I recently dropped a little money and ordered an ancestor’s land patent file from the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, DC. The Homestead Acts provided acreage to heads-of-house who were willing to settle and improve federally held land. A few of my wife’s ancestors, including her great-grandfather Matthew Hawkins, received such land grants in the 1890s to settle Conway County, Arkansas. The National Archives told me to expect my order in 60-90 days, but I was surprised to find his 32-page file in my mailbox in less than two weeks.
The Homestead file provides a unique glimpse into the lives of the settlers. I know now that Matthew Hawkins moved to Springfield, Arkansas on January 12, 1883 to work his 160 acres. I have descriptions (see below) of the crops he raised each year before receiving the grant in 1890. The documents describe in detail the structures Matthew Hawkins built on the property, including even the furniture (see below). The file also includes signed testimonies from two neighbors describing his land and their relationship to him. One of these neighbors was Randal Tyus (see below), a brother-in-law and fellow transplant from Haywood County, Tennessee. The account records how Matthew Hawkins cleared 30 acres for farming and that the remaining land was timber. Perhaps only a photograph could give me a better impression of stepping onto an ancestor’s 1890 farmland. Unfortunately (but not uncommonly), Matthew Hawkins would mortgage much of the land some 30 years later and ultimately lose it.