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The availability of land attracted many immigrants to America and encouraged westward expansion. Land ownership was generally recorded in an area as soon as settlers began to arrive. You can locate ancestral deeds using the Tennessee Property Records Online. An online index is also available for ancestral and modern deeds specific to Shelby County. You can use land records primarily to learn where an individual lived and when. They often reveal family information, such as the name of a spouse, heir, other relatives, or neighbors. You may learn where a person lived previously, his occupation, if he had served in the military, if he was a naturalized citizen, and other clues. Sale of the land may show when he left, and may mention where he was moving.
Tennessee was a “state-land” state, meaning the state government appropriated all land within its borders. Land was surveyed in odd-sized lots in much of the state, but west of the Tennessee River, it was surveyed in townships. Warrants authorizing surveys of the desired land were issued to persons qualified to receive grants for military service (military warrants) or cash payments (treasury warrants).
See "The Land of our Ancestors" for multiple articles and maps on pre-1900 Tennessee land topics.
The ultimate resource guide for Tennessee land up to 1891 is Henry Whitney's Land Laws of Tennessee. It's about 20MB, but it's downloadable from Google Books for free here. Download this!
From the "Foreword" to Tennessee Land: Its Early History and Laws:
Tennessee is considered a "metes and bounds" state. However, a large portion of it was also set apart in townships and ranges as in public-land states. Tennessee litigated its boundaries with neighboring states until the mid-19th Century. North Carolina and Virginia both claimed portions of Tennessee prior to its statehood. Its eastern lands made up the largest part of the short-lived State of Franklin. Tennessee had to honor North Carolina's unresolved land grants for many years following statehood, and Tennessee was unable to grant its own lands for the first ten years of its existence.
Tennessee land (primarily grants) was the basis of the worst land fraud scheme in the history of the United States.
[McNamara, Billie R. (1996). Available from the author.]
Frederick Smoot's article and map entitled "Tennessee's Early Surveyors' Districts and District Boundary Documentation 1806-1836" is found here.
Original warrants, surveys, grants, and North Carolina land records are at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Additional land records are at the Tennessee Historical Society and the local county courthouses.
- North Carolina grants (beginning 1777) are held at the North Carolina State Archives. What follows are the MARS IDs for that facility, which will enable users to view free online abstracts of these records, using the instructions below the table:
|12.14.1 Carter Co.||12.14.9 Hawkins Co.||12.14.17 Sullivan Co.|
|12.14.2 Davidson Co.||12.14.10 Jefferson Co.||12.14.18 Sumner Co.|
|12.14.3 Eastern Dist.||12.14.11 Knox Co.||12.14.19 Tennessee Co.|
|12.14.4 Middle Dist.||12.14.12 Maury Co.||12.14.20 Washington Co.|
|12.14.5 Western Dist.||12.14.13 Montgomery Co.||12.14.21 Wilson Co.|
|12.14.6 Greene Co.||12.14.14 Robertson Co.||12.14.22 Williamson Co.|
|12.14.7 Grainger Co.||12.14.15 Sevier Co.||12.14.23 "no" county|
|12.14.8 Giles Co.||12.14.16 Smith Co.|
- Tennessee General grants (beginning 1806)
- Watauga Purchase (beginning 1775)
- Hiwassee District grants (beginning 1820)
- Middle Tennessee District grants (beginning 1806)
- Mountain District grants (beginning 1806)
- Ocoee District grants (beginning 1836)
- West Tennessee District grants (beginning 1820)
- Eastern District grants (beginning 1806)
- Walker’s Line (1825–1923)
All except the Walker’s Line series of land grant records are in:
Tennessee. Governor. Land Grants, 1775–1905, 1911. Nashville, Tennessee: Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1976. (On 229 Family History Library films beginning with 1002725.) Indexes are included in some volumes and many years are mixed. Some volumes are missing. The land grants are completely indexed in:
Sistler, Byron. Tennessee Land Grants, Surnames. 17 Volumes. Nashville, Tennessee: Byron Sistler, 1997. (Family History Library book 976.8 R2s; 24 fiche beginning with 6039091.) This work provides an alphabetical listing of surnames listing the year of the grant, acreage, district, where the grant is located, book and page number, the grant number, and any additional grantees.
The Walker’s Line series of land grant records are in:
Kentucky. Governor. Grants South of Walker’s Line. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1962. (Family History Library films 272869–73.) This record contains land grants given by the state of Kentucky for land in the state of Tennessee.
A list of preemptions can be found in:
- Griffey, Irene, compiler. The Preemptors: Middle Tennessee's First Settlers. Clarksville: P.p., 1989. (Family History Library Book 976.8 R2g.) Notes if grants were made to the resident (at the time that the commissioners visited in 1782-3) or to an assignee.
A source for finding families and communities that were relocated during the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project is:
Tennessee Valley Authority (Tennessee). Tennessee Population Relocation Files, 1934–1954, Tennessee Valley Authority. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1996. Originals are at the National Archives Record Office, East Point, Georgia. (On 34 Family History Library films beginning with 2033011.) The record contains the name of the head of family, wife, address, marital status, birthplace of parents, number and ages of children, occupation, brief description of the real estate, and religion.
The laws of North Carolina (and, subsequently, Tennessee) permitted land instruments to be recorded in any Register's Office in the state. Record books at the Register's Office for Hawkins County, for example, contain scores of North Carolina grants for land all over the state. For a discussion and abstract of those grants, see
- McNamara, Billie R. Hawkins County, Tennessee Land Grant Books 1 & 2, 1787-1819. Knoxville, Tenn.: B.R. McNamara, 1996. FHL US/CAN Book 976.895 R29m. Available from the author.
North Carolina Revolutionary War Warrants
The records from 1783 to 1837 of North Carolina military bounty warrants to land in Tennessee are at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Family History Library. Some warrants no longer exist, although the names are mentioned in various indexes. Sources for North Carolina Revolutionary War warrants are:
Pruit, Albert Bruce. Tennessee Land Entries Military Bounty Lands. Seven Volumes. Whitakers, North Carolina, 1997. (Family History Library book 976.8 R2pa.) Contents include abstracts of location books, warrants, military bounty land warrants, and indexes by name, location, and number. They include the MARS number that ties them to the land warrants and surveys in the North Carolina State Archives. See the “Land and Property” section of the North Carolina Research Outline for information on the MARS index.
North Carolina. Secretary of State. North Carolina and Tennessee; Revolutionary Warrants, 1783–1837. Nashville, Tennessee: Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1978. (Family History Library films 1013361–75.) This contains handwritten warrants, a description of the land, names, and some hand-drawn maps. The folders are in alphabetical order.
Rice, Shirley Hollis. The Hidden Revolutionary War Land Grants in the Tennessee Military Reservation. Lawrenceburg, Tennessee: Family Tree Press, 1992. (Family History Library book 976.8 R2r.) The record lists the warrant number, grantee, county, book and page number where the deed is entered, and who the land was assigned to. It is indexed.
For information about the Glasgow land fraud, see:
Pruitt, Albert Bruce. Glasgow Land Fraud Papers, 1783–1800: North Carolina Revolutionary War Bounty Land in Tennessee. N.p.: A.B. Pruitt, 1988, 1993. (Family History Library book 976.8 R2p.) This work contains letters, reports, and warrants found to be suspect or fraudulent. The introduction explains the history of the Glasgow land fraud and how to obtain original warrants. The record contains an index.
Once a parcel of land was transferred from the government to private ownership, it may have stayed in the family for generations or for only a few months. It may have been subdivided, sold, and resold, with each transaction creating new records.
These person-to-person transactions are important to the genealogist. The potential for an ancestor to be recorded is high. These records may offer genealogical clues, such as the given name of the wife, a previous residence, names of children, or death information. Land records also offer clues to maiden names if a father deeded property to his daughter. Witnesses and neighbors may be in-laws or relatives. It is important to trace the purchase and sale (or the acquisition and disposition) of each parcel of land an ancestor owned.
The original records are filed in the county clerks’ or recorders’ offices. As new counties were formed and boundaries changed, transactions were then recorded in the new county, while the parent county retained the records previously created. Most of the county deeds, town lot certificates, and other important land records from many counties are on microfilm at the Family History Library.
A resource for understanding the land and property records in Tennessee is:
- Whitney, Henry D. The Land Laws of Tennessee:Being a Compilation of the Various Statutes of North Carolina, the United States, and Tennessee, Relative to Titles to Lands Within the State of Tennessee from the Second Royal Charter to the Present Time; the Constitutional and Statutory Provisions Concerning the Establishment and Change of the Boundary of the State, and of Each County; Tables Showing the Date of Each Hiatus, Editorial Notes, etc., to Which is Added a Digest of the Leading Decisions on the Land Laws. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1990. (Family History Library film 1728776.)
United States Land and Property describes government land grants, grants from states, and major resources, many of which include Tennessee.
Other land and property resources can be located in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
TENNESSEE - LAND AND PROPERTY
TENNESSEE, [COUNTY] - LAND AND PROPERTYReels of microfilm can be borrowed on interlibrary loan from the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The records include early county Land and Property.
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