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History: Homesteading in Tulare County

The interior of the Visalia Land Office in 1898 with George Stewart, the Register, on the left.

The Man Who Tried to Steal Visalia and Other Tales of Homesteading

Story & Photos provided by Terry Ommen

In 1850 when the United States made California its 31st state, the country hit the jackpot. Not only was the new state rich in natural resources like gold, it had nearly 160,000 square miles of public land, all potentially up for grabs to real estate-hungry settlers. Many people encouraged westward migration, especially East Coast newspapermen like Horace Greeley, who shouted “Go west, young man, and grow with the country!” John O’Sullivan added to the momentum with his talk of “Manifest Destiny,” a term he coined to describe what he believed was America’s destiny to expand across North America from coast to coast.

So the rush was on to California and the West. To accommodate these migrants, various laws were enacted dealing with the free available public land and describing the process for claiming it. Anyone 21 years or older, with some exceptions, could claim up to 160 acres of land, as long as it was for the claimant’s exclusive use. By law, after the necessary fees were paid, the land had to be occupied or cultivated continuously for five years, after which the homesteader was awarded the title. The public land, in California at least, came in all forms: barren desert, mountains, fertile farmland, and some overflow or swamp land.

To administer the homestead laws, the federal government created the General Land Office, and with it, local land offices were established in the heart of areas where government land was available. The jurisdictional boundaries and locations of the offices changed periodically. By 1871, for example, California had eight land districts with an office in each, including Visalia. One of the earliest in California, Visalia’s office opened in 1858 and recorded its first cash entry in the books on September 7th. A man named Garrett Street is credited with being the first, claiming land between Visalia and what later became the town of Goshen.

Towns, including Visalia, were happy to have an office. Homesteaders far and wide were required to make trips to the office, so local merchants benefited from the extra business. Not only were merchants happy, the land office gave the community an air of respectability and importance. So newspapers like the Visalia Weekly Delta spoke for the community, welcoming settlers saying, “Come on, we have room for a few thousand more…”

In 1871, Visalia’s office had jurisdiction for government land in Fresno, Kern, and Tulare counties and parts of San Bernardino and San Luis Obispo. This meant that if a homesteader wanted to claim land within any of these areas, the transaction would be handled through the Visalia office. Each office had a Register, a Receiver, and clerical staff. The Register, who was a U.S. presidential appointee, also needed to be pre-approved by the U.S. Senate. He was in charge of the office and reported to the Commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington, all within the Department of the Interior. The Receiver at each office was responsible for accepting funds and for the accounting for all transactions. Both positions were highly sought after and those hired were generally well respected.

However, on at least one occasion, respectability in the Visalia office came into question. George M. Gerrish, while serving as Receiver in 1866, apparently discovered that Visalia townsite ownership had not been recorded when the town first began. As a result, the land on which Visalia was located appeared to be available for homesteading. When Gerrish discovered the technical oversight, he attempted to personally claim the land on which Visalia stood. Once his deceitful action was discovered, the land error was corrected and his attempt to “steal the town” was thwarted. For his less-than-honorable deed, Gerrish was reprimanded, though not removed from office.

Over the years, many prominent Visalians held the position of Register in the Visalia Land Office including E. O. Miller, M. J. Wright, George W. Stewart, Carl A. Ferguson, Moses C. Andross, Henry Briggs, and Tipton Lindsey.

The business of any land office was complex and required transparency. Regularly the office would publish transactions in the newspaper, including applications for homestead claims with legal descriptions of the land and the homesteader’s name. Other published notices included named homesteaders who “proved up” their claim (met their obligation) and announcements of challenges to a homesteader’s claim.

Anyone 21 years or older, with some exceptions, could claim up to 160 acres of land...

George W. Stewart served as Register of the Visalia Land Office from 1898 to 1914. Circa 1890

George W. Stewart served as Register of the Visalia Land Office from 1898 to 1914. Circa 1890

The Visalia office did considerable work. In 1923, for example, the office handled over half of all the land district business conducted in California. By 1924, the Visalia District still had about 200,000 acres of unclaimed land, 60,000 acres of which were in the mountains of Tulare County.

The General Land Office continuously reviewed the country’s land inventory including both the number and locations of local offices. Frequently, rumors about offices being closed or consolidated were spread. By the mid-1920s, talk began to circulate about the Visalia office closing. When the rumor was confirmed, the community was not happy.

On March 17, 1927, the Visalia Morning Delta reported that the office was on the chopping block. The community was upset and the newspaper headline announced that there would be a battle: “Open Fight to Save Land Office.” But the resistance effort was short. The office that had been in the Brown Building on S. Court Street for many years was closing. For nearly 70 years, Visalia had welcomed homesteaders anxious to fulfill their dream of land ownership. By the summer of 1927, the land office was no more. From that time on, transactions involving available land in the Visalia district would be handled by other offices.

This notice appeared in the Visalia Weekly Delta newspaper on August 5, 1868.

This notice appeared in the Visalia Weekly Delta newspaper on August 5, 1868.

This notice appeared in the Visalia Weekly Delta newspaper on May 6, 1909.

This notice appeared in the Visalia Weekly Delta newspaper on May 6, 1909.