The Alberta Homestead Process

Homestead records are a valuable research tool for archaeologists, historians and for people researching their own family history or genealogy. If you want to see how homestead records can help archaeologists please read our previous blog post. Before I explain how to use these records, I will give a brief description of the homesteading process and what type of files you might find in the records.

In order to gain land under the Dominion Lands Act, people who wished to homestead had to apply at the local land agency office. These offices were under the Dominion Lands Branch in Ottawa. For a $10 filing fee, an applicant could apply to homestead a quarter section (160 acres). Once a quarter section was homesteaded for the first time it was given a file number. All documents related to that section of land were then filed under that number. As we saw in the previous blog post about the cabin we found near Peace River, multiple people might apply to homestead on one section.

The first page of the file for a quarter section typically looks just like this (see below). The number circled in red is the file number.

file number

After filing, the homesteader then had three years to ‘prove up‘ their homestead claim. The requirements changed over the years as did the requirements for eligibility of the applicants. If you did not complete the process in three years, you would have to ask for an extension. One file contained a statement of a homesteader asking for an extension because his neighbor (allegedly) killed his horses.

horses

Applicants typically had to be male, meet the age requirement, and be a British subject (or declare an intention to be one). The required duties were that the person had to occupy the land for a set amount of time and had to undertake certain improvements upon the land within three years. The improvements usually included the construction a house and fences, and breaking and cropping a portion of the land. If you “proved up” your homestead you could apply for a patent which would give you legal ownership of the land. There were special exemptions to these rules. For example in some cases widows could apply for patents upon the death of their husbands, or as in the case below their “mysterious disappearance”.

widow

For more information on the changes to the original Dominion Lands Act, check out this website:

http://www.saskarchives.com/collections/land-records/history-and-background-administration-land-saskatchewan/homesteading

The files normally include an application for homestead, an application for patent, and a notice that the patent has been issued.

The application for entry is the first form that was filled out when someone wanted to homestead a quarter section. This form would capture information about the applicant’s age, birthplace, last residence, prior occupation, and the number of people in the household.

Below is a picture of what the top half of an application for entry looks like. You can see that the file number is recorded on the page.

appplication for homestead

When we were researching the cabin near Peace River, the forms that we found were all application for entry. This usually indicates that the land was abandoned and wasn’t successfully homesteaded before 1930. After 1930 the homestead process changed as control of natural resources was transferred to the province.

The application for patent is the form that was filed to gain the patent (title) for the land. In order for the patent to be granted the applicant had to complete the required duties. These forms contained information about the applicant’s, age, occupation, nationality, number of people in the household, residency information, post office, as well as work they’d done like breaking, cropping, buildings, fencing, and livestock.

The notification of patent is the letter granting the patent (title to the land). It demonstrates that the applicant was successful and gained legal ownership of the land and it contains the date it was issued.

Sometimes the application was not for a homestead but for a pre-emption or a purchased homestead. A pre-emption allowed a homesteader to obtain a second quarter section of land next to their homestead entry. They had requirements that had to be fulfilled in addition to the requited duties of the homestead. Purchased homesteads were typically bought for $3 an acre. The accompanying files for both pre-emptions and purchased homestead are typically the same as those for the homestead applications.

The files can contain additional documents such as inspector’s reports, witness affidavits, records of abandonment, handwritten letters, court proceedings, wills, naturalization, and even poetry and pictures.

photo of poet

poem

The above images are of the poet and poem found in the same file. Although this is by far not what the typical file looks like, until you look at the file you will never know what type of information you can find! If you want to learn how to use the Alberta Homestead Index for research keep an eye out for our next blog post.

How Homestead Records Can Help Archaeology: An Example from Peace River

In the summer of 2016, while doing some work on behalf of Northern Sunrise County near Peace River, Tree Time archaeologists, recorded a cabin as an archaeological site. Although the cabin had clearly been renovated in the late 20th century with wood paneling and plastic sheeting, the cabin showed signs of earlier construction. The cabin was built with aspen logs, that were axe-felled, saw-cut and notched, with mud chinking between the logs.

aspen poles and mud chinking - Copy
Red arrow indicates mud chinking.
axe cutting - Copy
Red arrow indicates axe marks.

After we documented the cabin and returned to our office in Edmonton. We turned to the Alberta Homestead Records to see if we could find any historic documents about this cabin. There were three entries for the quarter section of land that the cabin was located on. The first was on the 19th of July in 1928. Mr. Orval Moxley, originally of Kentucky, applied for a homestead, but appears to have abandoned the property and applied for another homestead on a different quarter. The following summer, on August 30th, 1929, Paul W. Unruh of East Prussia Germany applied for homestead. The application notes “Nil” for previous improvements on the quarter when Unruh took possession. This means that Mr. Moxley had not completed any improvements on the section before he abandoned the land. Mr. Unruh must also have found the location not to his liking, because there are no records of him applying for patent for his homestead.

nil
Mr. Unruh’s homestead application.

On 29th January or July (the record is illegible) of 1930, Mr. George H.B. Garstin, of London England, applied for homestead of the quarter. Mr. Unruh must have been somewhat industrious, as Mr. Garstin notes the presence of a “log shack, old stable + well” in his homestead application. The homestead record ends here. Indicating that Mr. Garstin failed to prove up his homestead and apply for patent.

log shack
Mr. Garstin’s homestead application.

The aspen log cabin is interpreted as having been built by Paul Unruh in late 1929 as part of his efforts to homestead the quarter. Maybe further archival, historical and genealogical research could find out why he abandoned it.

The Alberta Homestead Records are a valuable tool for researchers. This is not only true for archaeologists, but also for people trying to research their own family history. The next couple of blog posts will explain what the homesteading process was like and how to use the Alberta Homestead Records to research your own history.