Government Land Grants

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United States Land and Property

The Land Grant Process

Various royal, colonial, state, and federal governments established the first claims to land in what is now the United States. These governments have since sold or given much of this land to individuals. The person who obtains title to the land from the government receives a land grant. The process of receiving a land grant is sometimes referred to as “land-entry.” Obtaining a grant of land from the government is the final step in a process that often resulted in the creation of several documents. The following is a general description of the documents that may have been created. Not all steps of the process may have been necessary, depending on local laws and customs.

The process generally began when a person seeking a grant submitted an application (petition or memorial) to the king or a governor, proprietor, or government office. He may have applied to purchase land or to receive it free as payment for military or other service. Various documents could have been submitted with the application, such as evidence of citizenship, military service, or prior claim to the land.

If the application was approved, a warrant was issued to the individual. The warrant was a certificate that authorized him to receive a certain amount of land. This was surrendered to the appropriate official or land office to request that a surveyor produce a survey (a written legal description of the land's location).

Early surveys used a metes-and-bounds system. This system described physical features of the land, such as “north fifty rods from the creek” or “S10° W 38 rods to the red oak on hill.”

After 1785 many lands were described by a rectangular survey system, using townships, ranges, and sections, such as “NW1/4 of section 13, T2S R4W.” (This example is read as “northwest quarter of section 13 of township 2 south, range 4 west.) A township is a unit of land containing 36 sections. Each section is one square mile in area and contains 640 acres which can be divided into lots of various sizes. To learn more about sections,ranges and townships, see the on line video course at entitled "Sections, Ranges and Townships" by Roberta "Bobbi" King.

To purchase land that had already been surveyed, a person may have simply selected an available lot or bid for it at a public auction. Available lots were sometimes distributed through lotteries. Land lottery records are available for some states.

A government official or land office then recorded the individual's name and the location of the land in tract books and on plat maps. Tract books record the written legal descriptions of all the lots within a township or given area. Tract books of the public domain states are arranged by sections within townships. Plats or plat books are maps of the lots within the tract.

The individual may have needed to complete certain other requirements, such as installment payments or a period of residency on the land, before he could actually obtain title to the land. Records of his completion of these requirements may have been kept in a case file along with his application. After all the requirements were completed, a patent or final certificatewas issued to the individual. The patent (a first-title deed) secured the individual's title to the land. The individual could then sell or give the patent to someone else.

The government generally retained the survey notes, tract books, plat maps, case files, warrant books (records of warrants issued and surrendered), and the patent books (records of patents issued). The individual retained his copy of the patent. The file containing the information gathered is called the case file. It is record which is the most important to search and is found at the National Archives.


Oberly, James W. Sixty Million Acres: American Veterans and the Public Lands Before the Civil War. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990. (FHL 973 N2ob) This book explains how military bounty land warrants were usually sold for cash and the resulting effect on public land policy in the United States.