Homesteading Utah

My family and I just got back from an extended road trip. And one of our first stops on that road trip was Homestead National Historic Park in Nebraska. It was actually our second time visiting and, seriously, if you get the chance to visit, you absolutely should. (It’s only about an hour and a half from Winter Quarters.)

The Homestead Act was fascinating. Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, it allowed heads of household or anyone over 21 to claim a 160-acre parcel of land, provided they were, or intended to become, a citizen.[fn1] To get the land, a homesteader had to live on the land for five years, built a home, make improvements to the land, and farm it. At the end of five years, for only the cost of a filing fee, a successful homesteader would own the land.

The Homestead Act encouraged the settlement of a significant portion of the Midwest and the West. Roughly 10% of the land of the U.S. was claimed under these provisions. Of course, it’s not like the land was uninhabited before homesteaders staked their claims, and the Park doesn’t gloss over the harm it did to Native Americans or, for that matter, to the environment, as farmers tore up prairie and cut down forests.

Still, it’s a fascinating and important part of U.S. history (happy Fourth of July to our U.S. readers!), one that is, at least in my educational experience, largely overlooked.

And it’s a not-insignificant part of Mormon history.

See, Utah had almost 17,000 homesteaders that proved-up their claims. I assume not all of them were Mormon, but some were. At our visit, the Ranger pointed us to some computers with access to a Bureau of Land Management website that allows people to search for homestead records. I did a quick search and discovered that Charles A. Brunson, my great-great-grandfather, successfully got 160 acres in Millard County, Utah, in 1915 after (I presume) homesteading it for 5 years.

I may well have other ancestors who also homesteaded in Utah (and I’ll probably look at some point), but the point of a vacation where I didn’t bring my computer was not to spend a ton of time sitting on computers at an NPS site, so I then did a quick search and discovered that at least one of my wife’s (non-Mormon) ancestors also successfully homesteaded in Wisconsin.

At that point, we enjoyed the rest of the displays and farming tools and cabins and other things the site had to offer. (Seriously, you should go!)

The Homestead Act did significant work in creating the United States we have today. And that work did not exclude the Mormons.

If you discover you had ancestors who homesteaded, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

[fn1] Which included women, immigrants, and formerly-enslaved persons.

Image from Shelly. CC BY 2.0.

Comments

  1. nobody, really says:

    My great-grandfather got off the train in Idaho in 1920, having immigrated from Manchester, England. They made a great many improvements under the Homestead Act. The spot where he built a sod dugout is still visible in a field on the family farm.

    The ward still refers to us as “one of the new families”.

  2. My mother reports it was an epic dinner when my grandmother discovered that my grandfather had stopped paying taxes on her homestead land in Nevada.

  3. That’s awesome, nobody, really! Thanks for sharing.

    And STW, wow. Did your grandmother end up losing the homestead land? Because what a tragedy.

  4. Raymond Winn says:

    Thx for posting this to remind us of this great/horrible law, which did so much for opening the nation to commoners. In my family’s case, the Uintah Basin (NE Utah) was opened to “white” settlers only after the Utes were pushed to the west end of the basin, after being pushed to the basin in the first place. My grandfather & family were among the first to rush in and claim hundreds of acres of “free” land. Nice for us, not so much for the aborigenes.

  5. Interesting. Per the BLM website, one of my ancestors had three homesteads, two in Box Elder county and one in Cache county.

  6. My Taylors show up for their Piute Co. homestead. My great-great-grandfather Birdsall does not appear for his homstead in Sevier Co. because he was unable to raise the cash necessary to pay the fee when it was due … but he and my great-great-grandmother did raise the money and pay off the fee when my great-great-grandmother homesteaded a little later in her own right.

    And it shows that their daughter, Cora Birdsall, got her homestead. What the database cannot tell is that much of that land was later stolen from her in the last great case of an LDS ecclesiastical trial over land rights, or that the Utah Supreme Court later ordered that land to be returned to her father, acting as Cora’s guardian, after the stress of it all literally cost her her sanity. But the database DOES show that she, a single woman, had done the work and met all the conditions and paid all the costs to successfully win her homestead.

  7. Thank you, Ardis! That’s a fascinating addition to the story that the patent records show!

  8. Nice post about historical homesteading, but there is a thriving homesteading community you might want to look into. It would easily fit into church culture of provident living and self reliance.

  9. Sheldon Miller says:

    My impression from driving around southern Idaho with my grandfather is that very few of these free homesteads won with such enormous effort are still viable agricultural land. Certainly his 60 years of effort is reverting back to sagebrush, not even used for grazing

  10. Sheldon Miller, my grandparents from Kentucky homesteaded in SE Idaho in 1919. And indeed, their homestead has reverted back to sagebrush. They chose to move about 10 miles to a small community where they prospered with a family farm and a small store. I was raised in the house they built.

  11. Thanks Sheldon and TL! I can’t say I’m shocked that some of the land ended up not being farmable. But I suppose the Homestead Act at least partly did its job by getting people there.

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