Next week, Todd and I will be making the drive out to Omaha. It will be a chance to see the family, and just maybe, a chance for some family history.
When I was a very small girl, I remember a framed ‘picture’ hanging in a cluttered corner of my paternal grandparent’s dining room. I don’t remember what I thought about it, but I remember it. Many years later, as a teenager, that same picture hung on the wall near the dining table at my grandfather’s apartment. And once again, above his bed in the nursing home.
It was, of course, not a ‘picture,’ but a certificate for a lifetime membership to the Sons and Daughters of the Soddies. It was presented to my grandfather in 1957. After his death in 2006, it was the one thing I wanted, if I could have nothing else. Several years ago, my dad let me take it with me. I re-framed it with UV protected glass and acid free backing. It is hands down one of my most prized possessions and a story I’ve been fascinated with for as long as I can remember.
On Christmas day, 1915, Austin Ralph Miller was born in a sod house. I was always told it was somewhere between the towns of Mullen and Seneca, in the heart of sandhill country. His father, Austin Sylvester Miller, was born in Illinois and spent much of his life moving throughout the plains. My great-grandmother, Amanda Johnson Miller, was born in Nebraska, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. She was, at least some of the time, a school teacher.
Below: Austin S. and Amanda, a couple of photos of my grandfather as a baby, and with a tractor.
I know the sod-house is gone. I know they didn’t stay there long. But I want to experience the place my grandfather was born. He talked often about going back to that area, but never got the chance. I think it would be a great tribute to him to visit that place.
It’s taken me a lot of time and research to find it, and grasp the era of when he was born.
One of my favorite ways to start researching individual family members of generations before my grandparents is to search for their names on the BLM-GLO website. BLM-GLO or the Bureau of Land Management: General Land Office Records is definitely one of my favorite sites. I not only look up any family member possible, I also search by location to find out who may have held patents on particular properties.
Lucky for me, Great-Grandpa Miller held a land patent and it just so happened to be for land between Seneca and Mullen, in Hooker Co. It also tells me exactly what sections of land were contained in that patent.
If land patents are new to you, the National Archives gives a great explanation on the process.
Based on the standard procedure of filing land claims, Great-Grandpa likely filed his application in 1911, and was granted the patent in 1916, as it states on the certificate. So, I guess they were “proving up” the land and selling it between censuses.
Looking at census records, in 1910, the Millers were in Adams County, Nebraska. By 1920, they were in Perkins County. Somewhere in those 10 years was a sod-house, my grandfather’s birth, and a whole lot of moving. It’s not out of the ordinary for the Millers, they moved around a lot, but it does make it hard to pin down exact places and events.
Now that I’m fairly certain this land claim is where the sod-house used to be, I had to take a look on Google maps to see if there was any indication of settlement. Nope. Just some sand, hills, sandy hills, brush, cows, and windmills.
Sod houses have quite the history on the plains. When settlers arrived to the prairie, there wasn’t a lot of building material. Dug-outs and soddies were very common until families could get on their feet, start producing crops, and afford to have lumber for timber frame homes brought to them. Nebraskan photographer, Solomon D. Butcher, immortalized many of these soddies in Custer County, Nebraska. You can see his photos and others here on the Library of Congress website.
After pin-pointing the land and feeling confident about it, I also had to creep around and find out who the current owner is. Guys, tax records are public, and when you own land, you pay taxes. When you know the legal description of the land or get really handy using online GIS tax records, it gets really easy to find out who owns what. Turns out the owner owns a lot of the land around there, but does not live on those sections. That’s O.K.
Eventually, I may write to them, but as there is nothing left of the homestead, I don’t think I’ll need to request to go on to the property. Also, a state highway runs right through it, so I can just make a road side stop. If you decide to get into tracking down ancestral homes, I recommend always trying to contact the current owner for permission to visit and to share your story.
Below is an overlay of the land contained with in the land patent. In the top little section, you can see a road (State Hwy 2) runs through it. I’ve recorded the GPS coordinates for the beginning and end of that stretch of road.
From Omaha, it is about a 5 hour drive. I feel it is worthwhile, possible, and important to tack that 5 hour one-way trip onto a short vacation. Plus, we can stop at a couple of the great prairie museums along the way.
What will my take away from this long drive to just a stretch of road be? Standing on the land where my grandfather was born and the chance to trace my family’s heritage. And…there’s a good chance I will find a rock or two, some sort of plant, and maybe dirt? Oh, and lots of pictures.
I had to go to “street level” in Google Maps, just to get an idea of what the scenery might look like…here is my gussied-up screenshot of it.