Not all homesteaders made it. As far as I know, George Hiram Thoma was the last of my direct ancestors to stake a claim, which he did in western Nebraska on a February day in 1909. George and his brother-in-law Clare Eugene Gibson arrived together at the land office in Valentine in order to pay their respective filing fees; each was granted about six hundred acres of land on adjoining claims in the desolate Sandhills of nearby Rock County, Nebraska.1 While earlier claims under the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed each individual only one hundred and sixty acres, later amendments granted settlers more land in certain areas where, for example, the soil and climate might be less conducive to raising crops. The Kincaid Act of 1904 applied specifically to thirty-seven counties in northwestern Nebraska that contained non-irrigable land.2
Google Earth certainly doesn’t make this part of the country look particularly inviting, and life there may have been even more difficult than expected. The homesteads were located more than twenty miles from the nearest town of Bassett, and the families had likely never experienced such isolation. However, Clare Gibson, along with his wife, Alpha, and their four children, Bernice, Pauline, James, and Florence, stuck it out; his homestead was patented in February 1913,3 and the Gibson family remained there for years to come.4
George Thoma and his wife Leota, on the other hand, lasted only a little more than a year. On 4 May 1910, George relinquished his homestead,5 acknowledging defeat and, apparently, accommodating his wife’s wishes to leave an area that his daughter later described as “all sand, horrible, no trees.”6 To make matters worse, there were rattlesnakes, and with a rambunctious six-year-old son, Fenton, and a two-year-old daughter, Fern, to keep safe, this was perhaps more than the couple had bargained for. They cut their losses, bade farewell to Clare and Alpha—sisters Alpha and Leota would never again have the opportunity to live as neighbors—and moved to town.7
I may never have come across this record had I not attended the course “Advanced Research Tools: Land Records” at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. [Read about my experience HERE.] It was there that I learned about tract books, bound volumes maintained by the Bureau of Land Management that faithfully recorded the filing of all land transactions—including claims that were later canceled, relinquished, or rejected. These claims cannot be found indexed at the Bureau of Land Management, typically my go-to resource for locating land records. Fortunately, however, the United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books are available online at FamilySearch, and a handy Tract Books Coverage Table makes it possible to navigate the unindexed record images.
While I knew my great-grandmother had said that her father had homesteaded near Bassett, Nebraska, when no final patent could be found on the Bureau of Land Management’s database, I initially came to the conclusion that he must not have actually homesteaded there. Perhaps the family had lived with relatives or rented a farm during their brief time in Bassett, I thought. After all, my grandmother was only a toddler at the time, so her recollections might well have been dim. Well, as it turns out, George Hiram Thoma did indeed have his very own homestead, albeit briefly, and as a bit of a research bonus, the federal records that this homestead created mark the conclusion of his mysterious use of an alias.
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