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United States Land and Property

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Federal Land States (Public Domain)

The public domain included most of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains that was obtained by the federal government. After the United States was established, some lands that had been claimed by the colonies were ceded to the federal government. The federal government also obtained land as a result of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the War with Mexico (1846-48), and other means. The states which possess this land are commonly known as Federal land states.

Over the years, more than one billion acres of the public domain have been transferred to private or state ownership through the types of grants described below. Approximately 25 million surveyed lots were eventually described in tract books. An estimated 6 1/2 to 7 million land titles were granted to individuals and states.

To accomplish this massive distribution of land, the government needed to resolve Indian claims to the land and private claims by settlers already on the land (including those who had received grants from Spain, Mexico, or France). They also needed to encourage settlement of the open lands, reserve lands for military bounty, survey the land to provide a legal description, and establish a record-keeping system.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 was the first of over 300 laws to help accomplish these tasks. It established the rectangular survey system that divided most of the land in the public domain into townships and sections. Later laws established local land offices to distribute the land. These were under the direction of the General Land Office (GLO) in Washington, D.C. (now known as the Bureau of Land Management).

Types of Grants

The GLO distributed over 1,031,000,000 acres of the public domain lands as follows:

  • Donation lands and cash or credit sales. To encourage settlement of open lands, approximately 29 percent were sold very inexpensively for cash or credit (1785 to 1908) or donated to encourage settlement (1840s to 1903 in Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington).
  • Homestead grants. Another 28 percent of the land was distributed after 1862 to homesteaders who could receive title to the land by residing on it and making improvements for five years (various laws modified these requirements). About 60 percent of those who applied for homestead land never completed the requirements to receive a patent to the land. However, their applications have generally been preserved in their case files, and these may contain helpful family information.
  • Grants to states. Approximately 22 percent of the land was granted to the states, who, in turn, may have sold or leased it to individuals.
  • Grants to railroads and others. Twelve percent was granted to railroad companies and others who also may have sold or leased it.
  • Military bounty lands. Seven percent was distributed as military bounty land.
  • Private land claims. Two percent of the land was granted to individuals who could establish prior ownership or had titles previously granted by Spain, Mexico, or France. When new areas were acquired by the United States, special commissions or courts were appointed by the U.S. Congress to resolve these claims and report to Congress. Many claims were presented directly to Congress.

Locating the Land and its Associated Records

For federal land states, most of the initial land purchases came from the government and while cash sale purchases may have minimal paperwork, homestead claims, mining claims or military bounty warrants may have accrued paperwork containing valuable information including immigration records and details involving a person’s life. The accumulation of this paperwork has been placed in a case file which is held at the www.archives.gov National Archives.

The first step is to locate the land patent or final certificate which is the document stating the requirements have been completed for obtaining a parcel of land. The patent will include the date, legal description of the land, patent number and the office that issued the patent. For some, the next step is to obtain the case file containing the documents relating to the land acquisition.

Obtaining the Land Patent

The Bureau of Land Management and General Land Office (BLM-GLO) has an on line Land Patent Search which is an index to millions of ancestors named in federal land patents and warrants from 1788 to the 1960’s located at the National Archives. This is the best place to begin when searching for a land patent because of the ease of navigation when searching for an ancestor. This internet web site also provides many images of patents. To learn more about land patents see the wiki page entitled Land Patent Search under United States Land and Property.

Obtaining the Case File

Also known as Land Entry Files or Patent Files, these documents are the most helpful records for researchers because some files contain valuable biographical and even immigration information. The case file is located in the National Archives which may be viewed in person or you may obtain photocopies through correspondence. Most of the case files have not been microfilmed, except for the Oregon and Washington donation lands and some of the private claims files. The Family History Library has copies of most of the records that are on microfilm. To learn how to obtain copies, visit the National Archives website for more detailed information at www.archives.gov/genealogy/land To obtain copies of a case file you will need the following information which may be found in the land patent records indexed at the BLM-GLO web site:

  • Name of the purchaser
  • State where the land was purchased. It is also helpful to know the present day county.
  • Name of the land office. This is given on the land patent, but if there is a question, a good source for finding the land office is the book entitled Land and Property Research in the United States[1] which includes a section in Appendix B giving the boundary maps for all federal land states including the name of the land office.
  • Type of certificate (homestead, cash, bounty-land warrant, mining, timberland etc.)
  • Certificate number or patent number

Incomplete Applications

There are numerous instances where an ancestor began a claim application but did not complete the process. These records will NOT be in the BLM-GLO land patent search, but they are in the application papers which will be in the case files at the National Archives. Since the BLM-GLO index will not be useful in this event, another way will need to be used to obtain the legal description of the land, which is one of the requirements for obtaining the case file (as described above), as well as aid in finding where the land is located. 

Legal Description of the Land

The legal description of a parcel of land includes the township, range and section of the property, or in the case of a great portion of Ohio bounty-warrant land, may include metes and bounds. The following are places where a legal description of land may be found:

Deeds the written legal document transferring ownership of property. These are usually found at the county level. The Family History Library has a large collection of deed records including most counties and towns. To access these records go to the Family History Library catalog (www.familysearch.org) Place Search > County or Town > Land

Tract books. If you know the general location of the land, you can search the tract books to obtain the legal description. These are arranged by the legal description of the land. The tract books are divided into two geographical areas; Eastern States and Western States.

  • The Western States tract books are located in the National Archives Building in Washington D.C. and include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.The address for the National Archives is:
National Archives and Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington D.C. 20408-0001
  • The Eastern States tract books are held at the Bureau of Land Management and include the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illnois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. The address for the Eastern States office is:
Eastern States Office, Bureau of Land Management
Department of the Interior (BLM-ESO)
7450 Boston Boulevard
Springfield, Virginia 22153
Phone: 703-440-1523
  • The original tract books for many states may be found at the National Archives branch that serves the state, and copies are at the BLM offices in Anchorage, Phoenix, Sacramento, Denver, Boise, Billings, Reno, Santa Fe, Portland (Oregon), Salt Lake City, and Cheyenne. You can search these records yourself, or the staff at the BLM offices will search the tract books for you for a fee.
  • Tract books may also be found at the Family History Library.
United States. Bureau of Land Management. Tract Books. Washington, D.C.: Records Improvement, Bureau of Land Management, 1957. Family History Library Film beginning with FHL 1445277. The tract books for Alaska and Missouri are missing. Most state archives also have copies for their states.

Plat maps represent a piece of land which has been subdivided,showing boundaries of the individual lots. In some cases a plat map may give reference to the original patent or tract. These may be found at the following places:

  • Family History Library. To learn whether plat maps are available at the library, go to the Family History Library catalog at Place Search > County or town > Land or Maps. 
  • State archives will often have plat maps.
  • Boyd, Gregory A. Family Maps series of Land Patent Books published by Arphax Publishing. A series of Land Patent books including maps of settlers whose purchases are indexed in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management database."

Federal plats are another source for finding the legal description. They are often referred to as the “township plats.” Most of these are available at the BLM offices mentioned above or at the National Archives—Cartographic Branch. Each state archive may also have microfilm copies for the state.

Private Land Claims

See United States. United-States - Land and Property- Private land claims

A private land claim involves a request for a land title in an unusual way such as direct petition to Congress. The original 1789 to 1908 case files of private land claims in parts of 15 states are at the Textual Reference Branch (see address below). The files of some states have been microfilmed and are available at state archives and at the Family History Library.

Many of the applications, petitions, and memorials presented to Congress from 1789 to 1837 have been published and indexed in:

  • United States Congress. American State Papers, Class 8: Public Lands; Class 9: Claims. Nine Volumes. 1832-1861. Reprint, Greenville, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1994. (Book FHL 973 R2ag 1994; 1832-1861 edition on films FHL 899878-85.) WorldCat entry. A combined index to the 1832-1861 edition is:

Indexes to land, pension, bounty land, and other claims presented to Congress from 1789 to 1909 are found in published summaries or digests (tables) at the National Archives and federal repository libraries (at major university libraries). The Family History Library has the alphabetical digests for 1789 to 1871:

  • United States Congress. House. Digested Summary and Alphabetical List of Private Claims Which Have Been Presented to the House of Representatives. 1873; reprint Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1970. (FHL 899874-77.) WorldCat entry.

National Archives Address

When ordering case files of both federal and private land claims, you will need the following address:

Textual Reference Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20408
Telephone: 202-501-5395
Fax: 202-219-6273
Internet: http://www.archives.gov/

Locating Federal Lands on Maps

Once the township, range and section are known, the land may be found on a map by following these directions:

A. Go to www.glorecords.blm.gov

1. Click the tab, Search Land Patents.
2. If know the state, use Basic.
3. If don’t know the state or want to search all states, use Standard.
4. Choose a state (or all).
5. Type at least a surname.
6. On the Results List, click a name.
7. On the Patent Description, note the Issue Date and the Acres.
8. On the Legal Land Description, note the:
a. Aliquot Parts
b. Sec./Block
c. Township
d. Range
e. Meridian
f. State
g. Counties

B. Go to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Geocommunicator

1. Click Township icon.
2. Put in:
a. State
b. Meridian
c. Township
d. Range
3. Don’t type Fraction or Direction.
4. Click Search.
5. It will say “No Records Found”.
6. Close the window.
7. Click the County tab.
8. Choose a state and county.
9. Use Pan (the hand) to move the map around.
10.Position the cursor near the appropriate Township and Range.
11.Zoom In twice.
12.Find the appropriate Section within the Township and Range.

C. Go to EARTH POINT if you want to determine the latitude and longitude of a section of land in the Public Land Survey System.

1. Enter the State, Principal Meridian, Township, Range and Section in the fill-in boxes and click "view".
2. The program returns the centroid and SE corner of the Township and section as latitude and longitude and the acres of the section. Use the latitude and longitude in any mapping software to find these locations on a map.

D. Use the USGS store and the following process to locate a USGS map with the latitude and longitude of the property corners preciously determined. Locating a property on a USGS map does not have a lot of genealogical value other than to help understand the conditions your ancestors lived in, main travel routes, rivers, lakes and lay of the land where they lived. Other interesting features are shown that can help you understand your ancestors better.

1. Click on "Map Locator"
2. Use the zoom feature on the map so that the center of the map latitude and longitude match closing the lat/long your are looking for.
3. Click the circle "mark" the point.
4. Click the icon created by the software over the point. The name of the USGS map which includes that point will appear with the option to purchase or download the map. Use the download feature.

Published Sources

Some societies, archives, and individuals have transcribed, indexed, and published portions of the federal land records, usually for a state or county. Those at the Library are usually listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under

[STATE] - LAND AND PROPERTY,
or
[STATE], [COUNTY] - LAND AND PROPERTY.

Source Notes

  1. Wade E. Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry, 1997.) (FHL 973 R27h) WorldCat entry.



 

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