The United States government used many methods to entice settles to acquire and improve the land of a developing nation. Many laws were enacted to control this expansion. By 1880 Congress had passed more than 3,500 laws dealing with public land. The Federal government granted lands in the following broad categories: 1. Private land claims; 2. State and railroad grants; 3. Military bounty; 4. Timber culture, 5. Homesteads; 6. Sales, and 7. Miscellaneous (including desert land claims). A private land claim pertained to land previously owned by the French, Spanish and British governments. State and railroad claims were for land which was intended to be used for these two purposes; but later some of this land was sold to settlers. (see Bunnelle, Phyllis. "How Our Ancestors Acquired Land in the Midwest." Der Ahnenforscher: Newsletter of the German Genealogy Group Issue 99 (March 2006) pp. 3-4.)
The term "state-land states" refers to states in which land was originally controlled by and either sold or distributed by the state itself. Subsequent land transactions between individuals after the state's original conveyance of title are referred to as "private lands." State-land states are the original thirteen colonies, states derived from those colonies, plus two other territories (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia). The technique for measuring land distances and performing surveys in these states used the "metes and bounds" system.
A federal-land state (30 states) differs substantially from a state-land state in its method of surveying property. The measurement system used in most federal-land states is a cartographical organizational scheme referred to as the "township and range" system. This system is characterized by its grid-like arrangement. The basic unit of this system is the section, which contains 640 acres and one square mile. From the section, we go to the township, which contains thirty-six sections in a 6-by-6 quadrant, measuring six miles by six miles.
Tract books for the federal land states are divided into two geographical areas: Eastern states and Western states. For the Eastern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the tract books and original land patents. For the Western states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), the tract books are located in the NARA building in Washington, DC.
For seventeen western states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming) there is a process of converting Township Names to Township and Range. Search the USGS's GNIS database for the township name. Copy the longitude (DEC) and latitude (DEC) from the coordinates information. This gives you the decimal values. Go to the TRS2LL (Township, Range, Section to Legal Land) and choose the Convert latitude/longitude to township/range/section link. Enter longitude and latitude separated by a comma into the X, Y pair field. Make sure that the longitude has the negative sign in front. Click the Submit button. The results screen will display the legal description plus elevation, state and county; nearby places; 7.5 minute topographic map names of the area; and a 1:100,000 map (if available). You can run this converter for all of the other states and get all of the information with the exception of the township, range, and section.
See also, Court Records
- Albright, Lee and Helen F.M. Leary. "Designing
Research Strategies: Strategy for Land Records." In
North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History.
Helen F.M. Leary, editor. Raleigh: North Carolina
Genealogical Society, 1996.
- The BCG Standards Manual. Washington, D.C.:
Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2000. Standard
14 (p. 6), plus examples on pp. 47-48.
- Bell, Mary McCampbell. "Transcripts and Abstracts,"
Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor. Professional
Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors,
Lecturers, and Librarians. Baltimore: Genealogical
Publishing Company, Inc., 2001. pages 291-326.
- Black's Law Dictionary. St. Paul, Minnesota:
West Publishing Co., any edition.
- Bockstruck, Lloyd DeWitt. Bounty and Donation
Land Grants in British Colonial America. Baltimore,
MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007. This book is an
alphabetical annotated index to the approximately 6,500
soldiers and sailors who received land in the American
colonies from the British government.
- Bockstruck, Lloyd DeWitt. Revolutionary War
Bounty Land Grants: Awarded by State Governments.
Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1996.
"A land bounty is a grant of land from a government
as a reward to pay citizens for the risks and
hardships they endured in the service of their
country, usually in a military related capacity."
This volume lists bounty land grants in Connecticut,
Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York,
North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina,
Virginia, and "Virginia-Indiana."--Introduction, p.
- Brewer, Mary Marshall. Land Records of York
County, Pennsylvania, 1775-1793. Lewes, Delaware:
Colonial Books, 2004.
- Bureau of
Land Management - Land Patent Records. This site
offers researchers a source of information on the
initial transfer of land titles from the Federal
government to individuals. In addition to verifying
title transfer, this information will allow the
researcher to associate an individual (Patentee,
Assignee, Warrantee, Widow, or Heir) with a specific
location (Legal Land Description) and time (Issue Date).
- Douglass, Mary. "The Numerical Index: Another Land
Record." Everton's Genealogical Helper 61, II
(March/April 2007): 34-37.
- Eales, Anne Bruner, and Robert M. Kvasnicka.
Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives
of the United States. Third edition. Washington:
NARA, 2000. See especially chapter 15 (Land Records),
but also chapter 8 (Bounty Land Warrants).
- Geiger, Linda Woodward. "Deed Books--More than Land
Descriptions." NGS News Magazine. Volume 31
- General Land
Office (GLO) Records Database. This is the
Bureau of Land Management
(BLM), General Land Office (GLO) Records Automation web
site. It provides live access to Federal land conveyance
records for the Public Land States. It also provides
image access to more than two million Federal land title
records for Eastern Public Land States, issued between
1820 and 1908. Images of Serial patents (land titles
issued between 1908 and the mid-1960's) are currently
being added to this web site. Due to organization of
documents in the GLO collection, this site does not
currently contain every Federal title record issued for
the Public Land States.
Georgia, Headright and Bounty Land Records, 1783-1909.
Collection of individual documents from Georgia’s
original land grant system, the headright and bounty
system, 1783-1909. Bounty lands were awarded for service
in the Revolutionary War. Headright law provided the
head of a family with a grant of land. The records were
filmed at the Georgia State Archives in Morrow. This
collection is being published as images become
available. Check the wiki or browse the collection to
determine current coverage. FamilySearch.
- Greenwood, Va. D. "Abstracting Wills and Deeds." In
The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy,
3rd edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co.,
Inc. 2000, Chapter 20, pages 433-450.
- Greenwood, Val D. "Local Land Records." In The
Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd
edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.
- Hatcher, Patricia Law. Locating Your Roots:
Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records.
Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2003.
National Monument of America. In Beatrice.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of the most
significant and enduring events in the westward
expansion of the United States. By granting free land to
claimants, it allowed nearly any man or woman a chance
to live the American dream of owning their own land.
Visit the park and gain understanding on how the Act
changed the lives of all Americans and the land.
- Hone, E. Wade. Land and Property Research in the
United States. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997. Helps
to understand the complexities of land research in both
state-land states and public-land states. Cites
locations of many resources.
How to Search Deeds.
International Internet U.S. Land and Property Research
- King, Roberta. "Homestead Records: Cancelled,
Contested, and Relinquished Entries." NGS
NewsMagazine 43, 1 (January-March 2008): 46-49.
- King, Roberta. "Homesteading in America." NGS
NewsMagazine 31 (October-December, 2005).
- Kirkham, E. Kay. Land, Military & Census Records
of America. 2nd edition. Provo, Utah: Stephenson's
Genealogy Center, 1972.
Land Measurement Conversion Guide. From Ghostseekers
Land Ownership Maps in the Library of Congress
Land Record Reference. From Direct Line Software.
- Land Records
Research Directory. Gives a good introduction to
land records by state and a complete list of
courthouses. There are no individual land records at
- Leary, Helen F.M.. "Abstracting," in Helen F.M.
Leary and Maurice Stirewalt, editors, North Carolina
Research: Genealogy and Local History. Raleigh,
N.C.: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1980, pages
- Livesey, Karen E. Western New York Land
Transactions, 1804-1824: Extracted from the Archives of
the Holland Land Company. Baltimore, Maryland:
Clearfield Company, Inc., 2007, 1991. Is a transcription
of the land records for the Holland Land Company for the
years 1804-24. The entries contain the first and last
name of purchaser, date of purchase, lot, section,
township and range, description of transcription, and
- Luebking, Sandra Hargreaves. "Research in Land and
Tax Records." In The Source: A Guidebook of American
Genealogy. 2nd edition. Loretto Dennis Szucs and
Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors. Salt Lake City,
Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 1997.
- Morgan, George G. "State vs. Federal Land States:
Beginning at a Red Oak." NGS NewsMagazine 32:4
(October/November/December 2006), pp. 19-23.
Official Land Patent Records Site provides index
information necessary to locate homestead and land entry
case files in the custody of
Olive Tree Genealogy - Free ship's passenger lists,
church records, land records, family surnames and much
more will help you find that elusive ancestor.
Public Land Survey System (PLSS) Township Index Maps
The Public Records Online Directory is a Portal to
official state web sites, and those Tax Assessors' and
Recorders' offices that have developed web sites for the
retrieval of available public records over the internet.
For example, some Recorders' offices have marriage and
birth records available online. Although not every
county and parish has data online, many have home pages,
and where neither is available a phone number has been
RootsWeb Land Records Database. Has more than 1.3
million entries, including many homestead records.
- Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family
Historians. San Jose, California: CR Publications,
- Ryskamp, George R. "Fundamental Common-Law Concepts
for the Genealogist: Real-Property Transactions,"
National Genealogical Society Quarterly 84
- Salmon, Marylynn. Women and the Law of Property
in Early America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
- Schenck, Barbara. "Give Me Land--Using the BLM
Records." NGS News Magazine. Volume 31.
- Shammas, Carol, et. al. Inheritance in America
from Colonial Times to the Present. New Brunswick,
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Spanish Land Grants. The confirmed Spanish land
grant claims related to the territory that Spain ceded
to the United States in 1821.
Taking the Mystery Out of Land Records. By Linda
- United States. Geological Survey. Topographic
Maps of the United States. Scale varies. Suitland,
Md.: National Archives and Records Service, 1976-. These
maps were originally published from 1884 to 1983. The
maps are arranged by the name of the quadrangle within
each state. States are not in alphabetical order.
U.S. Land and Property Search. By Bill Utterback for
the International Internet Genealogical Society
- Wilson, Donald A. Interpreting Land Records.
Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2006.
- Winslow, Raymond. "Land Records." In North
Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History.
Helen F.M. Leary, editor. Raleigh: North Carolina
Genealogical Society, 1996.
- Yoshpe, Harry P., compiler. Preliminary Inventory of the Land-entry Papers of the General Land Office. Inventory No. 22. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1949. A guide to the land records held by the National Archives showing by land office exactly what type of papers are held for each area.