compiled by Todd Arrington. He was the historian at Homestead National Monument from 1998 until 2008. The first two lists are non-fiction and the third is fiction.

List Three

A Lantern in Her Hand
By Bess Streeter Aldrich

"When A Lantern in Her Hand came out in 1928, critics took little notice, but people everywhere soon discovered it. By the end of 1919, even as the Great Depression set in, Bess Streeter Aldrich's novel was in its twenty-first printing. Now translated into over twenty languages, A Lantern in Her Hand has outlasted literary fashions to touch generations of readers. It is the classic story of a pioneer woman. Bess Streeter Aldrich knew what she was writing about. Her protagonist, a strong-minded pioneer woman named Abbie Deal, was modeled on her own mother, who in 1854 had traveled by covered wagon to the Midwest. In A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie accompanies her family to the soon-to-be state of Nebraska. There, in 1865, she marries and settles into a sod house of her own. The novel describes Abbie's years of child-raising, of making a frontier home able to withstand every adversity. A disciplined writer knowledgeable about true stories of pioneer days in Nebraska, Bess Streeter Aldrich conveys the strength of everyday things, the surprise of familiar faces, and the look of the unspoiled landscape during different seasons. Refusing to be broken by hard experience, Abbie sets a joyful example for her family - and for her readers." (from Publisher’s Note) Published in 1995 by University of Nebraska Press.

Spring Came on Forever
By Bess Streeter Aldrich

"Acclaimed for her 1928 novel A Lantern in Her Hand, Bess Streeter Aldrich became one of the most widely read interpreters of the prairie pioneer experience. In 1935, she published her masterpiece, Spring Came on Forever, a novel of two Nebraska pioneer families from settlement to the 1930s. Elsewhere an artist of the romance, here Aldrich turns romance on its head. The heroine is Amalia Holmsdorfer, one of a band of German immigrants who settle on the prairie. From her late teens to her mid-eighties she confronts and defeats the forces of nature and society that discourage or ruin others. Her life might be a modest triumph but for one detail: she married the wrong man. Quickly paced and precisely drawn, this novel is Aldrich's greatest tribute to the complexity, humor, endurance, and intelligence of the people who settled the prairie. Whatever its sentiments, it has as many cutting edges as a buzz saw." Published 1985 by Bison Books

A White Bird Flying
By Bess Streeter Aldrich

"Abbie deal, the matriarch of a pioneer Nebraska family, has died at the beginning of A White Bird Flying, leaving her china and heavy furniture to others and to her granddaughter Laura the secret of her dream of finer things. Grandma Deal’s liter aspirations had been thwarted by the hard circumstances of her life, but Laura vows that nothing, no one, will deter her from a successful writing career. Childhood passes, and the more she repeats her vow the more life intervenes. Laura is at the center of a new generation of Deals in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s worthy sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand." (from back cover) Published 1998 by University of Nebraska Press.

My Antonia
By Willa Cather

"An enduring literary masterpiece first published in 1918, this hauntingly eloquent classic is an inspiring reminder of the rich past we have inherited. Willa Cather's lustrous prose, infused with a passion for the land, summons forth the hardscrabble days of the immigrant pioneer woman on the Nebraska plains, while etching a deeply moving portrait of an entire community. As Jim Burden revisits his childhood friendship with the free-spirited Antonia Shimerda, we come to understand the sheer fortitude of homesteaders on the prairie, the steadfast bonds cultivated there, and the abiding memories that such vast expanses inspire. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching Antonia, whose unfailing industry and infectious enthusiasm for life exemplify the triumphant vitality of an era."

"In Willa Cather's own estimation, My Antonia, first published in 1918, was "the best thing I've ever done." An enduring paperback bestseller on Houghton Mifflin's literary list, this hauntingly eloquent classic now boasts a new foreword by Kathleen Norris, Cather's soulmate of the plains. Infused with a gracious passion for the land, My Antonia embraces its uncommon subject - the hardscrabble life of the pioneer woman on the prairie - with poetic certitude, rendering a deeply moving portrait of an entire community. Through Jim Burden's endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature's most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia's desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia Shimerda." (Publishers note) Published 1995 by Mariner Books.

O Pioneers
By Willa Cather

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather’s first novel, is the classic American story of pioneer life as embodied by one remarkable woman and her singular devotion to the land. Alexandra Bergson arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Nebraska as a young girl and grows up to turn her land into a prosperous farm. In this moving story, Cather conveys the physical realities of the landscape as well as the transformation of the frontier more faithfully and perhaps more fully than any other work of fiction has. " (from back cover) Published 1995 by Mariner Books.

Giants in the Earth
By O. E. Rolvaag

"The classic story of a Norwegian pioneer family's struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America." [Synopsis] "The fullest, finest, and most powerful novel that has been written about pioneer life in America." [Nation] Published 1999 by Harper Collins.

Free Land
By Rose Wilder Lane

"In the late 1880s, when adventure lay in the conquest of the prairies, David Beaton and his bride came to Dakota to claim three hundred acres of grassland. Rose Wilder Land tells of their struggle to survive with such force that Free Land has become a classic frontier novel. The young couple experience cyclones, droughts, and blizzards that isolate then for days in their sod shanty and endanger their livestock. The simple pleasures of home cooking, horse trading, and socializing interrupt work, here described in its wealth of variety. In every detail, Free Land comes to life because Lane grew up in the time and place of which she writes. The book embodies her belief that “living is never easy, that all human history is a record of achievement in disaster, and that our greatest asset is the valor of the American spirit.” (from back cover) Published 1984 by Bison Books.