Digital Homestead Records Reopen A Crucial Chapter Of U.S. History

Files detailing Nebraska's homesteading history have been digitized and are now available to the public. The milestone's part of a larger effort by the Homestead Digitization Project to put all homesteading documents from around the U.S. online. For more on the subject, Robert Siegel speaks with historian Blake Bell from the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Historians and anyone who has a computer and is curious, can now begin to dig into this country's homesteading history, without a trip to the National Archives. This week Nebraska became the first state to digitize its records and get them online, nearly 77,000 case files. President Lincoln signed the first homestead act in 1852, it allowed people to claim a federal land grant so long as they had never taken ups arms against the government, this was during the Civil War of course. A nationwide project aims to put all the countries 30 million homesteading documents online. It's a public-private partnership; you view them on websites that charge a fee for membership, like ancestry.com. And for more on this subject we're going to turn now Blake Bell, he is a historian at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska. Welcome to the program.

BLAKE BELL: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: An why do this? What's so important about getting all of the homesteading documents online?

BELL: Really the reason for doing this is twofold. One - so family historians can have more access to their ancestor’s history and the other reason would be so scholars can build better databases, so that we can begin to reinterpret the West and start telling a more complete history of the West as we know it.

SIEGEL: When you say reinterpret and tell a more complete history of the West, what sorts of answers might all of these documents and a database built from these documents provide, that would lead us to that kind of reinterpretation?

BELL: Well, what we're finding in these documents is how inclusive this legislation actually was, and by that I mean women were actually allowed to homestead, African-Americans were allowed to homestead, immigrants are being invited into our country to homestead. So we're finding a more diverse group of individuals out here in the West and we are able to begin to understand that this diversity was really changing the way our nation was operating socially and we we're also learning that our agriculture might, of our country, was being built upon the Homestead Act of 1862

SIEGEL: Speaking of immigrants, I did see that there were several dozen people who were from Germany, who were homesteaders and some Swedes were homesteaders. There were people immigrating to the country and I guess heading in short order to Nebraska.

BELL: Yeah, absolutely. The immigrants was more than welcome to participate in this and it's my contention that this was one of America's first comprehensive immigration laws, in that it was inviting immigrants into our country and it's a very simple line, that it's right in the Homestead Act. It says all you have to do is be a citizen or declare your intention to become a citizen. And just that order is probably one of the most important orders in legislative history.

SIEGEL: Well Mr. Bell, congratulations on Nebraska getting its homestead documents online. I guess you have just a little over 29 million more documents to do this with, huh?

BELL: Yes, we still have a long road ahead of us. But we are excited to announce that we are working on Arizona right now, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, these are all states that are to be done in the near future

SIEGEL: Well, thank you for talking with us - about it today

BELL: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: That's Blake Bell, historian at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska, talking about the digitalization of Nebraska's homestead files, all 77,000 of them.

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