Tag Archives: Land Records

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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