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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 to where he was moving.
Minnesota was a public-domain state where unclaimed land was surveyed, then granted or sold by the government through federal and state land offices. Later when the land was sold or mortgaged by private owners, the transactions were recorded at the office of the county register of deeds. Family history researchers usually use land records from county offices. Records from federal and state offices can also have genealogical value. For detailed descriptions of land record types see United States Research Outline(30972).
Minnesota uses the rectangular land survey system (section, township, and range). Two different surveys were done resulting in two number sequences. Land east of the Mississippi River was part of the Northwest Territory. Townships in that area of Minnesota are numbered between 22 and 70 north of the (Galena, Illinois) base line. Ranges run east or west of the 4th principal meridian.
Land west of the Mississippi River was part the Louisiana Purchase. Townships in that area are numbered between 101 and 164 north of the (Clarendon, Arkansas) base line. Ranges are counted west from the 5th principal meridian. Maps showing these surveys are included in:
- Andriot, Jay. Township Atlas of the United States. McLean, Virginia: Documents Index, 1991. (FHL book 973 E7an 1991.) This book is arranged alphabetically by state. Pages 297–320 contain township maps of Minnesota.
Federal Land Offices
The first General Land Office covering Minnesota was established in Wisconsin in 1848 and was transferred in 1849 to Stillwater, Minnesota. There were eventually as many as 11 land districts within the state: Alexandria, Cass Lake, Crookston, Duluth, Minneapolis, Ojibway (no records exist for this district), Red Wing, Root River, St. Cloud, Stillwater, and Winona. District names and boundaries changed considerably through the years as offices opened and closed and land was transferred from one district to another: the 11 districts had a total of 34 names. By 1908 only three land offices remained. They were located in Cass Lake, Crookston, and Duluth. Records from all other offices had been transferred to Duluth. The Crookston and Duluth offices were closed in 1925. The public domain in Minnesota was declared closed to settlement in 1930, and the land office at Cass Lake was discontinued in 1933.
Federal Land Grants
The earliest land sales in Minnesota were in 1848, when land in the St. Paul area was sold at a land office in St. Croix Falls. However, the first major land boom was 1854–57, when more than 5.25 million acres of public lands were sold. In 1854 Wisconsin settlers were allowed to claim unsurveyed land. Thousands of acres were also transferred to holders of military bounty land warrants. These warrants were originally granted to veterans of the Mexican War of 1848, but most warrants had been sold by the veterans to other individuals, including land speculators.
The first federal homestead act was passed in 1862. Between 1863 and 1865 Minnesota settlers registered 9,500 entries for free land. Individuals could also buy land cheaply from the railroads. By 1908 most of the land rush was over, and only the three federal land offices mentioned above were still in operation.
After land had been surveyed, the survey was recorded in township plat books. These usually contained a drawing of the township, noting major geographical features such as waterways. Other federal records include the tract books, patents, and case files described below.
Copies of the federal records were sent to the Minnesota Historical Society. Most Minnesota federal land records are also in the Bureau of Land Management’s Eastern States office in Springfield, Virginia.
Microfilm copies of the tract books and township plats of the Minnesota land offices are at the Family History Library and at:
Minnesota Historical Society Research Center
345 Kellogg Boulevard W.
St Paul, MN 55102-1906
The actual patents are at:
Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Office
7450 Boston Boulevard
Springfield, VA 22153
Indexes. When federal land was finally transferred to private individuals, it was said to be patented. Some land patents, certificates, and other land documents for Minnesota have been indexed on one compact disc:
- United States. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. Minnesota, 1820–1908: Cash and Homestead Entries. Springfield, Virginia: BLM Eastern States, 1995. (FHL compact disc Series 1313 no. 39.) This does not circulate to Family History Centers. These records are patents issued by the federal government. Researchers can search for land title information through any one of six categories: land description, patentee name, patent authority, land office, certificate number, or county.
Basically the same index is included in:
- Land Records: AL, AR, FL, LA, MI, MN, OH, WI. [Novato, California]: Brøderbund Software, Family Tree Maker, 1996. (FHL Compact disc no.9 pt. 255.)
Other indexes to Minnesota federal land records are not arranged alphabetically but geographically by section, township, and range. Some federal land records of Minnesota are indexed in:
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Card Files. Washington, DC: Bureau of Land Management, 19––. (On 160 FHL films, Minnesota cards are on films 1501675 and 1501676.) Use these to find the land office name and certificate numbers. Cards mainly cover cash purchases during the 1850s and 1860s. Each card includes a certificate number; the name of an assignor; the legal description of the land by section, township, and range; a date of patent; and a warrant book volume and page number. In a few cases, the cards include names of entire families as assignors.
Most of the names listed in the card files do not appear to be duplicated in the compact disc patent index listed above or in the tract books described below. Certificate numbers referenced in the card files do appear in the tract books, although most often the names of persons listed on the cards do not.
Tract books are more complete than the card files and 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. The Minnesota Historical Society Library has many county maps, land atlases, and plat books that show townships and ranges. A few of these are at the Family History Library. Tract books for Minnesota are at the Family History Library. They are part of a larger collection called:
- United States. Bureau of Land Management. Tract Books. Washington DC: Records Improvement, Bureau of Land Management, 1957. (The FHL films for Minnesota are 1445629–76.) Use the Author/Title Search of the microfiche catalog to find film numbers. The tract books devote a page or so to each land section in a township. They list the name of the first owner of each quarter section or the certificate number or both.
Records about individual pieces of land in each township were collected in land-entry case files. Case files may include personal or family information, such as military discharge papers and naturalization certificates. Case files are not at the Family History Library, but must be ordered from:
Old Military & Civil Records Branch
National Archives and Records Administration
7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408
To obtain a case file, you must provide a complete legal land description and the name of the state, land office, type of certificate, certificate number, and name of ancestor. Do not send money; you will be billed.
State Land Office and Records
A State Land Office was established in 1862. It administered and sold trust fund lands that had been set aside to support public schools and the state university. It also received land grants from the federal government to transmit to the railroads. Records from the State Land Office are at the Minnesota Historical Society. They are described in:
- Kinney, Gregory, and Lydia Lucas. A Guide to the Records of Minnesota’s Public Land. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts, 1985. (FHL book 977.6 R2k; microfilm 1698227 item11.) In addition to describing land records, this guide contains brief histories of the state and federal agencies that created the records.
Additional indexes, printed sources, and records of original transfers of land from federal and state governments are found in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
MINNESOTA - LAND AND PROPERTY
UNITED STATES - LAND AND PROPERTY
After land was transferred to private ownership, subsequent land sales and mortgages were usually recorded in the register of deeds office in each county. Original documents were retained by the families, while copies of deeds, mortgages, and leases were kept by the registrar of deeds. Abstracts and indexes for these records are generally available at the county courthouse. Registrars of deeds are now know as county recorders. The Family History Library is continuing to acquire microfilm copies of these records and their indexes from the southern and eastern counties.
Land records for Minnesota are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
MINNESOTA – LAND AND PROPERTY
MINNESOTA, [COUNTY] – LAND AND PROPERTY