|Mary J. Hainsworth Widow of Thomas Hainsworth Homestead Record via Ancestry|
...in 1862, the Homestead Act was passed and signed into law. The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office.*
In 1862, the US Federal Government made it possible for any US citizen (as long as you had not borne arms against the government) to own a piece of land. Men as well as women seized on this opportunity. Now, of course, there were further restrictions on women. Single women could take advantage of this but those who were married, had to be the head of their household. The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains states, "The majority of homesteading women were young (at least twenty-one), single, and interested in adventure and the possibility of economic gain." But remember when thinking of possible female ancestors that could have homesteaded, "single" doesn't necessarily mean "never been married." It might mean they were widowed, divorced, or even had a husband who deserted them.
What can these records hold? They hold information about the land via the application but they can also include a certificate of citizenship, clues to familial relationships, affidavits, testimonies, and more. One homestead file I was looking at on Ancestry.com was 118 pages and started out as husband's homestead claim but then when he died his wife took it over. A goldmine of information is in those pages for anyone studying that family.
I'm amazed at how much these files can tell us. Everything from personal details about a person, to familial relationships, to information provided by friends and neighbors.
|Homestead entries via FamilySearch**|
Ancestry.com has a U.S., Homestead Records, 1863-1908 collection. This collection only includes Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, and Wyoming. For other states you must research the original records held by National Archives. Some homestead records can also be found by searching the FamilySearch Catalog for the keyword phrase "homestead records."
WyoHistory.org - Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Writer and Homesteader
Legacy Webinars - Gail Blankenau - Women Homesteaders and Genealogy
Google Books - Women Homestead History (search)
Ancestry.com Blog - First Woman Homesteader Found...
*The National Archives - The Homestead Act of 1862
**Image source: Montana, Flathead County, homestead records. Registers of homestead entries, v. 1, 1897-1908