United States Land Offices recorded the passage of land from the public domain to private ownership. Claims were filed for a ten dollar fee, with another two dollars paid to the clerk for handling. After the files were checked for any other claims against the land, a homesteader was required to build a home and make improvements on the property over a five year period. There was some allowance in the occupation of the claim since many people needed to supplement their income by logging or working in a mine during the winter when farming was not possible. Homesteaders were also required to break up the sod for farming and some were required to plant a given acreage of trees. Once this was accomplished they returned to the Land Office after the five years, and, supported by two witnesses who swore that the requirements had been met, they filed for a patent on the land. At this point they published the notices of final proof in the local newspaper, and, for most, a handsome document came with the President’s signature showing they now owned the land.
But things didn’t always go so smoothly. Claim jumping was common. Homesteaders who left their claims to work in the forests or the mines often returned to find their cabins occupied. But it was more often that claims were contested on the basis that the original claimant failed to make the necessary improvements on the land and therefore someone else might lay claim to the property. Thousands of such claims ended up in court.
On this date in 1903, the General Land Office announced that modern technology would be used to provide proof of the improvements. Special agents, armed with high-grade Kodak cameras would photograph the houses, fences, outbuildings and fields of any contested property. The photographs would be brought into court along with sworn affidavits of the agent and two witnesses as proof to the validity of the claim. These files in turn would be sent to Washington in any appealed cases, minimizing the expense and hardship to the homesteader.
It is interesting to note that David Houston, whose patent was used to develop the portable Kodak camera, was himself a homesteader in Cass County in 1879.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
Jamestown Weekly Alert April 16, 1903
Dakota Datebook “Kodak from Nodak, David Houston” October 11, 2003