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Land Records



Land ownership, protected by a legal chain of title, is so important to our Western civilization that land records are the best kept of all records in this country. The descent of land is the purest proof of lineage. The recitals of family relationships therein were usually created with no need to deceive, and inheritance of real property was carefully regulated and documented. Transactions involving the transfer of property, whether real or personal appear in many forms and their contents may show:

Your ancestors, regardless of economic status, are very likely to appear in some land record or related document at some time, even if only as a witness.

Original Land Grants

Our country is divided into state land states, the original thirteen states, plus Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, West Virginia, Texas, and Hawaii; and federal, or public domain, land states, the remaining thirty. In both cases, the original transfer of land from the governmental owner, whether Crown, proprietor, or the United States government, proceeded in the following manner:

  1. Application: a request for land, usually a certain amount in a particular place
  2. Warrant: a written order to survey which usually restates the amount and location requested in the application
  3. Survey: actual process of going upon the land, measuring and marking the courses and distances, and drawing a tract diagram [For more information on this procedure, including images of the records generated by the process, visit the Wisconsin Historical Society's section, " Surveyor's Notes and Plats for Wisconsin."]
  4. Return of survey: written testament combining the warrant and survey and signifies that the purchase price and all fees have been paid
  5. Patent: final deed from the proprietor or the state passing ownership of the particular tract of land to its initial purchaser

These records of the first transfer of land from the proprietor or colony to an individual are usually found in the respective state archives or historical societies. Those original transfers from our own government can be found in the National Archives, most of them part of Record Group 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management. Subsequent land transactions were then recorded in the county courthouse, in the county where the land was located at the time the land transaction occurred. Remember, though, that deeds could be recorded many years after land sale. If that is the case, they will usually be found in the county where the land was located at the time of the recording. Land transactions in the New England states will usually be found in the town records.

County Land Records

Surveying the Land

metes and bounds
Metes and bounds
rectangular survey
Rectangular survey

Plotting your ancestor's neighborhood may yield vital genealogical evidence. There are two survey methods used to describe land in this country. Become familiar with both of them.

You will be able to "map" the land that belonged to your ancestor using only a protractor and a ruler. There are also mapping programs available to do this for you, such as DeedMapper 4.2, or a large variety of mapping programs aimed at real estate companies - and therefore quite expensive. Try your skills with both survey methods using the problems on the left.

Federal Land Records

land entry examples
Land entry examples

Federal records document only the first transfer of title to land from the United States to another party. These land entry case files are part of Record Group 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management, and are now located at NARA in Washington, DC, as are the Headquarter's Tract Books for the Western states. Tract Books for the Eastern States are still held by the Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States Office, 7450 Boston Blvd., Springfield, VA 22153. Land entry case files prior to July 1908 are organized first by state, then land office, type of land entry, and final certificate number. Although the name of the entryman is useful for confirmation, you must have the above information to obtain a copy of the original case file. To obtain copies of case files created after July 1908, you must provide the state and patent number, with the name of entryman for confirmation. To obtain a military bounty land warrant, you must provide the year of the Congressional Act authorizing the warrant, acreage, and warrant number.

Locating Federal Land Records

searching land patents
Searching Land Patents
rectangular survey
Using Tract Books

As valuable as the BLM database is, it does not contain the records of all federal land entry case files. Among the records not found in this database are credit entry files and failed homestead claims. Just like rejected pension applications, these canceled applications may contain valuable information. To find the name, numbers, etc. necessary to request copies of these records, you must search the U.S. Bureau of Land Management tract books, now available online as a browse-only collection on FamilySearch.

  • These tract books are organized by state, and then by legal land description.
  • Legal land description may be found in land transactions in the county records, tax records, or some commercial atlases.
  • Legal land description may be found in the BLM's online database.
  • If unable to locate the legal land description, use census records to identify the township in which your subject lived. You can then scan that township's entries in the relevant tract book. It's usually only about twelve pages.

Practice finding an entry in the online tract books with the exercise to the left. It's not really an obvious procedure.

Types of land entry case files:
Land Record Research: Procedure and Points to Remember
Be Aware of Problems

A Short List of Documents Frequently Found in Deed Books

Deeds Contract, for example
Prenuptial Contract
Agreement
Power of Attorney Real or Chattel
Mortgage
Land Bond
Trust Deed Patent Right Quit Claim
Deed
Release Personal
Bond
Mortgage Release

For further information on land records, see the following websites:
For further information on researching land records, see the following:
For definitions of terms in land records, see:
For an introduction to Indian land cessions, including wonderful maps, see:
A sample of state resources:

The above list focuses on state web sites with links to images of historical land records. A Google search using keywords "your county name" and "land records" or "deeds" will locate the official county repository web site. That site may have online deed indexes that might include historical records and links to document images. Tax assessment records may also include links to property images. Two county examples:

State land record collections currently available on FamilySearch:
Miscellaneous sites of interest:




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