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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. Land records are primarily used to learn where an individual lived and when he lived there. They often reveal other 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 where he was moving.
Iowa was a public-domain state where unclaimed land was surveyed, then granted or sold by the government through federal and state land offices. The first sale of a piece of land from the government was called a land patent and the first owner of the land was called a patentee. Later, when the land was sold or mortgaged by private owners, the document was called a deed. The first federal and state transactions were recorded and the paperwork kept at the federal and state level, while all future transactions were recorded at the office of the county register of deeds. Family History researchers usually use land records from county offices, however, records from federal and state offices may also have genealogical value. For detailed descriptions of land record types see United States Land and Property.
If you are new to land research, you may wish to read the Beginner’s corner and other articles included on the United States Land and Property page.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, the area that is now Iowa was under the control of France, then Spain, and again France. In 1834 the area that is now Iowa was attached to the Michigan Territory, and in 1836 it was transferred to the Wisconsin Territory. The Iowa Territory was established in 1838. It included all of present-day Iowa, Minnesota, and parts of North and South Dakota. In 1846, Iowa, with its present boundaries, became a state. If your ancestor lived in the area that is now Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri or Louisiana before 1837, the following resources may be helpful in locating land claims.
- United States Congress American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States La Crosse, Wisconsin: Brookhaven Press, 1959. 38 vols. On 29 films beginning with FHL 1631827; classes 8 and 9 are also on films 899878–85 FHL Collection. Volumes for classes 8 and 9 deal with public lands and claims for 1789 to 1837 and may name siblings or heirs of original claimants. Classes 8 and 9 have been republished in:
- United States Congress. American State Papers, Class 8: Public Lands; Class 9: Claims: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. FHL Collection, FHL book 973 R2ag 1994). The American state papers include many of the private land claims for the early time period prior to statehood
- McMullin, Phillip W. and United States Congress Grassroots of America : a computerized index to the American state papers: land grants and claims (1789-1837) with other aids to research (Government document serial set numbers 28 through 36) Greenville, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1994, c1990. FHL Collection, FHL book 973 R2ag index 1990. World Cat
- United States Department of State Territorial papers of Iowa, 1838-1852 Washington [District of Columbia] : The National Archives, 1988. 102 microfilm beginning with film 1601629, FHL Collection. Many aspects of Iowa’s state, local, and family histories are treated in these records. For example: military pension applications, military academy cadet applications, court records (1827-1845), land office records, Virginia warrant scrip, muster rolls giving enlistment town or city (1837-1857), military post records listing sick, wounded, and dead, Bureau of Indian Affairs records, Indian treaties, commissions for judges, marshals, attorneys, surveyors, and postmasters.
- Petersen, William J. Iowa History Reference Guide. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1952. FHL Collection, book 977.7 A3p. This bibliography includes sections about American Indians, immigration, land, government, courts, military, schools, churches, businesses, history, and biographies. It is arranged by subject and has an index.
- Iowa Surveyor and United States Works Progress Administration (Iowa) Lands of half breeds, Sacs and Foxes, index and field books 1-3 Salt Lake City, Utah : Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. FHL Collection, film 1011670.
- Iowa Land Department and United States Works Progress Administration (Iowa) Miscellaneous land records, 1839-1930 Salt Lake City, Utah : Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. Tract books of Iowa City sales and patents 1839 - 1856 is on film 1011644 Items 5-6 FHL Collection.
Government Land Transfers
When the area that is now Iowa became part of the United States, a few prior land claims by early pioneers were settled in the courts, though most of the land was unclaimed. This unclaimed land became the public domain, was surveyed, divided into townships (36 square miles), range and section (one square mile within the township)and then sold through land offices. Iowa land office records began in 1838, when Iowa became a territory and land offices were established. Iowa is termed a Federal land state (public domain), and the government granted land through cash sales (entries), homesteads, military bound land warrants as well as granting other claims such as mining and timberland claims. Federal land purchases are contained in a case file held at the National Archives. In order to obtain the case file, a legal description of the land is needed which may be found in a deed, plat map, tract book, or patent books. To learn how to obtain this land description, see the wiki article under United States Land and Property - Federal Land - Obtaining a Legal Description of the Land.
- 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.
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Card Files. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, 19—. On 160 Family History Library films beginning with film 1501522, FHL Collection. Each card contains the following information: Certificate number District Land Office Kind of entry (cash, credit, warrant, etc.) Name of patentee and county of origin Land description Number of acres Date of patent Volume and page where document can be located . Because these index cards are arranged by township and range within each state, the researcher will need to already have an approximate legal description in order to access these cards.
Iowa uses the rectangular land survey system of section, township, and range.The townships were six-mile square blocks of land, divided into 36 one-mile squares called sections. The township was numbered north and south, starting from the center line, and the range was numbered east and west starting from the center line.
- Maps showing these surveys are included in:
Andriot, Jay. Township Atlas of the United States. McLean, Virginia: Documents Index, 1991. FHL Collection, book 973 E7an 1991. This book is arranged alphabetically by state.
- United States General Land Office Field notes from selected General Land Office township surveys. Washington, District of Columbia: The National Archives, 1979. FHL Collection, film 1065577.
Tract books may also serve as indexes to the case files. They are arranged geographically by township and range, so you have to have some idea of the legal description of the land where your ancestor lived to be able to use them. Some legal land descriptions are included in county records.
- Iowa Land Department Tract Books of Iowa Land Districts, 1838 to 1910. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. FHL 1011597–641. These records list the name of the purchaser, the date of purchase, the name of the person who patented the land, the patent date, and the number of acres. To use these records, you need to know the township, range and section where your ancestor’s land was located. This information can be found in deed records or land ownership maps. (For more information, see the "Maps" page.)
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Tract Books. Washington, D.C.: Records Improvement, Bureau of Land Management, 1957. On 1,265 Family History Library films beginning with FHL 1445277
- Microfilm copies of township plats are available at the Family History Library for some of the counties. Plat books for counties in Iowa are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Catalog under:
- [name of county], Iowa - Maps (or Land and Property)
When federal land was finally transferred to private individuals, it was said to be patented.
- The actual patents may be found on line at the Bureau of Land Management - General Land Office web site (BLM-GLO) as indicated in the section on indexes. They may also be found at the following office:
- Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Office
7450 Boston Boulevard
Springfield, VA 22153
- Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Office
Land Entry Case Files
Also known as Land Entry Files or Patent Files, the case file is the accumulation of paperwork gathered during the land transactions which occurred when the land is transferred from the U.S. Government to private ownership and are kept at the National Archives in Washington D.C. These documents are the most helpful records for researchers because some files contain valuable information and may include personal or family information, such as military discharge papers, proof of citizenship, former residences, birthplaces and more. While not all files have pertinent information for the researcher, they are often worth obtaining. For further information regarding case files and how to order them, you will want to read the article Locating the Land and it's Associated Records at the United States Land and Property wiki page. The physical address of where the records are kept at the National Archives is as follows:
- Old Military Civil Records Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
- Old Military Civil Records Branch
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.
- Name of the land office.
- Type of certificate (homestead, cash, bounty-land warrant, mining, timberland etc.)
- Certificate number or patent number
Individual Land Transfers
After land was transferred from the government to private individuals, subsequent land transactions, including deeds and mortgages, were recorded by the register of deeds and are generally kept at the county courthouse. These records usually date back to the time of the county's organization and frequently have grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) indexes. The Family History has microfilm copies of many counties’ deeds and indexes, some homestead and mortgage records, and a few original entries. For example, from Polk County, the library has 112 microfilms of deeds and mortgages, dating from 1846 to 1910.
- Iowa American Revolution Bicentennial Commission Century farm applications Salt Lake City, Utah : Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1978. A valuable biographical collection about farm owners in Iowa whose farms remained within a family for 100 years or more. FHL 1023895-1023902.
- State Historical Society of Iowa County Government Records. The State Historical Society, in conjunction with the Genealogical Society of Utah, has "aided county governments in the preservation of their historical records including marriage, birth and death records, naturalization papers and land deeds. Microfilm copies of many of these county records are available in the libraries’ reading rooms." You may search the lists of county records available on microfilm at the State Historical Society of Iowa's Des Moines Library by clicking here.
- Land records for Iowa are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
- IOWA – LAND AND PROPERTY
- IOWA, [COUNTY] – LAND AND PROPERTY
Other Iowa Land Records
The Secretary of State’s office in Des Moines has the following records, which are available on microfilm at the Family History Library:
- Iowa. Land Department. Des Moines River Lands, 1847 to 1904. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. (FHL 1011643–1011661)
- Iowa. Land Department. Swamp Land Records, 1859 to 1921. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. (FHL 1011642-1011664)
- Iowa Land DepartmentSchool Land Grants, 1849 to 1917. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. (FHL 1012735-10116456)
- Iowa. Land Department. Miscellaneous Land Records, 1839 to 1930. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1977. (FHL 1011643–44, 1011665–67, and 1011671)
For further information about Iowa land records, the following publications are helpful:
- Swierenga, Robert P. Pioneers and Profits: Land Speculation on the Iowa Frontier. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1968. (FHL 977.7 R21s)
- For information about Virginia warrant scrip from 1831 to 1842, see the "History" page for the Territorial Papers of Iowa, 1838–1852.