Homestead National Monument of America
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June  Newsletter
News from the Homestead
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We are excited to expand visitor services, including reopening the Heritage Center and Education Center, as of June 3rd, 2020. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we will continue to follow CDC guidelines in expanding services in the park while taking precautions for visitor and staff safety. 

We hope that all of our visitors, colleagues, and friends continue to enjoy a safe, healthy Spring season.

Mark Engler, Superintendent

Homestead Heritage Center and Education Center re-open June 3rd!

We are pleased to announce that as of June 3rd the Heritage Center and Education are open to visitors once again! 

In accordance with phased public health guidelines, these buildings will be placed on reduced hours, open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily. The park grounds will remain open from dawn until dusk. During this phase, indoor interpretive programs are postponed, and the Freeman School and Palmer-Epard Cabin will remain closed to visitors.  Homestead is adhering to state, local, and CDC guidance, taking measures and implementing mitigations for visitor and staff safety, including plexiglass installations at the front desk, reduced seating at the research stations and movie theater, and staff and visitors will be encouraged to wear masks.

We anticipate that June 12th, the Freeman School and Palmer-Epard Cabin will be opened. We will return to our regular summer hours of 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on June 26th.

We're excited to welcome you back to Homestead National Monument of America!

Center for Great Plains Studies Publishes Book on Black Homesteaders in the Great Plains!

Homestead National Monument is proud to announce that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies has recently published a Historic Resource Study on the rich legacy of African American homesteading history across the Great Plains. We honor all of our nation's history here at Homestead, and work tirelessly to ensure that previously underrepresented stories continue to be told and remembered. 

Over the past several years, Homestead National Monument of America and Nicodemus National Historic Site have partnered with the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska on a long-term research study - the Black Homesteader Project. This project sought to learn, preserve, and share the story of African American homesteaders of the Great Plains. The project studied several extensive Black homesteading communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These communities were: Blackdom, New Mexico; Dearfield, Colorado; DeWitty, Nebraska; Nicodemus, Kansas; Empire, Wyoming; and Sully County, South Dakota.

After years of research, that project is now complete! The Center for Great Plains Studies recently published  Black Homesteaders in the Great Plains: A Historic Resource Study for the National Park Service. If you are interested in this important study, please reach out to the monument!

The Story of Caswell Boyles

In several past columns, I have told the stories of real homesteaders who received their land at different times and in different places under a variety of homestead laws. Earlier, I also wrote about the 1866 Southern Homestead Act that was passed by Congress after the end of the Civil War. One of its purposes had been to give former slaves a chance to better their lives by getting "free" federal land as homesteads in five states that had joined the former Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
In this column, I will introduce you to an African American man whose story is an example of what the Southern Homestead Act tried to achieve, and did in his case. He received a homestead in Alabama in 1875 after filing for it in 1869, three years after the 1866 Southern Homestead Act was passed. His history is a story of how one man, presumably born into slavery, was able to get a homestead in post-Civil War Alabama through strength of character and determination despite tremendous disadvantages including racial discrimination prevalent at that time.
For this remarkable story, let me introduce you to Caswell Boyles (ca.1830s-1917). He was born in North Carolina, but his exact year of birth is unknown. He was listed as likely born between 1825 and 1840 on four different federal census returns made in 1870, 1880, 1900, and 1910. They all give different ages for him. Each later census record reported him progressively older, with the 1910 census listing him as age 85 (= born ca. 1825). However, 40 years earlier he was listed as 30 years old (= born ca. 1840).
When Caswell Boyles applied for his homestead on September 22, 1869, he signed his name with an "X" mark, with "Caswell Boyles," written in for him by the Register of the U. S. Land Office in Mobile, Alabama, where he filed for his homestead. Very few African Americas who had been held in slavery were literate at this time, with slave-holding states generally outlawing the education of African Americans held in bondage. The Register, Charles T. Stearns (1807-1898), was a native of Massachusetts but prior to the Civil War was a wealthy landowner in St. Cloud, Minnesota in 1860. He apparently was unlike some officials in other U.S. Land Offices in former Confederate States in that he did assist African Americans in their struggle to get land. That included helping Caswell Boyles.
When Boyles applied for his homestead, it was listed as the 194th recorded homestead application in the U.S. Land Office in Mobile to that point in time. To file, Boyles paid a $7 fee. There are no records on how many other African Americans applied for homesteads at the same land office that year or in any other year as official homestead documents kept by federal land offices did not require information on a person's race.
Interestingly, while Boyles' name was listed on his homestead application in late 1869 as "Caswell Boyles," which is the same spelling used on his homestead patent later issued on June 1, 1875, there are other documents with different spellings of his name. Notably, the 1870 federal census of southeastern Mobile County, Alabama, where he homesteaded, reported him as "Capum Boiles," age 30 and born in North Carolina. That census, taken on June 27, 1870, included residents of what was then referred to as "Beat No. 1," in southern Mobile County, Alabama. That location, later called "Clements Precinct" and eventually "Theodore Precinct," included Boyles' homestead land. It was located about 2-3 miles northwest of the village of Theodore, Alabama (part of the great Mobile Metropolitan area) and about 5-6 miles south of today's Mobile Regional Airport.
In 1870, Boyles was listed on the census as a laborer with a family consisting of his wife, Mary, and four children: "Casswell" (14), Rachel (12), Albert (10), and Lucy (9). The Caswell Boyles family in 1870 was reported as living in a household headed by Flora Thompson, an African American woman. She was age 70 and born in Alabama. Since Caswell Boyles had been born in North Carolina, it seems unlikely that she was his mother or relative, though perhaps she was related to his wife Mary Boyles.
It is intriguing that Caswell Boyles in 1870 was recorded as "Capum Boiles," perhaps meaning "Captain." Perhaps that was a nickname he used (or was assigned to him) and known to the white census taker who then recorded it without listing Caswell's real name. Or perhaps it was just a mistake. In later census records, Boyles was always reported as Caswell Boyles (or similar), and never again as "Capum."
The homestead casefile for Caswell Boyles in the National Archives reports that on November 21, 1874, he returned to the U.S. Land Office in Mobile, Alabama, and paid a final fee of $2 for his 80.32-acre homestead. This fee was recorded on a "Final Receiver's Receipt" form used for homesteads in that office and was numbered as #65. This suggests that Boyles' homestead was only the 65th to have been processed for final patenting by the Mobile land office to that point in time. Further, on that same day, Caswell Boyles signed final paperwork to "prove up" his claim. Similar to his application, Boyles again signed with an "X" mark, with the rest of the document again filled in by Charles T. Stearns, who, despite being in his early 70s, was still employed as the Register for the Mobile U.S. Land Office.
The document Caswell Boyles signed with his "X" was entitled an "Affidavit Required of Homestead Claimants [applying under] Acts of May 20, 1862, and June 21, 1866." These dates refer to the original May 20, 1862 Homestead Act and the June 21, 1866 Southern Homestead Act. By signing this document, Boyles confirmed that he was of legal age (21 or older), was a U.S. citizen, and had "made actual settlement and have cultivated said land, having resided thereon since the 22nd day of September, 1869, to the present time." He also confirmed that "no part of said land has been alienated, but that I am the sole bona fide owner as an actual settler; and that I will bear true allegiance to the Government of the United States."
Unlike "proving up" homestead claims in the later years of homesteading, Boyles, as the homesteader, was not required to provide further information about the specific length of time he had lived on his homestead, details about his dwelling, the extent of his farming, and other improvements he had made. Instead, that was told by two witnesses he brought with him to the Mobile Land Office. Together, the witnesses made a joint statement about Boyles' use of the land and then both signed the same one-page statement. According to them, Caswell Boyles "built a house thereon [his homestead] of one room in which he lives." Also, Boyles had "plowed, fenced, and cultivated about 5 acres of said land," and "built a stable and chicken house - also has planted out Peach, Apple & Plum trees &c &c."
Of interest, both witnesses, "Charles Hayden" and "Thomas Kilcreas" were also African Americans and likely former slaves. Both also signed with "X" marks. Hayden is probably the "Charley Hadon," who was reported as age 52 and born in Virginia in the 1880 census of Mobile County, Alabama. He was then married and cutting cord wood for a livelihood and was apparently living near Caswell Boyles at that time. What became of Hayden/Hadon is unclear, but more is known about the other witness, "Thomas Kilcreas."
The 1870 census reported that Thomas Kilcreas, listed as "Thomas Gilcrease," was age 35, born in Alabama, and was living in the 5th ward of Mobile, Alabama, where he worked as a watchman for the railroad. He was supporting a wife and two children at the time. Ten years later in 1880, the census reported "Thomas Gilcrease" and his family living on a farm adjacent to Caswell Boyles and his family. Thomas was cutting cord wood for a living.
Subsequently, Thomas, listed as "Thomas Kilchrist," filed a homestead claim for this (or nearby) land and received a 40.16-acre homestead on September 15, 1891. The northern boundary of Thomas' homestead was only ¼ mile from the southern border of Caswell Boyles' earlier 1875 homestead. And between the two, was the 80.32-acre homestead of "Jeff Roberson," who received his homestead on February 3, 1902. Jeff, born in Florida, was Caswell Boyles' son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Rachel Boyles. Also, bordering Caswell Boyles' 1875 homestead to the west was the 120.48-homestead of his son, Caswell Boyles, Jr. (c1853-1919), who received it on October 4, 1898.
Together, these four adjoining homesteads awarded to African Americans, with Caswell Boyles Sr.'s being the first, were quite remarkable. They took up half of the 640 acres in Section 20 in Township 5 South, Range 2 West, in Mobile County, Alabama. The rest of the land in that Section were claimed from earlier 1847 and 1850 pension acts designed to transfer federal land to private owners. These laws had given land selection rights to former military veterans to further reward them for their service and to help them financially in their later years. These veterans, elderly Revolutionary War and War of 1812 soldiers could then sell their land rights as warrants that could be exchanged for federal land. The result by the late 1800s was a mixture of whites and African Americans living in Section 20 near the four homesteads of Caswell Boyles and the other three African American homesteaders.
As to the later life of Caswell Boyles, Sr., he and his wife Mary continued living on his homestead for the rest of their lives. His occupation during that time was as a day laborer as well as earning money cutting wood. This helped supplement what otherwise was a subsistence lifestyle of living off what he was able to grow on his land to sustain him and his family.
Records found in report that on December 21, 1917, Jeff Roberson, Jr., age 34, a grandson of Caswell Boyles, filed a petition with the Probate Court of Mobile County, Alabama. This filing occurred following his grandfather's death in August of 1917. The purpose was to force his grandfather's will to be brought into court for probate. Jeff wanted an accounting of his grandfather's assets, stating that he and others were named as beneficiaries in the will and were concerned about their inheritance. He further reported that his grandfather, Caswell Boyles, had contracted to sell his land for $500 to John M. Kroner (1857-1940), a German immigrant and farmer in the region. Kroner was to deposit the money in a bank, but only $25 had been paid by the time of Boyles' death. Also, Kroner had been named the executor of Caswell Boyles's will, but had never filed the will for probate, nor paid Boyles' final expenses as directed in the will.
While the outcome of this court case that extended into 1919 are uncertain, the records are quite informative. They list all of Caswell Boyles then-living children and grandchildren named in his will, as well as an elderly widow, Cecile Clayborn, who apparently cared for him in his last years. In late 1917, Boyles had only one living child, Caswell Boyles, Jr. (c1853-1919), who had lived with his family beside his father for many years and had homesteaded adjacent land. But in 1917, Caswell Boyles, Jr. was living in Wilmington, Delaware. He had two living children: Larenzo Boyles (1894-1921) and his sister Marian E. Ella Boyles (b. 1895). Both were single and living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Note: Larenzo later died unmarried of T. B., while his sister Marian married in 1918 to Arthur Cade. Their only son died in 1996 leaving descendants.)
The other identified living descendants of Caswell Boyles, Sr. in December of 1917 were his grandson, Jeff Roberson of Mobile County, Alabama (who had instigated the court case), his youngest brother, Oliver Roberson of Buckatunna, Mississippi, and their sister Lucy Roberson of Mobile County. Alabama.   

So ends the story of African American homesteader Caswell Boyles. He was a remarkable man not only to have survived slavery but also to have homesteaded in a time and place when doing so was very difficult. He was also notable for apparently helping influence two family members and a friend to homestead adjacent land. By doing this, Boyles helped create, for a time, a more stable and supportive social network for his family and friends. Their lives, although still very difficult, were likely improved and more satisfying at a time when most African Americans in America were struggling to overcome the terrible legacy of slavery and racism.

Homestead National Monument of America - Summer Event Schedule Update

Certain summer events have been rescheduled, postponed, or cancelled. To stay up to date on the latest news, please call the park at (402)223-3514, visit us at our website at, or check out our social media accounts. Links to all of these are available at the bottom of each newsletter.

Tallgrass Prairie Fiddle Festival:
Tentatively rescheduled from Saturday May 23rd to Saturday September 5th.

Flag Day Naturalization Ceremony: By determination of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the 2020 Flag Day Naturalization Ceremony at Homestead National Monument has been cancelled. A decision on the status of the Constitution Day Naturalization Ceremony will be made closer to August.

Homestead Days:  Homestead National Monument of America's annual Homestead Days celebration has been postponed. An alternative event is to take place in mid-September.

Though the Heritage Center and Education Center have now reopened, remember to practice social distancing (keeping a distance of six feet and avoiding large gatherings) and be aware of CDC guidance and NPS Public Health Service recommendations.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
    • Wash with soap and water to destroy the virus. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.
    • While an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60%-95% alcohol can be used, it's best to reserve those resources for work locations where soap and water are not readily available.
    • If your hands are visibly dirty, soap and water should be used rather than hand sanitizer.
  • As always, it is especially important to clean hands after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. Regular household cleaners will destroy the virus.
  • Most importantly, stay home when you are sick in order to avoid exposing others.
Remember - practice social distancing (6 feet), and respect a safe distance with all wildelife! (300 feet). 

You don't have to feel as disconnected as the first homesteaders did.

Stay in touch with us all the time! 

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Homestead National Monument of America
Upcoming Events

Special Events and Exhibits at Homestead National Monument of America:

Though indoor ranger programs are currently suspended, follow our social media accounts for daily digital programming!  Digital Ranger Led Content is posted daily on Facebook at 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Content is also available on Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram.You can access all of those social media accounts using the link at the bottom of this newsletter. Follow along and enjoy a wide variety of programming including videos, songs, behind-the-scenes tours, and much more!

If you have any questions, please call the monument at (402)223-3514,  or you can reach out on those social media accounts.

To learn more about events visit:
Impact: Willa Cather Exhibit Arrives for the Summer!

Homestead National Monument is proud to host Impact: Willa Cather, an exhibit from Impact, a non-profit Nebraska visual arts organization founded in 1985 dedicated to educating through outreach programs and exhibitions, with exhibits themed around Nebraska and Great Plains regional material. 

Home, a watercolor by Lois Smith - one of the many pieces in the exhibit.

Artwork from this literary based exhibit interprets the work of Nebraska author Willa Cather, who grew up in nearby Red Cloud, and wrote novels of homesteading life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! (1915), My Ántonia (1918), and One of Ours (1922), for which Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Monument staff examining the exhibit as they prepare to set it up in the Education Center.

Museum staff are hard at work installing the exhibit, which will be opening next week. Impact: Willa Cather will be on display at Homestead National Monument of America through August. Contact information of the artists can be provided for those interested in contacting the artist for further details. You can also view each piece at Impact's website.

Homesteader descendant and Park Guide Ranger Jessica featured in Washington Post Magazine. 

Our very own Ranger Jessica was recently featured in an article on those values of resilience and perseverance for the Washington Post Magazine - in fact, she's appears in uniform on the front cover of the issue! We're very proud of the way Ranger Jessica represented Homestead. She said " Homesteading is a complex story including resilience and survival. We live in a time where these traits are being tested in us all. We can look to the past for lessons learned, to place in the toolbox of hope one needs for resilience and survival." 

Jessica went on to note, " If there is anything I have learned through the homesteading story, it is that having a supportive community can make all the difference in survival, whether it is mental or physical in nature. I am hopeful to once again welcome our community of travelers and knowledge seekers and folks who just happened to come through our door. I am waiting for them to come back." We couldn't agree more!

This article includes voices from across North America, stories of perseverance and, perhaps most important, a sense of hope. Perhaps there  are stories revolving around homesteading that reside in your toolbox of hope. 

You can read the full article here:

Explore Nebraska through the Nebraska Passport Program!

Have you ever heard of the Nebraska Passport program? The program is designed to promote exploration of  "hidden gems" across the state. There are a wide variety of categories, and a total of 70 sites to visit. As you get your passport book stamped, you'll visit "Unexpectables" (such as the Bigfoot Museum and Research Center), "Big Bites" (such as Driftwood, in Oglalla), "Fancy Plants" (such as Mignery Bronze Garden in Barlett), "Art Cetera" (including the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center in Chadron), "Anything That Rolls" (such as the Nebraska Firefighters Museum and Education Center in Kearney), "Little Bites" (including TallTree Tastings in Beatrice), "More to Explore" (like Niobrara State Park), "Brew-Haha" (such as Cappucino and Company, in Scottsbluff), "Root Routes" (including the Wilber Czech Museum, Wilber), and last but not least, "Sip and Shop" (The Most Unlikely Place , Lewellen).

 Last year, the program distributed 48,551 passport booklets, and participants collected an average of 23 stamps each. That's a lot of exploration! More than 400 communities in Nebraska were represented, and individuals from 37 different states participated. 914 people showed their dedication by making it to all 70 passport stops!

No matter what you're interested in, the Nebraska Passport has attractions for everyone. This year's stops include museums, restaurants and pubs, gardens, art studios and galleries, state parks, and much more! The program includes prizes and awards based on how many stops you make it to. Last year, if you made it to 10 stops you received passport themed keepsakes, for 25 stops, a Nebraska Tourism calendar. At 50 stops, participants received a gift box of candies. "Passport Champions" - those who went the distance for all 70 stops, received a Passport Champion T-Shirt and $100 in Nebraska Lottery vouchers.

A Nebraska Passport participant at Carhenge, one of the 70 stops in 2019. 

Though Homestead National Monument is not on the Nebraska Passport in 2020 (the locations cycle every year to keep you exploring new and hidden games), a visitor on the passport in 2019 enjoyed their visit during Homestead Days: "Saw lots of old machinery, took a nice hike, listened to some music, and the boys became Junior Rangers! Even got to ride in a stage coach. My favorite part was watching the kids play in the corn box while I got to test out sitting on an old milking stool."

You can learn more about the program at - there are options to stamp a physical booklet, or to download an app and check in at each site.

All Aboard! Check out the new Junior Ranger Railroad Program

When you think of prospective homesteaders travelling to stake their claim, what comes to mind? Many people imagine covered wagons travelling westward across the Oregon Trail. Others think a frenzied rush on horseback, as in the Oklahoma Land Rush. But did you know that many, many homesteaders traveled by train? The railroad is closely linked to the Homestead Act - both the transcontinental railroad and the Homestead Act were born in the summer of 1862 when the 37th Congress passed a series of monumental laws. 

In fact, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act were signed into law only weeks apart in 1862 (May 20th for the Homestead Act, and July 1 for the Pacific Railway Act). Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of the railroad in the settlement of the American West, but the rapid expansion of the rail network was an expensive project - which is why railroads were granted immense land grants to sell off in order to finance construction efforts.

Image of a Checkerboard Pattern of railroad land grants in Franklin County Arkansas
Plat Map showing a "Checkerboard Pattern" of railroad land grants in Franklin County, Arkansas.

Railroad land grants extended for miles in each direction of the railroad, but they did not receive all of the land in the grant. Instead, the land grant looked like a "checkerboard pattern," where one section would be eligible for homesteading, then the next would be railroad land, alternating in that pattern. Railroads received an estimated 185 million acres of land to distribute. Homesteaders and other settlers actively sought out land close to rail lines. The closer a homesteader was to a rail line, the easier it was to ship your products to market. Entire communities flourished because of the proximity to railroads - or went bust due to the lack thereof.

To celebrate National Train Day and the Golden Spike Anniversary (when the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah), the National park Service, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the National Park Foundation announced the release of this new Junior Railroad Explorer activity booklet that is available for free online here: Click here to explore the Railroad Explorer Junior Ranger Booklet

Image of the Railroad Explorer Junior Ranger Booklet, showing a steam locomotive and passenger cars rolling through a picturesque valley.

Share YOUR Homesteading Story!

Recently, we saw an article about Vera Brown, a Wyoming woman who just turned 105. Vera is a homesteader whose family arrived in Campbell County, Wyoming via train from California in 1925, when she was ten years old. Her father, Louis Stephenson successfully proved up 640 acres of land through the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Stockraising Homestead Act of 1916 in the summer of 1931. You can learn more about her incredible story here: 

Louis A. Stephenson (Vera Brown's father)'s homestead patent.

 Are you one of the estimated 93 million Americans that are descendant from homesteaders? We'd love to learn more! Homestead National Monument of America maintains a collection in the archives to preserve the memories of all those who the Homestead Act impacted. 

Do you know of any homesteaders still living today? The goal of the Living Homesteader Project at Homestead National Monument of America is to locate and record the experiences of many of the remaining homesteaders before the opportunity is lost. We are looking for people who filed claims under the Homestead Act of 1862; both the successful and unsuccessful homesteaders.

To get involved or learn more about this project, you can check out our website at or contact monument historian Jonathan Fairchild at [email protected]

Ranger Jesse's Natural Resource Musings

The end of May and the beginning of June is always the time to complete the annual breeding bird surveys.  This year the surveys were completed on May 27.  Nine locations were visited.  At each location all the birds heard and seen were recorded for five minutes.  The survey took four hours to complete.  In total 161 individuals were counted representing 44 different species.  

The big find for the day was a Bobolink!  According to the Bobolink is one of the world's most impressive songbird migrants, traveling some 12,500 miles to and from southern South America every year.  Throughout its lifetime, it may travel an equivalent of 4 or 5 times around the earth. Talk about frequent flyer miles! 

Other highlight of the bird survey were almost tripping on a fawn, baby spiders, a bull frog, and great company. Would you link to learn more? Reports from past bird surveys can be found at

If you are birding at Homestead National Monument, we encourage to share your sightings on We salute and promote our many citizen scientists in sharing their endeavors!