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:
- family or individual migration,
usually through acquisition or disposition of real property
- chains of title as stated in the deeds
- divisions of estates in releases, quit claim deeds, or partitions
- marriage, through prenuptial agreements or dower relinquishment
- relationships and place names
- life style, through bills of sale, deeds of gift
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.
- Some member of your family probably owned land. According to William Dollarhide in
"Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records": "[N]ine out of ten adult white males in
America owned land before 1850. Even today the figure is over fifty percent."
- A record naming your family member and describing his (or her) property probably exists.
Records of land ownership, especially conveyances, are valuable and carefully preserved. When
floods and fires occur, these are the first records to be reconstructed.
- Land records are easily found. Every county courthouse or town hall contains an index to
these land conveyances, although these are not every-name indexes. If your family "moved West", the
Bureau of Land Management maintains an online index to federal land patents.
- Land records are readily available. Abstracts of land records are frequently published
and may even be available online through local history and genealogy societies or at the respective
county USGenWeb. The
Family History Library has microfilmed many of the deed books from counties and towns in the United States. The Bureau of
Land Management includes a link to original land patent images.
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:
- Application: a request for land, usually a certain amount in a particular place
- Warrant: a written order to survey which usually restates the amount and location requested in
- 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."]
- Return of survey: written testament combining the warrant and survey and signifies that the
purchase price and all fees have been paid
- 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
- Start your land record research online with USGenWeb and
search for online land record indexes and abstracts in your county of interest.
- Check the Library of Congress Catalog or the
WorldCat for published transcripts and abstracts. These publications usually contain every-name indexes.
- Many land records have been microfilmed and are available through the
Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Therefore, your next step in land record research
is to visit the Family Search web site and perform a Place Search in the
Family History Library
Catalog. Although most of the country maintains land records at the county level,
if researching in New England, search under the town name for these records.
- If microfilm copies exist, order the index volumes first and copy all surnames
of interest, including surnames of all known inlaws. Like probate record indexes,
these indexes are not every-name indexes. In addition, watch out for words like "et ux." or "et al."
- Next, order all volumes of interest. Be sure to read deeds surrounding those
recorded by your subjects. Many times, families recorded multiple deeds at the same
time. Some of these may not have appeared in your index search.
- Neighboring land owners will be found in the land descriptions. Study those
deeds as well.
- Plot your ancestor's neighborhood.
- Follow the land from the time it enters your family until it leaves the family.
- There is a growing collection of digitized U.S. land records available on FamilySearch. With
very few exceptions, these records are are browse-only records. To see if your state or county
- Begin on the FamilySearch "Search" page
(opens in a new browser).
- At the bottom of the page, select "United States" (or your location of interest) to view
all the "Historical Record Collections" currently available.
- Select your state of interest and search the resulting list for land records.
- If digitized land records are available, pretend you're looking at microfilm and follow the
- If the required county or town books have not been microfilmed or digitized, you will need to
visit or write to the county courthouse yourself. Write first for copies of both
the Grantor (the Seller) and Grantee (the Buyer) index pages that contain
the surname of interest. You may then write and request copies of specific deeds.
If you will need copies of many deeds, it is best to hire a researcher or, better yet, go to the courthouse yourself.
- Some county court websites provide land records indexes and some provide digital copies of
deeds. Don't forget to check these websites before planning any research trip, virtual or real.
- Deed books do not include all property transaction records. Most county recorders
have separate volumes for mortgages. In addition, they may maintain additional volumes
of land partitions. Most of these records have not been microfilmed, so a visit to the
county courthouse or the town hall will be required.
- If your ancestor and his family do not appear in the land records, they may still
appear on tax lists. Information on your family may appear in land records of their
neighbors. You can identify these neighbors through census records.
Surveying the Land
Metes and bounds
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.
- metes and bounds: each individual parcel of land described and bounded;
this is the method used in the state land states.
- rectangular survey:
inaugurated in 1784, used in public land states; land divided as follows:
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
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
- The Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States, maintains an
online database for federal land records. All information necessary to request a copy
of a land record case file in one of the eastern land states can be found in this database. A new addition
to this site is a growing database of survey plats.
- The information required to request the original records of a western land state file may not
be in this database. If not, however, the site now provides an e-mail contact for requesting a certified
copy of the patent certificate, which will provide the necessary information.
Searching Land Patents
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
- 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
Practice finding an entry in the online tract books with the exercise to the left. It's not really an
- To find bounty land warrant numbers
- Information will be in pension records or unindexed bounty land warrant
- Information will be in tract book
- Information will be in the BLM's online database, if the warrant was surrendered.
- The Bureau of Land Management office in California maintains an
excellent web site. Their Master Title Plats and Historical Index sheets are again online, although the
scanned copies of the index cards don't seem to be available. If you are researching California families,
check this site.
- Credit prior (1800-1820)
- Documents: Credit prior receipt, final certificate
- Information: name, date, residence, money paid, land office, assignee, legal
description of land, acreage, patent date, patent volume and page number, dates and amount of previous
- Credit under (1820-1840)
- Documents: Credit receipt, final certificate, relinquishments, declarations
requesting further credit
- Information: name, entry date, money paid, legal description of land, discount
received, act under which entered, final certificate date, acreage, debits and credits, patent date, volume
and page number of record copy of patent.
- Cash (1820 to mid-twentieth century) [always cite act of Congress of 21 April 1820 providing for the direct sale of land]
- Documents: Final certificate, application, receipts, preemption proof,
graduation affidavit and proof [NOTE: cash entries did not require an application as such]
- Information: name, place of residence at time of purchase, land office, price
paid, legal description of land, acreage, patent date, volume and page number of record
copy of patent.
- Homestead (1862 to 1976 (Alaska to 1986)) [always cite
act of Congress of 20 May 1862]
- Act states that: heads of household, widows, and singles over 21 years who
were citizens or had declared their intention to become citizens were to be given 160 acres if they: lived
on land 5 years, build a home, cultivated the land. Civil War veterans could count time in service
towards residency requirement, but had to have one full year of residence. Entryman could commute
claim to cash entry. Only half of homestead entries filed before 1900 went to patent. Cancelled entries
are also held at NARA and are filed under application number.
- Documents: Homestead application, certificate of publication of intention to
complete claim, homestead final proof, testimony required of claimant and two witnesses, certified copy
of naturalization papers, final certificate authorizing patent.
- Information: name, age, post office of claimant, legal description of land,
description of house, date when residence established, number and relationship of members of family,
evidence of citizenship, nature of crops, number of acres under cultivation, description of personal
property and house, patent date, volume and page number of record copy of patent.
- If you have Nebraska families, Fold3 has digitized NARA's microfilm publication M1915, Land Entry Case Files
of the Broken Bow Land Office, Broken Bow, Nebraska: Homestead Final Certificates, 1890-1908.
Check them out!
- Military bounty land warrants (1788-1858)
- Documents: Surrendered warrant, certificate of location, correspondence,
applications to locate land. The application file itself is maintained with the military pension records.
- Information: name of veteran, date of issue, military or naval organization,
war served in, name of heir or assignee, act under which warrant issued, acreage, land office where
surrendered, legal description of land, patent date, volume and page number of record copy of patent.
- Private land claims
See also American State Papers
- As the U.S. added land to the public domain, it recognized land titles granted
by previous rulers to the residents. Claims had to be verified and patents issued to confirm title.
- Documents: Correspondence, reports, maps, plats, petitions, affidavits,
transcripts of court decisions, deeds, abstracts of title, copies of original grants, depositions, testimony
of witnesses, notices and evidence of claims, certificate and plat of survey, appeals.
- Information: name of claimant, period of occupancy, date of claim, acreage,
legal description of land.
- Records are organized by state and claim docket number.
Land Record Research: Procedure and Points to Remember
- Trace the land from the time it entered your family to the time it left. Don't forget to
search records at least 20 years after your ancestor left the area.
- Not all deeds have been recorded, so map out all owners in an area to help locate your
ancestor and his neighbors.
- Note the date of deed signing and of recording. Try to explain any large discrepancies.
Read the deeds surrounding the one that interests you. Families would frequently bring in several deeds
to be recorded at the same time.
- Follow up on any other documents mentioned in a deed.
- Use land records in conjunction with censuses, etc. to build up picture of your ancestor's
- Become familiar with the laws relevant to the transfer of property at the time and place
Be Aware of Problems
- Deed books are derivative documents. The original deed is usually not available and clerk's transcriptions
of metes and bounds may contain errors.
- Deed books are indexed only by grantor-grantee, so you may have to search page by page.
Look for publications of land abstracts. Their indexes usually give interior names which may help you
locate a deed much faster. In an index, keep your eyes open for the words et al. These deeds included
multiple persons and are more likely to be deeds documenting transfer of property through inheritance.
A Short List of Documents Frequently Found in Deed Books
||Contract, for example
|Power of Attorney
||Real or Chattel
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:
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at