federal land patents, Federal Lands

The Federal Land Series

In several recent posts, we mentioned the pertinence of land records. Please feel free to read the posts that started us off in the last few weeks, Home Sweet Homestead Part I about the importance of homestead records to genealogy research, and Home Sweet Homestead Part II  where we discuss how to obtain the records. We also recently revised and updated posts from the late Carolyn Barkley on the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office. The GLO has an amazing treasure trove of records related to Federal Land Patents and Federal Surveys and Plats.

Given how many posts we could make on the topic of federal land records, we’re continuing the discussion here and offering information including definitions, tips and resources to help you in this endeavor.

Working with land records of the young American country can be a complicated affair. If you are hunting for your ancestors among land records of this era, here are terms you are almost certain to run across. The “entry,” also known as the “petition” or “application,” was the first step in the land acquisition process. It was filed by an individual hoping to obtain a land grant. If the individual’s application was approved, he received a “warrant” directing that the land granted should be laid out. After surrendering his “warrant” at the colonial land office, the land was surveyed, mapped, and described in writing. Now, the grantee could take possession of his land and receive his patent, securing his title. The patent “was documentary evidence of title to land and is probably the land-grant document most often preserved” among early records.

If the variety of terms used in land records is not complex enough, the consolidation of the national domain from the end of the American Revolution to the ratification of the Constitution certainly is. From 1785 on, as it became safer to settle in the West, government and private landed interests (read “speculators”) from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia were quick to grab a portion for their own uses. Eventually, all the territory that became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin was returned to the federal public domain and was laid out in accordance with the rectangular grid system prescribed by the federal Land Ordinance of 1785. The land records for Florida and the states established from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 are the products of a similar history and in some cases, must be translated from Spanish or French.

The peculiarities of official land policy–owing to the claims of the aforementioned states, Revolutionary War veterans seeking the bounty lands their service entitled them to, and the U.S. government itself, to name just three–may require the genealogist to look for an Ohio, Mississippi, or Indiana ancestor in a number of places.

One of the first sources of land records the researcher should consult is Clifford Neal Smith’s four-volume Federal Land Series (originally published in five parts). Volumes 1 and 3 of this work, in the aggregate, calendar all assignments of land records recorded by all federal land offices in the “Old Northwest” and Southeast territorial districts of the U.S. (excluding war bounties and land company sales) from 1788 and 1814. These volumes are arranged in chronological order, according to the assignment of tracts, followed by indexes to names, tracts, and subjects. Volume 2 picks up all persons assigned land by the U.S. government on the basis of their Revolutionary War service from 1799 to 1835. The final volume, originally published in two parts, concerns non-federal bounty land warrants issued in the Virginia Military District of Ohio to over 22,000 persons based on Revolutionary War service. One of the great virtues of this set is that it names and follows the movements of persons who lived in sparsely populated sections of the new American nation before they would appear in the federal census.

In all, the Federal Land Series identifies 50,000 individuals found among early American land records.

Image credit: A U.S. General Land Office land patent for 40 acres of land in Dixon, Illinois, dated September 1, 1845. It is signed on behalf of President James K. Polk by Col. J. Knox Walker, the President’s private secretary and nephew. By US General Land Office. (The Cooper Collection of Historical US Documents.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Land Records

Federal Surveys and Land Records – Using the General Land Office Site

Editor’s Note: In a recently revived two-part post on Homesteading by the late Carolyn Barkley, she discusses the importance of land records to genealogical research. In Part II of those posts there is brief mention of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM website has a huge amount of original source information. Ms. Barkley wrote another post on utilizing the BLM site as an information goldmine. We have updated and edited her post as the search functions she describes have changed. However, the information is still incredibly relevant and meaty, so we are presenting it in two parts. Part I gave an introduction to the types of records you can find in the BLM’s General Land Office and an example of Federal Land Patents, one type of those records. Part II, below, continues the discussion with the two other types of records that are most useful for genealogical research, Federal Survey Plats and Field Notes and Federal Land Status Records. It is recommended that you read Parts I and II in respective order. 

Federal Survey Plats and Field Notes – Surveys

Federal Survey Plats and Field Note records, listed on the side navigation bar as Surveys, represent the “official survey documentation used when land title was transferred (via a land patent) from the Federal government to individuals. For each survey, the plat illustrates the acreage used in the legal description of a tract of public land. Since the time of this original post, the survey search has been simplified and become much easier to use. It used to require that you have a legal land description. While it may be helpful to know this information, you can now start by just selecting a state and entering as much as you know for the following fields: county, meridian, and surveyor. You don’t have to fill in everything, and the search will pull records that match the fields you have completed. Note that you can utilize the information from a patent you found through the federal land patent search (described in Part I) to refine your search.

While you will probably want to search across “all types of surveys,” you may also choose a specific type of survey such as small holding claims, mineral surveys, homestead entry surveys, township surveys, etc. A successful search will allow you to view plat details, an image of the actual plat(s), and the applicable field notes (if available). If field notes are available for your survey, they may include names of settlers living in the area surveyed as well as descriptions of land details found at the time of the survey. Field note reports may be downloaded.

When I searched for surveys for the David Barkley and the James B. Yellowly patents, I was able to locate plat images for original surveys and for subsequent surveys conducted at later dates. A plat image was not available for the Charles Barclay patent.

I also looked for all surveys available for Virginia and from the resulting list, I looked at two dependent resurveys which are defined as “the retracement and reestablishment of the lines of the original survey to their true original positions according to the best available evidence to the positions of the original corners.” One survey dealt with a wetlands boundary at the Malvern Hill Unit of the Richmond National Battlefield Park in Henrico County; the second with a Dulles International Airport access road bordering the Wolf Trap Farm Park in Fairfax County.

Using the patent search and the survey search in combination with one another will provide you with the opportunity to find a specific patent document as well as the survey information and plats pertaining to the piece of property described in the patent.

Federal Land Status Records

Master title plats for Colorado, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota are recent additions to the BLM site. These plats are large scale “graphic illustrations of current Federal ownership, agency jurisdiction and rights reserved to the Federal government on private land within a township.” These files are quite large and unless you have a very specific research need, will be of less interest than the patent and survey search portions of the site.

A fourth documents search area has been added since this post appeared several years ago. The Control Document Index (CDI) cards section contains:

documents that affect or have affected the status of public lands, including those documents that control, limit, or restrict the availability of right or title to, or use of public lands. These documents include:

  • United States patents and deeds which convey title to public lands from the United States
  • Other conveyance documents such as deeds which convey title to public lands to the United States, including warranty deeds, quit claim deeds, acquired easements, and condemnation judgments
  • Recordable Disclaimers
  • State Selections
  • Indemnity Lists
  • Act of Congress or Public Law that concerns specific interest in public lands
  • Executive Orders
  • Presidential Proclamations
  • Public Land Orders
  • General Land Office, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, or other Bureau within the Department of the Interior Order
  • Notices (such as Federal Register Notices) that have a segregative (restrictive) affect on public lands.

A new effort is underway to scan the CDI microfilm to electronic images and whenever possible to link the images to document data extracted from BLM’s LR2000 database. The CDI document images and data will appear on [the BLM GLO]  website on a state-by-state basis as individual states’ microfilm is scanned and linked.

You may also wish to refer to Land and Property Research in the United States by E. Wade Hone (Ancestry 1997) and Dividing the Land: Early American Beginnings of Our Private Property Mosaic by Edward T. Price (University of Chicago, 1995). In addition, Clifford Neal Smith’s four-volume Federal Land Series contains a “calendar of archival materials on the land patents issued by the United States Government, with subject, tract, and name indexes.”

I highly recommend the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records website as a favorite for your browser.  Be sure to check out the “Resource Links” section that provides links to individual state genweb projects, Bureau of Land Management state offices, state libraries and archives, historical societies, and state land offices. Users are invited to submit sites for various categories including the thirteen original colonies and the District of Columbia.

Image credit: Table lands, northeast from the Colorado Divide. Colorado. William Henry Jackson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.