Stuck on the census? Can't see past vital records, wills and deeds? Spice up your research and break through your brick walls with these 10 essential—and often-overlooked—sources.
Genealogy is like a kitchen spice rack. You may have 10 to 15 different spices in your cupboard, but there are only a few that you use in almost every recipe: salt, pepper and maybe garlic powder. Every now and then, a recipe calls for other spices—rosemary, curry, thyme, sage—that have been in your cabinet for heaven only knows how long, but they're there when you need them. Similarly, in genealogy, you may rely on those few records that researchers use all the time in their ancestral quests: censuses, vital records, wills and deeds. But in order to break through the brick walls in your family research, you'll need to look at the lesser-used records in your genealogical spice rack. We've identified 10 such sources that are sure to spice up your search.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of free land to adults who agreed to settle and cultivate the land for at least five years. The act applied to US citizens and aliens who had filed for citizenship.
If your ancestor lived out West during the mid-19th century, there's a good chance that he acquired his land under the Homestead Act. But keep in mind that even though interviews, letters and diaries may reference a family "homestead," that doesn't mean your ancestor acquired his land that way. Referring to any property as a homestead was common at that time.
You also should remember that many homestead claims were canceled because the applicant didn't meet the requirements. Of the 2 million homestead applications, more than half fell through. For instance, at the end of the five-year term, a noncitizen had to have been granted citizenship to secure his homestead. If your ancestor's application was canceled, there should still be a file explaining the cancellation.
Homestead files are kept at the National Archives. You also should be able to find the homestead recorded in the county courthouse where the land is located, or at the state's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office. The county record should tell you the federal land office where your ancestor made the claim, the file number and the legal land description. With this information, you can write to the National Archives or the appropriate BLM office for a copy of the complete homestead file.
You can search the BLM's General Land Office land-patents database on the Web at www.glorecords.blm.gov. You won't find the actual case files on the Internet, but the database does include land descriptions and a computerized image of each patent, which you can print out. You also can request a certified copy of the land patent for a nominal fee. Be sure to request all the documents in the file.