Some of our data sources are available in the public domain, and we have included descriptions of those sources below and links to our spreadsheets. For more about our Study Area data, visit our Study Area page.
THE DONALDSON DATA
Thomas Donaldson's The Public Domain, Its History, with Statistics (GPO: 1884) is a subsequent publication of a report initially issued by the Public Land Commission in 1880. The 1343-page Public Domain contains an immense amount of information, some statistical and much in the form of reports and narration, concerning all aspects of and programs to distribute the public domain.
This dataset (pages 351 to 355) includes data for years 1863-1883 inclusive. It provides state-level annual counts for both initial entries and final entries, including both the number of entries and acres claimed or patented. A useful (and much-cited) "Recapitulation" for 1863-1880 appears on page 355. Data for years 1881-1882 (page 1016) and 1883 (page 1248), including recapitulations, were added by Donaldson after the Commission finished its work.
The Donaldson data are usually taken as the most authoritative data for the period 1863-1880, having been compiled by Donaldson and others for the Commission’s report to Congress. The printed version contains occasional mistakes; for example, on page 353, the total for "1881 Final Entries-Acres" is incorrectly stated as 629,162.05, when the actual sum of the figures above it is 629,162.25. Our spreadsheet corrects these mistakes. Before 1881 commutations were not tracked separately but rather listed as cash sales, and although it is not entirely clear, apparently the Donaldson data for final entries does not include commutations (p. 350).
THE "HOMESTEADS" DATA
The "Homesteads" data come from a pamphlet published by the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1962, the centennial of passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. Called simply "Homesteads," it was compiled by BLM staff from "the records of the Bureau of Land Management."
"Homesteads" provides the most detailed, authoritative, and complete dataset available. It only includes final entries for each homesteading state for each year between 1868 and 1961, listing both number of entries and acres patented. It is an unfortunate omission that "Homesteads" does not contain initial entry numbers and acres as there is no way to assess the scope of failed entries as a result.
Documentation of exactly what records and methods were used to compile the data is slight. Some mistakes are readily seen in the printed version: for example, on page 3, the column total for number of homesteads 1868—1900 is incorrectly given as 488,138 when the actual sum of the numbers listed above it is 599,402. On pages 15-16, the dates are reversed, so the columns on page 15 labelled "1912", "1913", "1914", and "1915" should be labelled "1908", "1909", "1910", and "1911"; the reciprocal reversal of year labels appears on page 16. Our spreadsheet version of the data corrects for these mistakes.
Paul Gates reviewed the "Homesteads" data and interacted with BLM staff. He concluded that some questions (such as whether commutations are included in the data) remain unclear. See Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (GPO: 1068), Appendix A and Note b, page 801.
Despite these flaws, omissions, and mistakes, the "Homesteads" data remain invaluable for the state-level annual detail they provide.
THE GATES DATA
The Gates data appear in Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (GPO: 1968) as Appendix A (pp. 799-801). This dataset includes only national-level, not state-level data, including both original and final entries by year, with both the number of entries and acres claimed or patented given. It also includes separate columns for commutations and preemptions.
This is surely the most authoritative data we have, limited only by the fact that it is entirely national data and not disaggregated by state. Gates was a careful and patient scholar, working with the cooperation of the BLM staff, the imprimatur of the Public Land Law Review Commission of the Congress, and his own vast expertise in public land policy. He reviewed the data presented in the BLM's "Homesteads" pamphlet, published just six years before his History, by going back to (e.g.) the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of the General Land Office.
Despite chiding the authors of "Homesteads" for failing to document their procedures and not stating clearly what their data included, Gates himself failed to explain his methods clearly. For example, it is not clear without some sleuthing that in Appendix A he included commutations in his totals for "Final Homestead Entries." [We know this because on page 798 he states. "That 1,322,197 homesteaders carried their entries to final patent after 3 or 5 years of residence . . . ." The figure 1,322,197 can be derived by subtracting the total of commutations (which Gates himself does not give) from the total of "Homestead-final entries"; that is, final entries must contain both claims proved up and commutations.]
Gates's data as printed contained several errors, including in particular the column totals on page 801 for the first four columns in the table. The correct sums are given in our spreadsheet.
Note: Gates's original table contained no entry for 1938 for "Homesteads entries, Final, Acres."
THE HISTORICAL STATISTICS DATA
There are useful data on homesteading published in The Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2006, and online). We cannot post the data here because it is copyrighted, but it is available free through most research libraries.
Historical Statistics, Millennial Edition is a massive collection of data on the U.S. population, work, natural resources, economy, and government, developed and compiled by a team of distinguished economists, demographers, historians, and others led by Susan B. Carter. Earlier editions of the Historical Statistics were published in 1949, 1965, and 1975. It is an authoritative and invaluable scholarly resource.
The homesteading data are contained in Table Cf71-78, “Vacant lands and disposal of public lands: 1802–2001” and specifically in these series:
- Series Cf76 – “Homestead entries, Original entries, Number”
- Series Cf77 – “Homestead entries, Original entries, Acreage, Thousand Acres”
- Series Cf78 – “Homestead entries, Final entries, Thousand Acres”
These series run from 1863 to 2000, although effectively they end in 1975. Documentation for the series indicates that “Acreage figures of final entries do not include commuted homesteads.” The acreage data in Historical Statistics have been severely rounded.
Unfortunately Historical Statistics does not provide a series for “Final Entries, Number.” While a researcher can find final entries in other sources (e.g., the “Homesteads” or “Gates” data), doing so introduces considerable risk of non-comparability due to differing definitions, differing coverage, and so on.