Professional genealogist Gail Blankenau recently solved an ongoing mystery: Who was the first woman to secure a homestead in her own right through the Homestead Act of 1862?
The answer can now be revealed thanks to family history records available at both Ancestry.com and Fold3: Mary Myers, a widow, of Gage County, Nebraska. Myers applied for a homestead at the Brownville Land Office on 20 January 1863, just 19 days after Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader via the Homestead Act. Freeman’s certificate of payment is Certificate No. 1 and Myer’s is Certificate No. 3. Once she submitted proof of completion of the process five years later, the witnesses to her affidavit were none other than Daniel Freeman himself, and her son-in-law, Joseph Graff, the fourth homesteader to apply at Brownville.
The Homestead Act of 1862 provided women with a unique opportunity to own land in their own right. A woman who was age 21 and the head of a family was eligible to apply under the Act. Thousands of women—widows, divorcees, single women, and deserted women—applied for a chance at independence.
Under the provisions of the Act, a settler had to build a dwelling, cultivate the land, and be in continuous residence for a five-year period. Settlers faced many hardships, including lack of water, bad weather, insects, and loneliness. Only 40% of those who applied for land under the Act were able to complete the process and secure a land patent.
Blankenau came across the records for Mary Myers while preparing for a presentation on women homesteaders at the upcoming National Homestead Monument’s Land Records and Genealogy Symposium on July 12 and 13, 2013, in Beatrice Nebraska. The land entry case file on the popular genealogy website Fold3, contains Mary Myer’s required affidavit stating that she had met all of the Act’s provisions.
“It is so important for us to celebrate the contributions of pioneer women like Mary Myers,” says Blankenau. “When delving into the land entry files, there are all sorts of details of their lives, details that aren’t easily found in many other records. Women were often the silent partner in land deals, but as female homesteaders, they could take center stage.”
According to Myers’ descendant Robert Graff, the family lived in a dugout on the land at first, then cabins were built. They then added on and improved to what they had built, a little at a time.
By 1868, Myers had a one-story dwelling that measured 16 by 24 feet. According to her final affidavit, it had a shingle roof, board floors, three doors, five windows and “is a comfortable house to live in.” She also had 35 acres ploughed, a well, a corral, corn crib, chicken coop, fruit trees and grapevines.
Another interesting tidbit from her homestead files: When she first applied for her right to homestead, she signed by mark, meaning that she was probably illiterate. When she proved up five years later, she signed her name. It appears that Myers took time out of everything else she had to do, and learned to write her name. While it may have been her son-in-law who taught her to write, she seemed well-prepared by the time she became a landowner. “I would think that it was with some pride that she signed that day – her own land, in her own name, and signed in her own hand,” says Blankenau.
Blankenau is also a specialist in German genealogy and notes that Mary Myers’ signature was in German script. Not only was Mary the first female homesteader, she was an immigrant as well.
The Nebraska Territorial Census of 1860, Gage County, shows Mary Myers, age 45, with her husband “Philip Myers” age 57, born in Baden. The census lists a child “Stephen, age 7, also born in Baden (who was more likely a daughter, Sophronia), and a boy “Hammond,” actually named Hermann, age 2, born in Wisconsin. Next door is Joseph “Goff” or Graff, who married their older daughter, Theresa Myer.
Myers’ husband Phillip died in 1861, thus it was up to Mary to provide for herself and the children still at home. When she applied to homestead, she testified that she was the head of a family of three children. She “proved” up five years later to the day, and finalized her ownership on 20 January 1870, receiving final Certificate No. 3.
“Studying these records makes you realize what an act of faith homesteading must have been. Sure, the land was relatively inexpensive, but the hazards of homesteading were considerable, including failed crops, storms, drought, grasshoppers, and loneliness.”
Mary Myers’ homestead land, sold away from the family in 1877, is once again back in the family, having been purchased by her great-great grandson, Robert Graff.
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Gail Blankenau is a professional genealogist, speaker and author, specializing in German genealogy, land records, and lineage research. Gail has written for the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The Genealogist, Everton’s Genealogical Helper, Family Chronicle and Internet Genealogy. If it deals with genealogy, she probably does it. Learn more at Gail’s site Discover Family History.
Photo: Robert L. Graff, The Joseph Graff Family History 1726-2006 with Meier Family Line, copyright 1 May 2007, self-published. Photograph of Mary Meyer, page 51. Used by permission.