How Do I Get My Free Land?

Uriah Oblinger, Nebraska homesteader, circa 1870s

Uriah Oblinger, Nebraska homesteader, circa 1870s

Getting free land from the government was amazingly simple. The first thing you had to do was fill out an application form that stated several facts:

  • You were twenty-one years of age or the head of a family.
  • You were a U.S. citizen, or stated that you planned to become a citizen, and had never fought against the U.S. (Confederate soldiers could not apply.)
  • You stated that you did not already own over 320 acres of land within the U.S., or that you had not quit or abandoned other land in the same state or territory.
  • You told the government the homestead would be for your use only.
  • Finally, you paid a $10 fee and told the land office which quarter section of land you wanted.
This was the process that Uriah Oblinger went through in December, 1873

Oblinger talks of "jumping" the claim of a man who had claimed a piece of land but never lived on it. This transfer of claims was common and developed a whole industry spawning land offices like this one in Round Pond, Oklahoma in 1894.

Oblinger talks of "jumping" the claim of a man who had claimed a piece of land but never lived on it. This transfer of claims was common and developed a whole industry spawning land offices like this one in Round Pond, Oklahoma in 1894.

That was it for the first step. Next, you had to move onto the land, live on it for five years — unless you were a Union veteran — farm it, and make "improvements" like a house, barn or fences. Finally, after five years, the homesteader had to file a form labeled "Final Proof" indicating you had lived upon and farmed the land for five years, and made some improvements. Certain special acts extended the residency period in case of grasshopper devastation or drought.

The “Proving Up” Form

To actually claim ownership of the land at the end of five years, homesteaders had to complete a "Proving Up" Form. You had to prove that the improvements required had been done. And to prove it, you had to find two neighbors who were willing to swear to certain facts:

  • First, your neighbors had to swear they had known you for five years.
  • That you were the head of a household and a citizen.
  • That you were living on and farming the land being claimed for all five years.
  • That you built a house, and what kind of house it was.
With the form completed you received your patent certificate indicating you could record your deed with the country register of deeds. You now owned the land for a total of $18 in filing fees.

Take a look at the form. Why do you suppose it’s important for you to have someone swear that they had known you five years? Why is it important for the government to know what kind of house you built?
Homestead Proof Testimony of Almanzo Wilder September 12, 1884 South Dakota