Tag Archives: homestead

The Unexpected Witness: An Application of a Woman Homesteader

I was intrigued when I learned that one of my ancestors had homesteaded as a widowed woman on the Kansas frontier. After reviewing a copy of her homestead application, I was further intrigued to find that, as fascinating as her experience as a homesteader must have been, the application itself contained clues to another story.

When Nancy (Stilley) Hall of Washington County, Illinois ventured to Kansas in 1869 at the age of fifty, she had her mind set on land.1 She had lost three husbands and would not marry again; land would provide the stability needed on the frontier. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any head of household over the age of twenty-one to claim one hundred and sixty acres, and women—single, divorced, or widowed—were therefore eligible.2

By the summer of 1872, having become familiar with the area, Nancy chose to settle in Gypsum Township, Saline County, Kansas.3 There, she claimed her quarter section of land and dutifully filed her homestead application at the Salina Land Office.4

After reviewing a Saline county plat map courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society, I turned to Google Maps for a glimpse of Nancy’s former land, located along the winding Gypsum Creek:

Although just five years of residency were required for one to file the deed on a homestead, it was seven years before Nancy submitted her proof of residency.5 As was typical, this was provided in the form of testimony from Nancy as well as two witnesses.

On 27 May 1879, these two witnesses testified that Nancy Hall, by then sixty years of age, had resided upon this land for the past seven years and that she had made the necessary improvements thereon, including: “house stable granary well forest trees &c.”6 In addition, Nancy had cultivated fifty acres and had raised wheat, corn, and oats.7

Interestingly, the witnesses’ statements in their individual testimonies were so nearly identical that it begs the question of whether, despite the notation indicating that witness testimony must be taken separately, they might have testified at the same time. At the very least, they might have collaborated to ensure that their recollections matched.

But why might these witnesses have cared so much about providing flawless testimony?

The first witness, William Stahl, was Nancy’s son-in-law, who had married into the family in 1865.8 While he had claimed land of his own and did not share Nancy’s homestead, he still may have skirted the issue of his relationship to Nancy and his ties to the homestead when he stated that he had known Nancy for just ten years and that he had no interest in her claim.

The second witness, Elithan Davis Hall, was twenty-five years old and recently married.9 Notably, he was Nancy’s own son. However, when faced with the question, “Are you well acquainted with Nancy Hall the claimant in this case, and how long have you known her?” Elithan replied, “I am and have known her ten years.”10 Of course, Elithan had known his own mother for his entire life—not merely for the past decade! He also stated that he had no interest in her claim, when his labors certainly must have helped to bring the homestead to its success.

In fact, it seems quite likely that Nancy might have claimed the homestead with Elithan, her eldest son, in mind. Just eighteen in 1872, Elithan was not yet old enough to claim a homestead of his own—but he would certainly have been old enough to take the lead in clearing, tilling, and cultivating the land while his mother managed the household and gardens. Furthermore, unlike his younger siblings, Elithan would remain on the homestead after his marriage; as early as 1880, he was considered the head of household, with Nancy also residing in his home, and an 1884 plat map clearly named the residence on Nancy’s property as his own.11

While the witness statements provided by William Stahl and Elithan Davis Hall stretched the truth in terms of the particulars of their relationships to Nancy and her homestead, it seems unlikely that any truly nefarious deception was intended. Perhaps the guidelines were misunderstood, or perhaps no witnesses who were not also related to Nancy, whether by marriage or blood, were available to provide the statements. It seems possible that William and Elithan might have escorted Nancy to town and stepped in at the last minute in order to expedite the filing process.

Whatever the case, no obstacles were identified in this final paperwork, and the patent was successfully filed with the General Land Office on 29 April 1882.12

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Relinquished Homestead

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

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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

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George H. Thoma (Rock County) homestead file, case no. 1383, Valentine, Nebraska, Land Office; Serialized Land Entry Case Files That Were Canceled, Relinquished, or Rejected, ca. 1909-ca. 1918; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives at Kansas City.

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.

Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Back to the Land: Finding an Ancestor’s Iowa Homestead

While tracking down the exact location of your ancestor’s land may seem daunting, last month, I learned that it’s entirely possible to get from this: Timothy Adam BLM…to this:

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Timothy Adam Homestead Site, Moville Township, Woodbury County, Iowa; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned that my ancestor Timothy Adam homesteaded in Woodbury County, Iowa.1 I was excited to find that his homestead was just a short hop from the Woodbury County Fairgrounds in rural Moville Township, making it an area that, thanks to my years in 4-H, is familiar to me. I thought how funny it would be if I would happen to know who lived on his land today.

That thought remained in the back of my mind as I prepared to plot the location of the NE ¼ of Section 29, information obtained online from the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records and verified in record copies from the National Archives. Armed with the legal land description, I turned to the Plat Book of Woodbury County, Iowa, available online through the Iowa Digital Library.

After locating the quarter section where the Adam family spent the latter part of the nineteenth century, I took note of any landmarks – including nearby towns, roads, and waterways – that would help pinpoint the homestead site on a modern map. As Moville Township is still comprised of farmland broken into the orderly squares that make up the Midwest’s patchwork landscape, it was easy enough to identify the right quarter section via satellite image on Google Maps.

Timothy Adam Google MapsAfter zooming in on a grove of trees on the appropriate quarter, it was even possible to see that there was an old home site located there. Thank you, Google Maps!

Timothy Adam Home Site Google MapsThe next step, of course, was to visit the land where Timothy and Odile (Millette) Adam, pictured here, once lived. My parents and I embarked on an expedition to the back roads southeast of Moville, where we stopped at a neighboring farm to ask if we might have permission to trek to the home site. There, we discovered that the owners were, indeed, a family that we knew from 4-H! Despite the shock of us showing up on her doorstep for perhaps the most unexpected reason imaginable, our friend kindly gave us permission to take a shortcut across the pasture with our truck.

According to a local newspaper, a tornado that hit the area in 1928 was said to have caused significant damage to what remained of the homestead: “Southwest of Moville on the old Timothy Adam farm now owned by W. H. Rawson trees in the orchard were uprooted, corn crib, machine shed, barn, hog house and chicken house were swept away. The house is the only building left standing.”2 Today, not even a house remains, but it was fascinating to explore the old foundations and to imagine just how little, perhaps, the view from the homestead had changed.

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Timothy Adam Homestead Site, Moville Township, Woodbury County, Iowa; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

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Dressing Well in Dakota Territory

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Christine Marie [Schmidt] Nelson,  Yankton County, Dakota Territory, ca. 1886-1888; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Christine Marie Schmidt, spelled “Christiane” on the back of this photograph and called “Dana” by her close friends, would not have remembered Denmark, as she was still an infant when she accompanied her parents to America in June of 1870.1 Her father homesteaded in Dakota Territory later that year, and Christine grew up a hardworking farm girl on the prairie near what is now Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota.2

This photograph may have been taken in Yankton, the onetime capital of Dakota Territory located a dozen or so miles east of the family’s homestead. Christine’s hair is styled in true 1880s fashion with frizzled bangs – which could not have been easy to achieve – and a smooth high bun.3 She wears what looks to be a heavy pleated dress with velvet panels adorning the bodice vertically from shoulder to waist.4 The same velvet trims the collar and cuffs, where a white under-layer peeks out. No fewer than twelve large buttons adorn her dress, and a horizontal pin is affixed to the stylish high collar. Christine is clearly corseted to enhance her hourglass figure.5

Christine married in the spring of 1890 at the age of twenty-one; her wedding portrait suggests that she was a bit younger when this photograph was taken.6 My guess is that she was about eighteen, give or take a year, dating this photograph circa 1886-1888. Although green cardstock, as seen on this cabinet card, technically peaked in popularity several years earlier,7 another photograph from my personal collection with cardstock of the same dark green color dates to approximately 1889. Its popularity may well have been ongoing, at least in the Midwest.

Christine almost certainly sewed her dress herself, likely in the company of her mother and older sister, and she stands so as to display it to its best advantage. A subtle painted backdrop nearly touches the floor behind her as she rests her left hand on the back of an upholstered chair, gazing into the distance. In spite of her rural upbringing, Christine strikes an elegant pose, demonstrating that the latest fashions had found a place even in Dakota Territory.

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An Iowa Homestead

Winter was well on its way when Timothy Adam claimed a homestead near Moville, Woodbury County, Iowa, in December 1886. At that time, only a claim shanty existed on the property.1 I have to wonder if Timothy weathered the winter alone, with his wife and children situated somewhere in town, or if they joined him in what certainly must have been far from ideal living conditions. In any case, the next year, Timothy built a house that measured fifteen by twenty-one feet – three hundred and fifteen square feet for a family of six.2

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Timothy Adam (Woodbury County) homestead file, final certificate no. 2560, Fort Des Moines, Iowa, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The Homestead Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on 20 May 1862.3 My first ancestor who took advantage of the one hundred and sixty acres offered to qualified applicants who lived on the land for five years and made specified improvements was Jens Madsen Schmidt, a Danish immigrant who settled in South Dakota in 1870.4 I had assumed that any ancestors who claimed homesteads in the years to follow would have had to journey even further west to find available land, but as it turns out, this was not necessarily the case. It would be sixteen years before Timothy would claim his homestead to the east, in northwestern Iowa.

The new yet modest house must have seemed positively roomy in comparison to the original shanty, and perhaps it was an improvement over what may have been an even more crowded situation back in Massachusetts. Timothy had been born and raised in St. Pie, Quebec, but by the time he was twenty, he had settled in Indian Orchard, Hampden County, Massachusetts, with his wife, Odile Millette.4 For nearly two decades, they relied on the cotton mills to earn a living, although Timothy was a carpenter by trade.5 Life in Massachusetts was likely difficult; Odile reportedly gave birth to ten children, of whom only five survived to adulthood.6 At least one succumbed to scarlet fever.7

Life in Iowa proved to be a fresh start for the family. Within a few years, the homestead boasted a barn, corn crib, hen house, shed, two wells, and fencing, valued altogether at eight hundred dollars. Timothy had cultivated ninety acres, and had raised crops every season. In addition, he had become a naturalized citizen. Finally, in 1893, at the age of forty-five, Timothy Adam became the proud owner of the NE 1/4 of Section 29, Township 88N, Range 45W in Woodbury County, Iowa.8

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A (Somewhat Lackluster) Homestead File

When I sent away to the National Archives for a copy of a homestead file, I was sure that I was in for a treat. I was aware that, in addition to the homestead application and final certificate, a homestead entry file would typically include proof documents in the form of testimony from the applicant and two witnesses. I couldn’t wait to read what this testimony would have to say about the home, family, and farm of Jens Madsen Schmidt of Bon Homme County, South Dakota.1 Jens had applied for a homestead on 23 November 1870,2 just months after his arrival from Denmark and less than a decade after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.3

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have gotten too excited. Apparently, on 8 June 1877, Luman N. Judd, Register of the Land Office at Springfield, had better things to do than to fill in the three blank lines meant to describe the home of Jens Madsen Schmidt, or the additional three blank lines meant to detail the improvements made upon his land.4 Of course, perhaps Mr. Judd isn’t to blame, and the witnesses – Peter Anderson and John Haase – were either unable to communicate these facts in English or were particularly reticent that day.5 To be fair, these men likely had crops to get back to and saw no reason to belabor the details, especially if they were equally well acquainted with Jens and knew that nothing stood in the way of his patent.

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Jens Madsen Schmidt, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1900; digital image 2003, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

All was not lost with the homestead file. I learned that, in 1877, Jens had cultivated about forty acres of land.6 I learned, too, that his inclination to Anglicize his Danish name to James Smith had caused some issues with the paperwork; in 1878, he signed a document swearing that the “correct orthography” of his name was, in fact, Jens Madsen Schmidt.7

Regardless of the details – or lack thereof – of the homestead file, Jens Madsen Schmidt became the proud owner of one hundred and sixty acres of land located in Section 1, Township 93, Range 58 of Bon Homme County, South Dakota.8

If you would like to order your ancestor’s own homestead file, I would suggest beginning with the General Land Office Records of the Bureau of Land Management, where you will be able to locate the necessary information to order the file from the National Archives. I used their online form, and found it quick and easy. Fifty dollars and a few weeks later, perhaps you will find that your ancestor’s neighbors had at least a few things to say about his living situation!

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Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, South Dakota

For fifteen years, from 1944 through 1958, the old settlers of Yankton County, South Dakota sponsored a yearbook that compiled their own fascinating stories of life in southeastern South Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These yearbooks were later bound and filed with the local library and the state historical society. As written by Emma Meistrik, Secretary and Historian of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, “We dedicate this volume to the future old settlers of Yankton County and may call it Volume I, trusting that it will be continued indefinitely. It is upon the worthwhile things of the past that the future builds for ever increasing achievement.”1

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Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 (Yankton, South Dakota: Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1958); private collection of Melanie Frick.

My copy, once in the possession of an aunt, was not bound professionally, and I’m unsure whether all of the yearbooks are included. However, the stories within are rich with detail. Many of the settlers recount their experiences as immigrants, the establishment of their homesteads, and their survival of the deadly blizzard of 1888, as did Christine (Schmidt) Nelson of Yankton County, South Dakota.

She shared her recollections with her daughter, who wrote, “As an old settler of Yankton county she has many memories of the early years in her community. She recalls the old Indian trail which brought Indian traders to the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jens Smith, early settlers of Bon Homme county. On the old stage trail between Springfield, Fort Randall and Sioux City, the Smith farm was used as a place to change horses for the carrying of the mail.”2

Of the aforementioned blizzard, it was said, “Mrs. Nelson attended the Breezy Hill school and recalls the blizzard of 1888 when her only brother, Mads Smith, spent the night in the schoolhouse. The next morning after the storm, the sun was shining brightly and the family were overjoyed to see the young boy walking over the sparkling hard drifts after his night’s vigil.”3

The brief autobiography concludes, in part, “Mrs. Nelson is well-known by her many friends and relatives as a person who always has a warm welcome hand extended to all those who call at her home. Even today, at the age of 85, she is active with her household duties and retains an active interest in what is going on about her. She is cordial and sympathetic with the many young people who come her way. She is truly one of Dakota’s pioneer mothers who still looks ahead and enjoys her home and family.”4

As with A Yearbook from the Southern State Normal School, Springfield, South Dakota, 1916, copies of the compiled Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 are likely not widely available to most researchers. Although my copy may not be complete, I would like to offer look-ups to anyone seeking information about the individuals named below as featured settlers:

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