The Homestead Act and Me

Last week, driving home from my brother’s wedding, my family and I stopped at Homestead National Monument of America.[fn1] We didn’t really know what to expect. We only planned on staying for an hour or so, because Nebraska falls halfway into the 21-hour drive from Utah to Chicago, the drive that we needed to do in two days so that we’d be back before our kids had to start school.

We got to Homestead when it opened. And we ended up staying for more than three hours. Because Homestead is amazing; it celebrates the Homestead Act of 1862, which ultimately distributed about 10 percent of U.S. land to successful homesteaders.

What was the Homestead Act? Basically, it was a law that allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of land. If the settler built a home on the land, lived on it, made improvements, and farmed it for five years, the settler would receive a patent for the land, signed by the current president, that meant the land was his or hers. And the “his or hers” is deliberate; land was available broadly to men, women, recent immigrants, even African Americans who had been freed from slavery.[fn2]

(Of course, the government wasn’t giving away empty land, and the National Monument does an excellent job giving voice to the Native Americans whose land was taken to give to these men, women, immigrants, and African Americans.)

So where’s the Mormon connection to Homestead National Monument of America? I actually wondered that while I was there. The Monument says that there are an estimated 93 million descendants of homesteaders alive today; I assumed that I wasn’t one of them. After all, I didn’t know of any of my ancestors who had homesteaded.[fn3] the Act wasn’t passed until 1862; Mormons had made it to Utah in the late 1840s. My quick phone search at the Monument indicated that the Utah territory had made a mess of divvying up federal lands, between giving them out before they were surveyed and driving the first federal surveyor out of Utah in 1857. Still, 7 percent of Utah’s land was given out to homesteaders. Did that include any of my ancestors?

To figure it out, I looked in FamilySearch for ancestors who would have lived in Utah at roughly the right time (say, 1870s to 1910s). I then searched for those names in BLM General Land Office Records site.[fn4]

And it turns out that at least four of my ancestors got land under the Homestead Act.[fn5]

Sondra Sanders. Sanders was my great-great-great grandfather. He received his patent for 160 acres in Salt Lake County on December 1, 1874.

James Fackrell. Fackrell was another great-great-great grandfather. He received his patent for 80 acres in Weber County on March 30, 1881.

A couple things about this one: first, 160 acres was the minimum size of a homestead, but a number of my ancestors seem to have homesteaded something less than 160 acres. I’m not sure if that was just to deal with the chaos of Utah land transfers, or if it was something else.

Second, 11 years earlier, Fackrell had purchased 80 acres in Davis County.

Christian Pedersen. Pedersen was my great-great grandfather. He received a patent for 80 acres (again!) in Cache County on March 24, 1887.

Charles A. Brunson. Brunson was another great-great grandfather. He received a patent for 160 acres in Millard County on October 28, 1915. That’s just about a decade before my grandfather was born. Which is crazy to me.[fn6]

So there you have it: Mormonism, family history, and the Homestead Act of 1862. Anyone else among the 93 million Americans descended from homesteaders (whether in Utah or elsewhere)?

[fn1] The National Monument is on the site of the Daniel Freeman’s homestead. Freeman was one of the first people to claim a homestead under the Act.

[fn2] That’s not to say the law was entirely progressive and colorblind. To qualify for land under the Homestead Act, an would-be settler had to be a citizen or have filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen. But not everybody qualified for citizenship, at least during the first eight decades of the law. People of Chinese decent didn’t become eligible for U.S. citizenship until the end of 1943, and would thus have been ineligible to homestead and get land. For Indians, it didn’t happen until 1946. And for Japanese individuals? 1952.

[fn3] Which maybe isn’t saying much—I didn’t know a ton about my 19th-century ancestors.

[fn4] Note that the site isn’t limited to land received under the Homestead Act of 1862; when you click on the person, though, you can determine how that person acquired the land.

[fn5] I say “at least” because I didn’t do a comprehensive search, so I may have missed somebody.

[fn6] Though it shouldn’t be—the Homestead Act remained in effect until 1976, and applied to Alaska for another 10 years, even though homesteading largely stopped in the mid-1930s.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Prior to the Act there were squatter’s rights. Below are my notes from the last MHA from a session on how the church obtained the land for the temple lot in Missouri:

    Jean Addams talked about the acquisition of the original temple lot property. People haven’t fully appreciated the importance of squatter’s rights in this. Could squat on public land not yet surveyed (build improvements, plow it, live on it). Once surveyed, you have first right to buy that property at $1.25/acre. But this could take many years.

    A lot of the land around Independence was dedicated for use as a seminary, with a cost of $2.00/acre. A disappointment to squatters; they’ll have to wait longer and pay more. (The seminary never happened, but that didn’t change the rate for the land.)

    Much of that land was worth $5-$10/acre, but settlers threatened violence for anyone who paid more than the base price, including the local judge. (Imagine them threatening violence!)

    In 1825 or 26 Flournoy began squatting on 160 acres west of Independence. Built a house and a trading post (located on CoC parking lot today).

    Arrival of Saints with all their grand talk about the land there a matter of deep consternation to locals.

    Could not have just dedicated that land for the temple; would have had to talk to Flournoy first On September 12, 1831 Flournoy buys his 160 acres at $2.00 per ($320). Then Partridge buys the temple site from Flournoy, 63-1/4 acres at $2.05 1/2 per acre.

  2. Of course I start into the are we related game? (I still don’t know, although Pedersen is a familiar name.)
    But then land mechanics — Kevin Barney’s comment starts down the road of answering the questions that immediately come to mind. I imagine the Utah territory was complicated by big name early settlers claiming large tracts and later competing with the federal government? At this point it’s all just imagination, with the possible seeds of an interesting story and attitudes that persist in Utah land disputes to this day?

  3. Thanks, Kevin!

    Chris, I agree. The question of land ownership and distribution in territorial Utah totally fascinates me (or, at least, it has for the last couple weeks since going to Homestead NHS). I need one of our excellent Mormon/Utah historian readers to do the hard work of figuring it out and writing an article/book about it for me, so I can read about it!

    Also, I bet we are somehow related :).

  4. The Utah State Archives has a nice summary of land distribution:

    The topic has been addressed by a number of historians. I won’t load this comment up with links, but see, for example:

    Thomas G. Alexander, “Conflict and Fraud: Utah Public Land Surveys in the 1850s, the Subsequent Investigation and Problems with the Land Disposal System,” Utah Historical Quarterly 80:2 (Spring 2012).

    Jill Thorley Warnick, “Women Homesteaders in Utah, 1869-1934,” Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1985.

    I just looked through my records. I’ve found just two patents in Utah for members of African American families that were taken to Utah as slaves. There are more patents for Idaho, since family members of some of the earliest enslaved residents of Utah Territory moved to the lands and majority black communities there in the 1880s and 1890s, so you’ll see names like Flake, Chambers, Leggroan, Oglesby, etc.

  5. Thanks, Amy! The Utah State Archives piece is nice; it was the one thing I could find with my phone.

    And thanks for doing the hard work of looking to see what had been written previously!

  6. Ah, yes. Apologies for the duplicate link. The Archives is a good go-to for descriptions of record collections, Utah Territory’s complicated court systems, etc. A number of the records are now available as digital images at FamilySearch, so if you’re looking into Utah ancestors, check the Archives name index, then see if the records are at FamilySearch.

    The nice thing about the BLM/GLO database is that they provide a map of the location, so you can see the exact place where your ancestor lived. My children and I drove across the country this summer and we had to make certain route decisions based on our schedule, so we had to skip Caldwell County, Missouri, where my fourth-great grandfather filed for land in 1838, just before mobs drove him and his extended family north to their next home in Iowa, across the river from Nauvoo. He acquired land in Iowa, Nauvoo, Cottonwood (Great Salt Lake County), San Bernardino, and a home lot in Beaver City, Utah Territory, by other means, so the next time he filed for homestead land was in 1876 in Beaver County.

  7. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    There are a lot of places out in the Mojave that were still getting homesteaders well into the 1970s. (The person to whom Leonard Cohen addresses “Famous Blue Raincoat” is “building [their] little house deep in the desert.”) My company (the incumbent electric utility for most of Southern California) serves them, although a lot of those homesteads never bothered to request a connection and won’t any time soon now that there are cheap solar panels.

  8. Your search should be expanded. My grandmother who moved to Wyoming as a child in 1900 had a homestead in Nevada acquired sometime before her marriage in 1916. I understand one of the times she was obvious-to-the-kids mad at her Wyoming husband was when she learned he’d stopped paying taxes on her homestead.

  9. DeAnn Spencer says:

    I’m from Rochester, Minnesota and love the book by the Norwegian-American author Ole Edvart Rølvåg – “Giants in the Earth” (Norwegian: Verdens Grøde). Rølvåg was born in the family’s cottage in a small fishing village. An uncle who had emigrated to America sent him a ticket in the summer of 1896, and he traveled to South Dakota to work as a farmhand. With the help of his pastor, Rølvaag enrolled in Augustana Academy in Canton, South Dakota where he graduated in 1901. He earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1905 and 1910. (Go St. Olaf!)

    “Giants in the Earth” follows 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. The book is based partly on Rølvaag’s personal experiences as a settler, and on the experiences of his wife’s family who had been immigrant homesteaders.

    There are many similarities between Norwegian immigration/homesteading on the Great Plains and Mormon immigration/homesteading in Utah and beyond. Great struggles and sacrifices on both accounts.

  10. Homesteading reminds me of a conversation in For Whom the Bell Tolls – where the Spaniards think it is a wonderful communist policy, but the American can’t see it that way.

  11. Individual land ownership, and in particular the ability to alienate it, doesn’t really jive well with communism.

  12. And just where did the “free” land come from?

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