Jan 7 2013
If you had access to a group of records that gave you more genealogical information than the federal census, gave you the migration paths of your ancestors, and gave you the maiden, as well as the married, names of your female ancestors, would you use it?
Of course, you would! But, in my more than 40 years experience, many genealogists are reluctant to explore that very record group. Maybe this article will help dispel your fears of using one of the most efficient and effective resources for genealogical study—land records.
As the genealogist for a family with most of its roots and branches in the southern US, I have learned to depend greatly on land records. Vital records were not as diligently kept there as in the northern states. Marriage records were more often recorded and maintained because of their association with the inheritance of real property—the land.
Why Study Land Records?
Land records are among the oldest extant records available. Before 1850, grantee/grantor indexes are the most complete lists of residents that exist for a county, creating a census substitute. There have been fewer losses of land and property records than any other type of record. Land records first to be reconstructed after disasters.
Prior to the US Civil War, more than 85 % of all Americans owned or leased land. Land use dictated need for most non-land records—probate, marriage, civil & criminal court records. Land records make vital links between generations. Land records can bridge distant origins. Land records can help solve genealogical problems.
Pre-US Possession of the land
These are the governments with the largest claims to land now the USA: British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Mexican, Russian, and Hawaiian. Through treaties and purchases, their holdings became the 50 states of the US. Their land systems remain in effect in some areas.
British Possession Pre-Revolution
Britain’s two major colonies were Jamestown, The Virginia Company, 1607 and Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1620 who distributed land through headrights.
These two colonies and subsequent ones had overlapping & conflicting land grants. Companies and proprietors eventually surrendered their lands to crown grants. These lands were describes in metes & bounds. Lands described by neighbors, watercourses, witnesses, other identifying information
Pre-existing record sources and structures for record keeping were absorbed and continued. Individual land titles were not disputed after the war usually, unless for treason. Some states ceded western land to federal government. Some colonies kept part of their colonial territory for military bounty land.
United States Congress. American State Papers. Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832-61.
Carter, Clarence Edwin, ed. Territorial Papers of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1948–.
State Land States
Metes & Bounds refers to measurements & markers. Three components are required: direction, degrees, distance
…beginning at a corner white oak on the north side of the road thence up the road new line to a corner lightwood knot in John Drinkwater’s line thence along this line north 35 degrees west 170 poles to a corner lightwood knot in a valley on the lower side of Mayses Branch thence…
Surveying the Tract
Directions were recorded as north, east, south, and west. Degrees on the compass are always between 0 and 90. Distances were measured in a variety of units: Chains=100 links=66 feet, Link=7.92 inches, Rod=.25 chains, Mile-80 chains, Acre=10 square chains, League=13,889 feet square, Labor=2,788 feet square.
Processioning—two or more neighbors periodically walked the bounds of their adjoining properties to confirm markers and boundaries, often accompanied by surveyors, tax collectors, or other officials
Land Acquisition Process
- Grant—method by which government transfers land ownership to individual.
- Patent—first title to the land
- Application- Described the conditions of the property, provided proof of prior vacancy, assessed quality or rate of the land, its intended use, improvements underway, provided the date of initial or intended inhabitance, contained copy of published intention to patent
- Warrant Authorization for surveyors to mark, plat (draw) and record a formal description for official title, used to obtain and accept a previous survey
Survey- Shows bordering properties, including neighbors’ names, include a description of the property, detailing markers and distances around the perimeter, records natural features such as streams, rivers, and swamps, records man-made obstacles, such as roadways and railroads.
- Patent- Official title to the property, indicates completion of the land acquisition process, first sale of a piece of property, most commonly preserved records of state land acquisition, usually recorded in the County or Town deed books
Why Plat Metes & Bounds?
To prove two people with similar names are the same, distinguish lands bought from lands inherited, segregate people having the same last names, group individuals on an exact piece of property within the same county, determine if someone sold more property than bought—was there an inheritance? marriage?, an aid to understanding an ancestor’s neighborhood, an aid to understanding an ancestor’s past
Federal Land States
Are divided according to the Rectangular Survey System. Meridian is an imaginary line running pole to pole, twenty-four miles apart. It is the line from which east and west begin their measurements. See http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/Visitors/PrincipleMeridiansAndBaselines.html for a map of US meridians and base lines. Base Line is a horizontal line running east to west. It is the line from which north and south descriptions begin their measurements.
Townships are 6-mile square piece of land within the meridian, indicates a count in a north-south direction from base line. Ranges are imaginary lines running north-south, set six miles apart—width of township, indicates a count in an east-west direction from guide meridian. Congressional townships are part of the meridian grid. Deeds and patents based on congressional townships. Civil townships are units of county government which overlay congressional townships and are usually defined by a name, such as Spring Creek Township.
Land Application Process
Pre-emption—gave settlers first right to purchase land settled before survey or before opened to public sale. Then land was offered by public auction. When an area first opened for public sale, the minimum price was $2.00 per acre, later reduced to $1.25 per acre. After the auction, a Land Office was opened and worked on a first come, first served basis. Applications required proof of citizenship, either native born or formal declaration of intention filed.
Military Service was often paid for with bounty land warrants. Disputes over land sometimes generated private land claims in Congress.
Upon application, either cash was paid or credit arranged, a receipt issued, and a warrant for survey given. The survey was completed by authorized surveyors who recorded the survey in the township plat book. These plat books index the survey, help illustrate neighborhood ownership, and note physical characteristics of the land. The local land office forwarded the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington, which created a land-entry case file. Land-entry case files may contain testimonies, declarations of intent, proof of citizenship, naturalization, affidavits, receipt copies, bounty-land warrants, military and enlistment records, and birth dates, birth places.
Land-entry case file for each application for federal land whether completed, rejected, revoked, contested or cancelled! Search tract books to find claims not completed. There may be more than one application per ancestor. Completed applications received a final certificate for patent issued to applicant. Patents sent to local land office and the settler exchanged his certificate for the patent. He then registered his patent at local courthouse.
Tract books serve as an index to case files, are available on microfilm from National Archives Records Administration and at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, UT. There is a Tract Book Guide in E. Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Inc., 1997), Appendix A, pages 213-268. Tract books are organized according to land description. It shows all applications including forfeitures, rejections, and cancellations. Two million claims not completed so your ancestor is probably hiding in there somewhere. Tract Books are grouped by land office according to legal description. See Land & Property Research in the United States, Appendix B, pages 269-498 for land office boundary maps. Tract books offer name of claimant, section description and acreage, township, range, and section number, price per acre and total purchase price, payments made and balance due, date of entry, and final certificate number. Tracts books are complete except for Missouri and Alaska which were lost. Eastern States Office, Bureau of Land Management has the tract books for Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio and is slowly putting them online. National Archives, Washington, DC. has the rest of federal land states. Duplicates are at state offices of the BLM. Check your state historical societies for copies.
Military Bounty Lands
These are the earliest distributions of federal land, usually in lieu of monetary compensation for loyalty and service or to entice enlistments. Congressional Military Districts were created out of the public lands to redeem bounty-land warrants. Warrants were abused by land speculators who purchased them from servicemen for pennies on the dollar. Warrants were often redeemed by heirs who were willing to move west.
The Application for Bounty Land process began with the Pension Bureau who reviewed the serviceman’s documentation. If the documentation was acceptable the Pension Bureau issued a bounty land warrant. The applicant then presented his warrant to the land office for registration. A Tract was chosen, or allotted and recorded. Records were created by two agencies: RG 15, Pension Bureau, holds the applications. RG 49, General Land Office, holds the warrants and related paperwork.
Cash or Credit?
Tract books only index for cash/credit sales. Cash entry case files may contain only the receipt in case file. These are organized by land office. Credit Sale gave the applicant 4 years to pay full balance, but was abused. The practice was ended by Land Law of 1820, but monies owed were collected for years afterward. Records include name, property description, county of residence, price per acre, interest, payment amounts, and payment frequency.
Private Land Claims
Indicated application to US government for re-ownership of land originally acquired by claimant while living under administration of a foreign government, including Spain, Britain, except lands won during Rev. War, France, and Mexico. Case files may contain copies of surveys by both foreign and American officials, descriptions of improvements made and lengths of residence on the property, evidence of title transfers through multiple generations, descriptions of heirs for each generation involved, evidence of previous origins and loyalty, political affiliation, testimonies from witnesses and claimant, family structures, and time periods and places of migration. These records are found in RG 49, Bureau of Land Management under the American State Papers: Public Lands. There are 8 volumes, indexed by claimant. A more extensive index may be found in Phillip W. McMullin, Grassroots of America (Salt Lake City: Gendex, 1972). These records are available on microfilm at NARA and the FHL.
Squatters on federal lands took up residence and improved lands without application or payment or settled before federal survey completed. In 1830 a broad-scale preemption act passed that allowed squatters to file for preemption rights for up to 60 acres @$1.25 per acre. Entry and payment was required before auction sales. These records are un-indexed, so use the tract books.
Act of 20 May 1862 An Act to Secure Homesteads to Actual Settlers on the Public Domain, 37th Cong., 2nd Sess. (20 May 1862), Statutes at Large 12 (1863): 392–93. The Homestead Act’s purpose was to distribute public lands to those who were without land of their own. It required modest filing fees, residency on the land, cultivation, and improvement, usually a house, barn or other buildings. It encouraged settlement in less-developed areas by individuals loyal to the Union. Through it 783,000 citizens became land owners. While almost 2 million entries were made, there was a 60% cancellation rate for applications. These records encompass one of the largest collections of land records in history!
To be eligible for a homestead the applicant had to be landless or own less than 160 acres. Applicants could be head of household, widows, single persons—men & women—over the age of 21, loyal to the Union, citizens or immigrants who had filed declaration of intention to become citizen. Union soldiers & sailors permitted to deduct active military duty, up to 4 years, from residency requirement. Families of servicemen could file on their behalf and reside on the property during said service.
Homestead Application Process—Applicant filed a claim at local land office or at General Land Office, Washington, swore claimant was over 21 years of age, gave testimony concerning citizenship either by birth or by naturalization, or be in the process of being naturalized. Applicant paid fees for 160 acres of $18.00 administrative costs over the term of the application. The applicant had to fulfill residency requirements, improvement conditions by building at least one structure, and then apply for certificate of patent. Once received, the applicant then registered his patent with local courthouse.
These are one of the best land sources for tracing immigrant origins before 1908, as the pre-printed forms included spaces for the exact name of the town as well as the country of origin. These were used primarily after California gold rush.
Other Land Records
Timber Culture Act 1873 required the applicant to plant 40 of his 160 acres to trees in an area naturally void of them. Trees had to thrive for 10 years before patent was issued. There was a 25% cancellation rate. Timber & Stone Law, 1878 applied to land not suitable for agricultural uses or mineral claims, primarily rock quarries. Desert Land Law, 1875, reclaimed the desert for agricultural purposes. Agricultural College Scrip, 1862, was sold to create the Agricultural & Mechanical Colleges in each state. Railroad Grants were extensive in the Midwest. The land grant to the Union Pacific Railroad totaled a tenth of Nebraska, but its land office records were mostly destroyed in a fire. In Kansas significant portions fell within railroad land grants, especially the Santa Fe and Rock Island railroads. Donation Lands affected Florida, Oregon and Washington Territories, and New Mexico. Congressional Collections such as the American State Papers: Public Lands, 1789-1837, are indexed in Phillip W. McMullin’s Grassroots of America, on microfilm at NARA, FHL, and contain private land claims and preemptions primarily. Territorial Papers show earliest land holders, and are on microfilm at NARA and FHL. Amnesty Papers for former Confederates, are Presidential pardons from 1865-1867, primarily for holders of property valued at more than $20,000.
Bureau of Land Management
Founded 1812 as part of Treasury Dept., part of Dept. of Interior, 1849, records for pre-1908 claims include field notes, survey plats, tract books, and patents. Check http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/ for patents. An excellent glossary can be found at http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/Visitors/Glossary.asp#29
All land sales subsequent to the initial sale by the government, retain same organization as original patent, are either metes & bounds or Rectangular survey. You will see transcriptions, not original records in the courthouse. Deeds & Related Records include quit claim, mortgage, Power of Attorney, dower release, affidavit, lease, contracts. Indexes include Grantor/Grantee and Tract Indexes. Search for grantee first. Tract Indexes show who owned a particular tract at a given time and are useful for finding heirs of a different surname.
Land records provide two types of important evidence of kinship ties, place individuals in a specific time and place, to sort people into families, neighborhoods, closely associated groups, help distinguish one person of the same name from another of the same name, and are crucial to southern research which is often lacking the vital records kept by northern states.
- Eakle, Arlene and Johni Cerny. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry. Inc. 1984. Chapter 7
See Barry B. Combs, “The Union Pacific Railroad and the Early Settlement of Nebraska, 1868-1880,” Nebraska History 50 (1969); Addison Erwin Sheldon, “Land Systems and Land Policies in Nebraska,” Publications of the Nebraska State Historical Society 22 (1936): 302-15; Homer Socolofsky, “Land Disposal in Nebraska, 1854-1906: The Homestead Story,” Nebraska History 48 (1967): 225-48.
- Hone, E. Wade. Land & Property Research in the United States. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Inc., 1997. Extensive bibliography with each chapter.
- Gates, Paul Wallace. Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts Over Kansas Land Policy, 1854-1890. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
- Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd Edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000. Chapters 18, 19, 20, 22.
- Hatcher, Patricia Law. Locating your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2003.
- Hammond United States Atlas. Gemini Edition. Maplewood, NJ, 1993. US History Atlas U1-72.
- McMullin, Phillip W. Grassroots of America. Salt Lake City: Gendex, 1972.
- Oberly, James W. Sixty Million Acres: American Veterans and the Public Lands before the Civil War. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1990.
- United States Congress. American State Papers. Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832-61.
- Carter, Clarence Edwin, ed. The Library of Congress American Memory web site offers a full-text collection of the American State Papers online at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsp.html, and the table of contents and index for each of the volumes are searchable.
Territorial Papers of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1948–.
- For more in-depth study, try the lessons on US Land & Property Research, by Bill Utterback, Certified Genealogist(sm). http://users.arn.net/~billco/uslpr.htm