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In Pennsylvania the initial distribution of land to individuals was a complex process which resulted in an amazing volume of records. An indispensable guide to understanding the process and records is Donna Bingham Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1991), FHL Collection book 974.8 R2m. Other libraries with this book.
This work divides Pennsylvania land settlement into five periods:
- before William Penn
- 1682-1732, the proprietorship of William Penn
- 1732-1776, the proprietorship of the heirs of William Penn
- 1776-1990, the Commonwealth
Before William Penn (–1682)
In the period before the grant to William Penn, Sweden, The Netherlands, and England established settlements along the Delaware River in what is now Chester County, Pennsylvania, and the state of Delaware (called the three lower counties).
Land and other records for this area may be in the archives of these countries (Sweden, The Netherlands, and England) and in New York (see New York Land and Property). Delaware had its own colonial government after 1701 and became a state in 1776.
Some records for this time period are in Pennsylvania Archives, series 2. vol. 5 and vol. 7 pp. 485-873. FHL Collection book 974.8 A39p ser. 2 v. 5; also film 823995 item 1. Other libraries with this book.
1682 to 1776 - Proprietorship of William Penn and his Heirs
In 1681, William Penn received a charter from King Charles II declaring him absolute owner of the land that is now Pennsylvania. As such, he had the authority to dispose of the land with little restriction. He recognized the claims to the land held by the Native Americans and maintained a policy of purchasing land from them before selling land for settlement. This same policy was mostly adhered to by his heirs. William Penn also purchased the area that is now Delaware, and he and his sons distributed land in Delaware during their entire proprietary period.
The system developed by the proprietors to distribute land was unique in the colonies and lasted nearly 100 years, producing voluminous records. Because of the controlled nature in which land was sold, the proprietary was unable to meet the demand for new land. Many individuals settled on land, including Indian land, without a proper title. This created problems with the native inhabitants and with the proprietors.
A major portion of the proprietor's work was to attempt to resolve Indian concerns and persuade the squatters (settlers with no title to the land) to obtain title to the land. They met with some success. The Revolutionary War brought an end to the proprietary period in Pennsylvania.
The state land office was established in 1682 by William Penn. Original deeds and patents were recorded by this office. (See Land Office Records below.)
1776 to 1990 - The Commonwealth
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania became owner of all unsold land in the state. It was unprepared for this, so it continued the proprietary land distribution practices for many years afterwards.
To the state came the responsibility for solving boundary issues with other states (see Pennsylvania Historical Geography), purchasing the remaining Indian lands in the state, awarding land for military service, disposing of unsold land, and assisting in settling disputes over incomplete titles.
First Title to Land
The proprietors and the Commonwealth in most cases provided individuals first, or original, title to land in Pennsylvania through a five-step process:
APPLICATION: Under William Penn, oral requests to purchase a specific number of acres at a particular location were made. Under his heirs, applications were written requests and often gave the reason for the request. Later applications may provide researchers with important historical details, such as when the property was first settled.
WARRANT: This is a written order, based on the application, to survey the requested tract of land.
SURVEY: A surveyor physically measured and marked the land on its premises.
RETURN OF SURVEY: A statement certifying that the survey is complete was added to the application. It included a diagram of the land and a written description of the property.
PATENT: A written first title to the property conveying ownership to the individual submitting the application.
Subsequent transactions involving the property were conducted usually, but not always, on a county basis.
Land Office Records
The state land office was established in 1682 by William Penn. Original deeds and patents were recorded by this office.
The state land office is now called the Bureau of Land Records. Extensive files of the bureau's records have been transferred to the State Archives. Many records have been scanned and are now searchable on the Pennsylvania Historial and Museum Commission website. The Family History Library has copies of many of these records (on over 1,000 microfilms), including:
- Pennsylvania. Board of Property. Board of Property Papers, 1682-1850. FHL film 988274 (first of 19 films). These loose papers involving land disputes are mostly in chronological order. They can contain valuable genealogical and historical information. There is no index to these records, but some of the documents have been extracted in Pennsylvania Archives, series 3, vols. 1. (1681-1739, 1765-1791) and 2 (1792-1795). (see Pennsylvania Genealogy). FHL book 974.8 A39p ser. 3, vols. 1-2 and FHL film 824426 items 1-2. There are documents on the films that are not in the books and visa-versa, so both books and films should be used together. The indexes in the books may be used to access the records on the films with a little bit of searching. For example, finding a name in the book index may lead to records in the films covering the same time period. The books contain mistakes.
- Early Pennsylvania Land Records: Minutes of The Board of Property (Baltimore, Maryland.: Genealogical Publishing, 1976) is a published source that lists the names of many early settlers. FHL book 974.8 A39p, ser. 2 vol. 19. This was originally published as part of Pennsylvania Archives, second series (see Pennsylvania Genealogy), which covers the era 1687 to 1732.
- Pennsylvania, Board of Property, Board of Property Petitions, Undated 1682-1815. FHL films 988269-73. These and the Board of Property records above can be some of the most valuable land records available for providing family history information. Because of the way land was distributed in Pennsylvania, there were many opportunities for disputes.
- Pennsylvania, Bureau of Land Records, Warrant Register, 1682- 1950 is an important index to land records. FHL films 1003194-99. Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records, p. 202, states this index includes records beginning in 1733. This is an index to the warrants, patents and surveys listed immediately below. For an index to the earliest warrants and surveys, see Weinberg and Slattery, Warrants and Surveys of the Province of Pennsylvania, also listed below.
- The State Archives has digital images of the Warrant Registers 1733-1957 for each county in Pennsylvania. The registers are alphabetical by surname of the warrantee (the person who got the warrant).
- Pennsylvania. Bureau of Land Records. Original Warrants. FHL film 1028662 (first of 156 films). These are discussed in Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records, p. 202 cited above. The Warrant Register above gives the warrant number in the first column on the left. With that number and the first letter of the last name, one can find the warrant in the proper county. Alphabetical lists by the first letter of the last name and by county are in Pennsylvania Archives, series 3, volumes 24-26.
- Pennsylvania, Bureau of Land Records, Patent Books, 1676-1960. FHL film 1028673 (first of 78 films. They are discussed in Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records, pp. 53, 118, 207-8. Besides being indexed in the Warrant Register, they have their own index. They may include other records such as naturalizations, etc.
- Pennsylvania, Surveyor General. Original Surveys, 1682-1920. FHL film 1003388 (first of 499 films). These records are described in Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records, pp. 47-48. A partial index is also Pennsylvania, Surveyor General, Index to Old Rights in Philadelphia County, 1682-1748. FHL film 1028671 item 1, and Pennsylvania, Surveyor General, Index to Old Rights in Bucks and Chester Counties, 1682-1761. FHL film 1028678 item 3.
- Pennsylvania, Land Office, Depositions, 1683-1881 also gives helpful family history information. FHL films 986869-82. These were usually made when land disputes were involved.
- Pennsylvania, Land Office, Caveats, 1699-1890 are important records suggesting land disputes. FHL film 986599 (first of 20 films). These were legal documents to postpone acceptance of surveys or patents until all issues were resolved. Records of land disputes can be fruitful sources of genealogical information. Caveats for the period 1748-1784 are abstracted in Pennsylvania Archives, series 3, volume 2, pp. 159-660.
- Pennsylvania, Land Office, Applications for Warrants, 1734-1865 FHL film 984123 (first of 173 films). These records are arranged chronologically. From 1762-1776, these applications are filed by the first letter of the applicant's surname within each year. Many applications are on small slips of paper that contain the name of the applicant, the date, and the location of the land desired. Sometimes, additional details are given, such as neighbors to the property. Often, more than one application will be listed on a document. If the applications are in alphabetical order, order was determined by the first name on the page. Other important documents may be found in these records, such as petitions, etc.
- Pennsylvania, Land Office, Proof of Settlement Records, 1797-1869 are helpful records for the northwestern area of the state. FHL film 986619 (first of 15 films). As the title explains, individuals submitted proof of their settlement on a parcel of land. These records may tell when the owner settled the land and describe the improvements made.
Land Companies. The Holland Land Company and the Pennsylvania Population Company acquired large tracts of land for speculation purposes in the Last Purchase area in northwestern Pennsylvania, obtained by treaty in 1784. Many of the names in their records are fictitious. The Family History Library has copies of some records of these companies, including certificates and miscellaneous papers.
Military Bounty Lands. The state awarded some lands for military service. Certificates of depreciation were issued to Revolutionary soldiers to supplement the money they had received, which had depreciated in value. These certificates were sold or redeemed for land in the Last Purchase treaty area in western Pennsylvania, obtained in 1784. See:
- Pennsylvania, Land Office, Original Warrants of Depreciation Lands, 1780-1800, FHL film 985462 (first of 4 films).
- Pennsylvania, Land Office, Original Warrants of Depreciation Lands, 1780-1800, FHL film 985462 (first of 4 films).
Donation land in the Last Purchase treaty area was issued to veterans of the Pennsylvania Line in the Continental Army. Eligible veterans drew lots for a piece of land and then paid a small fee for their certificate. Most soldiers sold their title instead of settling on the land. The library has Pennsylvania, Surveyor General's Office, Donation Lands Records, 1780-1800. FHL Collection. For a printed list of names, see Pennsylvania Archives, series 3, volume 7, pp. 659-795.
- A description of the Bureau of Land Records is in Pennsylvania Bureau of Land Records, in Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 4, May 1982. FHL book 974.8 B2wg and FHL film 2024355.
The State Archives sells warrantee township maps. These show the original land grants within present-day township boundaries. The maps include the names of the original warrantee and patentee, the number of acres, and the dates of warrant, survey, and patent.
Indexes of Colonial and State Records
If one of your ancestors could have received a warrant to have land surveyed between 1682 and 1898, but you don't know in what county, see Pennsylvania Archives, 3d series. Volumes 1-4 and 24-26 include land records. The surname indexes are in volumes 27-30 FHL films 824436-38.
For additional assistance in identifying the county, search Allen Weinberg and Thomas E. Slattery, Warrants and Surveys of the Province of Pennsylvania Including the Three Lower Counties, 1759 (1965, Reprint, Knightstown, Indiana: Bookmark, 1975. FHL book 974.8 R2w and FHL films 982105 item 7 and 1036747 item 2. This source indexes warrants by county. Most warrants listed were issued for the period 1682-1759. This book also indexes Pennsylvania, Provincial Assembly, Warrants and Surveys of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1682-1759: Transcribed from the Records of the Surveyor General's and Proprietaries Secretary's Offices by John Hughes, Recorder of Warrants and Surveys under the Act of Assembly July 7, 1759, Original manuscripts, 9 vols. (Philadelphia, PA: Department of Records, 1957), FHL films 981096-97. These films are difficult to read.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has several indexes and other land records online of the land records at the Pennsylvania State Archives, including Warrant Registers, Copied Survey Books, Patent Indexes, Patent Tract Name Index, etc. Instructions for using the indexes and records are included as well as where to write to copies of original records.
The records of the Land Office are at the Pennsylvania State Archives. The site includes a history of the Land Office and descriptions of the records available at the State Archives.
After the title to a piece of land was obtained from the land office, most subsequent transactions, including sheriff sales and mortgages, were recorded by the recorder of deeds in each county courthouse. You can obtain copies of these records by contacting the recorder of deeds.
The Family History Library has microfilms of county land records, such as deeds and mortgages, for most counties. For example, from the recorder of deeds in Philadelphia County the library has Philadelphia County (Pennsylvania), Recorder of Deeds, Deeds, 1683-1886; Index to Deeds, 1683-1916 FHL film 1318501 (first of 1385 films). To understand the Philadelphia County land index, go to Section B. Grantor/Grantee Indices, Architectural Research Resources at the Philadelphia City Archives & The Department of Records.
Deeds and other land records for most Pennsylvania counties are on film and can be found in the Family History Library Catalog by doing a Place Search under:
Pennsylvania - LAND AND PROPERTY
Pennsylvania, [COUNTY]- LAND AND PROPERTY
Pennsylvania, [COUNTY], [TOWN]- LAND AND PROPERTY
The library does not currently have land records for Blair, Carbon, Centre, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Monroe, Pike, Snyder, and Union counties.
Land Ownership Maps
Ancestor Tracks is a web site "dedicated to publishing maps and land ownership information allowing genealogy researchers to more precisely pinpoint the locations where our ancestors lived." They have posted free, downloadable 19th-century landowner maps for approximately 85% of the land mass of Pennsylvania which are exceedingly helpful when used in conjunction with census records and published county history texts. See their site for information about additional Pennsylvania products they have for sale.