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.