Homestead Act still stirs excitement 150 years later
In the wake of the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act, the Exhibits Division’s senior registrar, Jim Zeender, and archivist Greg Bradsher flew out to America’s heartland to share a document that made it all possible.
Last month, they visited the Homestead National Monument of America, four miles west of Beatrice, NE, to install the exhibit. The Homestead Act of 1862 is a four-page document signed by Abraham Lincoln. Because it is written on parchment, the document is very sensitive to fluctuations in humidity. Great care was taken to ensure the case kept relative humidity steady as the Homestead Act traveled to Nebraska. This is the first time all four pages have been displayed.
“The Homestead Act is an important document because it opened the way for settlement of the west,” Zeender said. “It was an engine for immigration to the west, even bringing in people from overseas.” The act granted most Americans the ability to claim 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River as long as the claimants were at least 21 years old, lived on the land for five years, and showed evidence of making improvements. Its passage allowed 270 million acres of land to be settled in 30 states.
At the Homestead National Monument, Zeender and Bradsher were briefed on security, given tours of the museum, and gave a series of presentations on the Homestead Act and homestead records. National Archives at Kansas City‘s Archival Operations Director Lori Cox-Paul also gave a talk.
“Mark Engler, the Superintendent, and the staff of the National Monument were very kind and gracious to us and said very many nice things about NARA at every opportunity,” Bradsher said. “And of course, they thought Jim was wonderful.”
“Greg was very well-received,” returned Zeender. “We were very excited to be in Nebraska! It’s a very big deal there. That’s not unique to the Homestead Act; any kind of historical document we loan to museums in the country is a big deal because of the relative rarity of the experience. But this one has a special meaning to the people in Nebraska—the home of the first homesteader.”