Homesteading in Clay County, Nebraska

Homesteading in Clay County Nebraska.
Kenneth E Nelson
June 26, 2013
I had known since I was a kid that several of my great grandparents had homesteaded in Clay County around Saronville and Verona.  But like most Nebraskans of my generation I had only a sketchy 6th grade idea of the actual steps involved in securing a homestead claim and reaching the  goal of a land patent--that prized document  which legally conveyed public lands to a private owner.  Looking into the issue for four ancestors, I found that  life was not so devoid of hassles and government hoop jumping in those “simple” days as we sometimes  like to think.  In  fact, the combination of stiff requirements and the difficulty of carving a living out of new lands was a recipe for failure—only about 40% of U.S.  Homestead Act claims reached a successful conclusion.
I had visited the National Archives in Washington and had a glimpse of a few homesteading records, but NE homesteading records have recently became available online with a subscription.  Using such I traced the path from application to final certificate for four great grandparents.  I report the main steps of their  process here and show some of the many documents involved.
I am confident that most Clay County homestead paperwork proceeded very much like these.   And if you want to research your own,  you don’t need to know much to start.  Formerly to search the physical records in the National  Archives you needed to know the legal description of the property, but now names are indexed online and you can search by name and other cues.
 Three of my great grandfathers and a 2nd great grandfather homesteaded in Clay County.   Their names are Nils Nilsson (later Nels Nelson), Adolph Aspegren, Charly Johnson, and Anders (Andrew) P. Israelson.   Similarities and differences exist among their lives and homesteading experiences.  All four of them emigrated from Sweden and spent varying amounts of time in Illinois prior to coming to Nebraska.  All arrived in Clay County between 1872 and 1877.  However their ages, time in America, family status,  and economic situations varied significantly.
Short Biographical Backgrounds re Homesteads
Nils Nilsson (Nels Nelson born 1847) emigrated with his wife Anna from Hjärsås parish, Kristianstads Län, Sweden to Illinois in 1869.  He worked as a farmhand in Warren Co Illinois and later farmed his own presumably rented land. .  He filed his intention for citizenship in Warren Co. IL.   He moved to Clay County with his wife Anna and family in 1872  and filed an Application for Entry for 80 acres in sec. 26 of Lewis Twp.  The parcel was located a little more than a mile southeast  of  where Verona would later appear.   A newspaper account reports he arrived owning only the few belongings in his wagon and a few dollars in his pocket.
Carl Johan Johanesson (Charly Johnson born 1838) with Anna and family left Sjonhem parish, Gotlands län, Sweden in 1873, settling first in Henry Co. Illinois .   Carl had apprenticed as a shoemaker in Sweden and  may have worked as one in Illinois. In 1875 they came to Clay County where he promptly  identified and filed an Application of Entry for 80 acres in Section 28 of School  Creek Twp.  on May 14, 1875.  The land is roughly 2 miles northwest of Sutton.  So far as I can discern, Carl came with no assets of consequence.
Anders  Adolph Israelson Aspegren (Adolph Aspegren born 1848), left  Askeryd parish,  Jönköpins län, Sweden in April of 1868.   In 1870 he resided with a wagon maker in New Windsor, Mercer Co. Ill.;  and presumably worked building wagons.  He married Emma Caroline Israelson in Henry Co Il in 1871.  Adolph applied for citizenship in Illinois 1874;  they moved to Clay Co in 1876.  Adolph promptly filed an Application of Entry for 80 acres in Lewis Twp. in Sec. 2 (the section just west of Saronville).  Adolph’s economic situation is a little foggy.  It is doubtful he had many personal assets , but Emma Caroline’s father did.  (see below) .
Anders (Andrew) Petter Israelson born 1824 and Charlotte came from Asby parish, Östergötlands län, Sweden to near Swedona in  Henry Co (possibly Mercer) Ill in 1852.  He became a naturalized citizen in Illinois.  Unlike the other three, this ancestor came to Nebraska  with some money  A. P. was the father of Emma Caroline ergo  father-in-law of Adolph Aspegren, but I do not think they were acquainted in Sweden.   Andrew and family were farming owned land in Oxford Twp. Henry Co. Ill in 1870, with an address of Opheim Ill. in 1875.  Andrew P.  and Charlotte sold their farmland in Henry Co. Illinois and came to Clay Co with some assets in  1877, albeit he held a mortgage on the sold Illniois land rather than all cash.  According to University of Nebraska records,  In October 1877 Andrew and Charlotte purchased 3 parcels of railroad land for a total of 320 acres (a critical size)  located in Sutton and Lewis Twps.  That land was sold from public land grants to the Burlington  and Missouri River Rail Road.   The parcels were all within 2 miles of Saronville and ranged in price between $6.00 and $7.50 per acre under 6 to 10 year pay off terms.  Andrew and Charlotte had been in Clay County only 6 days when purchasing this railroad land.
In addition to his purchased land,  in June of 1878 Andrew filed a homestead Application for Entry to 80 acres in sec. 6 of Lewis Twp., about 5 miles west of Saronville.  If Andrew had previously purchased more than 320 acres,  he would have been ineligible for homesteading.
I have posted many digitized copies of homesteading documents below,  Most are scaled down to reduce space.  If you are reading this in MS Word or a clone and wish to read a document, you can grab the corner of an image and expand it.  When finished touch z to return to original size and place.
STEP 1: Select a Parcel.
I know little about  how my ancestors traveled around, inspected, and made a selection for their prospective homestead or how much they knew about the land ahead of time. (see Staking Out the Prairie section below).     But  the situation must have changed  between 1872 and 1877.  The railroad arrived in Clay County in 1872 and was well established by 1877, also the population had grown tremendously.   It follows then that by 1877 it would have been easier to travel, and gather information, but there would have been fewer land choices available.  I did find this short published description involving Nels Nelson’s  homestead choice in 1872:

Nels Nelson was born in Sweden on the 19th of March, 1847, and in the spring of 1869 came to the United States. He first located in Illinois, …… in 1872, however, he came west and settled in Nebraska, making the trip in a covered wagon and being accompanied by two families. He homesteaded on section 26 and thereon built a small frame house. He had a span of small horses which he used to break the ground and soon had his land in a fine state of cultivation. At that time the vicinity was not very thickly populated, there being but four houses between his home and Sutton and there were no dwellings west of his place until the town of Fairfield was reached. Mr. Nelson had very little money when he arrived in the county and it was a year and a half before he got any crops, but he was more fortunate that many of the early settlers and soon had his land upon a paying basis. At one time Mr. Nelson was in possession of fifteen hundred and twenty acres of fine improved land and was ranked among the foremost agriculturists of the surrounding country.

I hope someone can tell me someday who the two families that accompanied Nels were.   Anyway…However they did it, each of our families did select a parcel and proceeded to make a homestead claim.
STEP 2.  The essential  first official step was to certify to the satisfaction of the Court that the applicant is a citizen or has renounced all other allegiance and made formal intent to become a citizen.  These immigrants definitely were required to have the paperwork proving intent or actual citizenship.  Clearly those documents were not standardized.
Nels Nelson Certificate of intent for Citizenship            Nels Nelson Certification of Citizenship                                              

Charly Johnson Certificate of Citizenship

Adolph Aspegren.  Handwritten certified copy of citizenship documents recorded in and obtained from Illinois transferred and recertified in Clay County Court.  I can only guess what effort might have been involved in obtaining and recertifying the paperwork all by mail and visiting the courthouse.

Andrew P. Israelson: Handwritten certified copy of Citizenship documents recorded in and obtained from Illinois and recertified in Clay County.

STEP 3:  Fomal Applications for Entry, these are identical preprinted forms for all four individuals.
The legal process began with submission of an  “Application for Entry”.  When accepted the land office issued an all important application number and legal description that secured that parcel from any other attempt by another person to homestead, preempt, or otherwise lay a claim to that same property.  I am surprised here that the order of dates for these and the next Entry Affidavit documents differ one person to another.   Documents were ideally executed at the Land Office in Lincoln, but most all of these were executed at the Clay County District Court with a note that the Court was used instead of the Land Office “because of distance”.   However,  it looks like the Applications for Entry were all physically executed at the Land Office in Lincoln.  Today’s  inhabitants would be amazed how easy it was to travel by train to Lincoln in the 1870s.

Nels Nelson, Application for Entry No. 11876 for the N1/2 of SE1/4 Sec. 26 7N6W of 6th PM  Oct 9 1872                                                    

Charly Johnson May 14, 1875          Adolph Aspegren May 3 1876     Andrew P Israelson June17, 1878Chcs

STEP 4: AFFIDAVIT FOR ENTRY.  The homesteader swears to meet basic qualifications of age, citizenship, etc.  in his Affidavit for Entry.  The form asks for the Application for Entry number so is evidently expected to be completed after making application for enty. But  two of the  Affidavits are dated days before their Application for Entry with the Application Number left blank.  It appears that Nels’ was executed at the Land Office in Lincoln,  Adolphs’ and Andrews’ by the County Clerk and Charly’s by the County Judge.
Nels Nelson October 9? 1872       Adolph Aspegren April 25 1876     Andrew P Israelson  June 8 1878

.                                     Charly Johnson Affidavit for Entry,  May 14 1875.

Receipt for $14 Entry Fee:   “being the amount of fee and compensation of Register and Receiver for the entry of…”  these forms are identical for all four person’s; but the amount is $8.00 for three but is $8.99 for Andrew Israelson.  I don’t know why.

NOW COMES THE FIVE YEAR PERIOD OF HARD WORK:   When the Entry application and affidavit process is complete, that pauses the legal process for years, and starts long years of hard work:   breaking ground, building a house, raising a barn, digging wells, setting a windmill, making fence, planting cultivating and harvesting crops, raising livestock, planting trees  and probably fighting drought, fires,  and grasshoppers.   As the end of the five years approach;  it is time to revisit the courthouse or the land office.

STEP 5Notification of intent to “make final proof” commonly termed proving up.  This step probably created joy as well as some anxiety for our homesteaders.  They are almost at the end of the 5 year trial and are required to make public notice at the land office and in the local legal newspaper that they intend to prove up.  The purpose of the notice is to allow anyone to intervene if they believe the homesteader does not qualify to be issued a final certificate and patent.   A jealous neighbor might charge that the homesteader was missing for an extended period, or did not raise crops for two years, or is not the person they claim to be , or is a former confederate soldier  etc. etc.  It might even happen that another person would assert to have a prior claim in the homesteaded parcel.
I found no notification of intent for Nels Nelson.
Charly Johnson-Land Office posting of intent May 18 1880
Charly Johnson – June 18, 1880 Newspaper posting of intent to prove up along with notarized certification that notice occurred.

Adolph Aspegren – March 28 1881 Land Office official notice of intent to prove  up.

Adolph Aspegren: Certification of Newspaper notice of intent , and the newspaper notice.


Andrew P Isralson July 20 1883, Certification by Sutton Register that notice of intent had been published six consecutive weeks prior to June 30, 1883
Andrew P Israelson: Certification of Land Office posting of intent for 30 days. July5, 1883
STEP 6:  PROVING UP.  Proving to the satisfaction of the Judge that the homesteader has Lived on and made sufficient  Improvements on homesteaded land.
The homesteaders were required to provide their own testimony and the testimony of two other citizens of certified respectability who swear before the County Judge to the facts presented. 
Proving up Testimony Oct 10 1877  by Nels Nelson and
Signed by two witnesses: O.A. Elwood and John S Lewis.
In this case, proving up testimony of Nels and two witnesses appears in one document, while in later cases the testimony of self and witnesses are in  separate and longer  documents.  The proving up document revisits the basic qualifications of the original Application of Entry plus the 5 year performance and improvement requirements.

Nels Nelson. Oct 10, 1877.  Nels testifies he has met the 5 year requirement and built a 14 x 18 frame house  with 9 x 18 ft addition and describes it as a comfortable dwelling.  Additionally he as dug a well and set out 2000 forest trees.

Charly Johnson, June 22 1980: Includes testimony that Charly has a good comfortable house, a well and a sod stable.  And has set out and cultivated about 500 forrest trees and a few fruit trees.  He has cultivated about 70 acres and has raised wheat , oats, barly, corn and potatoes.  .  Very similar concurring 3 page documents were filed by two witnesses: John Hulten and Peter Larson.
ProvingTestimony by Charly Johnson for himself. Yes this testimony takes 3 pages.
Adolph Aspegren, May 3 1881.  Adolph testifies he has  built a frame house and barn, a well and windmill.  About 10 acres are enclosed with a board and wire fence.  ¾ mile of hedge and about 3000 forest trees.  Value about $400.  He has broken and cultivated about 70 acres and raised wheat, oats, barly and corn.  Very similar concurring 3 page documents are filed by two witnesses: Alfred Samuelson and August Swanson.
Proving Testimony of Adolph Aspegren for himself.
Andrew P. Israelson  June 30 1883   Andrew testifies he has built a house 16 x 26 with kitchen 14 x 18 attached barn 40 x 42 ??? 12 x 24,  2 wells and 35 fruit trees.  Value $1000.  As with Nels Nelson, his form is only one page but each  witnesses also has a page here.  One of Andrew’s witnesses is Adolph Aspegren and the other is Gust Aspegren who I believe is Adolph’s brother.
Proving Testimony of:
Andrew Israelson for himself             Adolf Aspegren for Andrew          Gust Aspegren for Andrew

STEP 7: FINAL AFFIDAVIT.  The final affidavit is a certified testimony that all that came before has been completed correctly, in good order, and to the satisfaction of the Judge (or Clerk).
Nels Nelson testimony.
I Nils Nilsson having made a homestead entry of the North ½ SouthEast ¼ Section No 26 in Township no 7N  of Range 6W. Subject to Entry at Lincoln Neb. Under the first section of the Homestead Act of May 20 1862 under the name of N Nelson do now apply to perfect my claim thereto by virtue of Section no 2291 Revised Statures of the United States; and for that purpose do Solemnly Swear that I am a Citizen of the United States; that I have made actual Settlement upon and have cultivated said land, having resided thereon since the 9” day of October 1872 to the present time; that no part of said land has been alienated, but that I am the Sole bonafide owner as an actual Settler; and that I will bear true allegiance to the Government of the United States, that I am the Identical Same person who was admitted to Citizenship on the 6”day of Octorber 1876 under the name Nils Nilsson and that my name as written below is correctly Spelled.
                                          Nils Nilsson
I John B Drismon,Clerk of Dist-Court of Clay County Nebraska do hereby certify that the above affidavit was taken and Subscribed before me this 10” day of October 1877.  I further Certify the District Judge of this district is now absent from the county.
                                                                           John B Drismon
                                                                            Clerk Dist-Court
                                                                             Clay County Neb.
Charly Johnson – final affidavit not found.
Adolph Aspegren- Final Affidavit                              Andrew P Israelson- Final Affidavit

STEP 7:  Final numbered Certificate:  The ultimate goal, --well almost anyway.  The homesteaders ultimate goal is a land patent. But a complete, numbered, and certified Final Certificate insures that a patent will be issued upon presentation of the Final Certificate to the Commissioner of the General Land Office.
Nils Nilsson (Nels Nelson) Final Certificate number 6938
Charly Johnson – Final Certificate Number 9907, June 24, 1880
Adolph Aspegren – Final Certificate number 10234 May 6 1881.
Andrew P Israelson – Final Certificate number 10722 July 5, 1883.
It is remarkable that all four of these claims successfully reached a final certificate.  Overall only about 40% of  U.S. homestead entries were completed. 
An Interesting sidelight.   Three of the four sets of homestead documents  refer to an even 80 acres of land.  Andrew P. Israelson’s however refers to 79 and 79/100 acres.  An unusual degree of specificity.  AND  Fees for all others are $8.00 and $4.00 while fees paid by Andrew P. Israelson were $8.99 and $3.99
Staking out the prairie.  It has long puzzled me how potential homesteaders were able to navigate largely featureless prairie and identify what section,  quarter section, even eighty acres,  they were standing on and  considering for homestead.  The answer can be found in the 1871 Surveyors Manual.  Public Land Surveyors were instructed to place prominent markers at all the criticical “corners”  in the rectangular survey.  Markers varied by resources available in a region whether trees, or stones, or mounds of earth, or  placed posts.  I presume posts would have been used in Clay County.
Township, sectional, or mile cornfers, and quarter sectional or half mile corners, will be perpetuated by planting a post at the place of the corner, to be formed of the most durable wood of the forest at hand. The posts must be set in the earth by digging a hole to admit them two feet deep, and must be very securely rammed in with earth, and also with stone, if any be found at hand. The portion of the post which protrudes above the earth must be squared off sufficiently smooth to admit of receiving the ;marks thereon, to be made with appropriate marking irons, indicating what it stands for.
These prominent posts were to be carved with characters and marks which would exactly identify what critical corner the post marked, and with the sides of the posts fronting on a parcel the post front identified that parcel.
On each surface of the post is to be marked the number of the particular township, and its range, which it faces. Thus, if the post be a common boundary to four townships, say one and two, south of the base line, of range one, west of the meridian ; also, to townships one and two, south of the base- line, of range two, west of the meridian, it is to be marked thus: ( 1 W. From 3f . to E. <> T. 18. ^ from E. to S J 2 S. (6 (2 From N. to W. <> 1 S. S from W. to S. 1 2   2 W. ) These marks are not only to be distinctly but neatly cut into the wood, at least the eighth of an inch deep; and to make them yet more con spicuous to the eye of the anxious explorer, the deputy must apply to all of them a streak of red chalk. Section or mile posts, being corners of sections, and where such are common to four sections, are to be set diagonally in the earth, (in the manner provided for township corner posts 5) and on each side of the squared surfaces (made smooth, as aforesaid, to receive the marks) is to be marked the appropriate number of the particular one of the four sec tions, respectively, which such side faces; also, on one side thereof are to be marked the numbers of its township and range; and to make such marks yet more conspicuous, in manner aforesaid, a streak of red chalk is to be applied. INSTRUCTIONS SURVEYORS GENERAL OF PUBLIC LANDS THE UNITED STATES, FOR THOSE SURVEYING DISTRICTS ESTABLISHED IN AND SINCE THE YEAR 1850; WASHINGTON: GOVERNMENT PRINTING- OFFICE. 1871. Page 6
I now live in Virginia, and am amused how very different the stories of colonial land acquisition and land history, survey and description differ in the Colonial East from the much later settled Midwest.   To old metes and bounds Virginians, used to terrain not suitable for straight roads,  the idea of square mile sections with a road every mile on a huge grid, regardless of whether the roads go anywhere  or fit the terrain,  sounds not just odd but downright unnatural and silly.   But in light of the huge number of  disputes and lawsuits arising from sloppy metes and bounds surveying, the Land Ordinance of 1785 prescribed that  U.S. Public lands would henceforth be surveyed under the “rectangular survey”  consisting of 6 mile square townships within a system of Townships and Ranges.    Absent this system it is difficult to see how the Midwest could have been settled in family sized parcels, but might rather have been scooped up in huge acreages by the wealthy, as had happened in the east.
 Like many, I grew up thinking that homesteads were free,  always consisted of 160 acres; and 5 years of homesteading residency and improvements was the only way to acquire public lands that had not already been granted to the railroad.  Those ideas are only partially true.
The 1862 Act made available “no more than” 160 acres provided  that a homesteader, I believe that parcels within the railroad grant checkerboard must generally have been limited to 80 acres, however, I found a 160 acre homestead in Marshall township.
0 Be twenty on years of age OR the head of a family.  (Women and free blacks allowed)
0 Be a citizen OR declared intention to be a citizen.
0 Acknowledge not already owning more than 320 acres of land within the U.S. and that he/she had not quit or abandoned other land in the same state or territory.
0 Certify homesteaded land would be for homesteaders exclusive use.
0 Certify that there are no known mineral resources on the parcel.
0 Pay certain fees; typically $10 + $2 + $6 = $18  (Recall that land was selling for $5 to $8 per acre in the 1870s in Clay County.)
0 Live on the land for five years (unless a veteran), make some specified improvements e.g. a house of certain dimensions, barns, fences etc.  Later acts extended the residency period in event of grasshoppers or drought.  Seven years were allowed to complete the process.
0 Never had borne arms against the Union.  Confederates need not apply.

Deviations from the $160 acre,  $18 fee,  5 years and improvements homesteading model:
0 Public Auctions.  Some public lands were conveyed through auctions, converted Indian reservations and, I suspect, college land grant parcels may have been important examples. 
0 Direct Private Entry was allowed on lands previously put up for auction but failed to sell.  The price was set at a minimum of $1.25/acre. I believe this was rare in Clay County.
ThePreemption Act of 1841 preceded the Homestead Act and remained in effect alongside the Homestead Act until 1891.  The Preemption Act was important in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories which were opened in 1854.  A 21 year old, or head of household, or widow and (intended) citizen could purchase up to 160 acres of surveyed or unsurveyed public land for $1.25 (minimum lands) $2.50 (double minimum lands)   after residing or consistently improving said land for 14 months..  Property within the railroad grant checkerboard hence more desirable was usually double minimum.  One catch was if the parcel were ever sold 10% of the proceeds were due the U.S. government.  A preemption claim could be converted to a homestead claim.
0  Veterans:  Any Union civil war veteran could deduct year for year time spent in the Union forces, or if wounded the full term of enlistment up to four years,  from the five year homestead residency requirement.
0 Commuted Homestead:  A homesteader could decide to buy the land for the government price after 6 months of residing and cultivating. Cash, military bounty warrants, or agricultural college scrip could be used.
0 Value:   Land within a railroad grant checkerboard may be limited to 80 acres rather than 160, and in later years in dryer areas the 160 acre limit was increased.
0 Kincaid Act and Timber Claim Act:  these were not important in Clay County NE.
This, and more, homestead information can be found at

No comments: