Land and Property Records
You've already learned in the previous section how to locate your ancestor's town on the map. Now, it's time to take a closer look at the property and community that he called home. Land is traditionally considered to be a valuable asset and, as such, great care has been taken in the recording of property ownership and transfer. People, understandably, want to have legal proof that their land belongs to them! For this reason, property records are among the most numerous records in existence, going back further in time and applying to more people than almost any other genealogical record.
How can I identify my ancestor's property on a map?
With a protractor, ruler, and graph paper you can draw a plot of your ancestor's property based on the physical description in the deed or grant, a process known as land platting. Try it for yourself with the step-by-step instructions in “Platting the Land of Your Ancestors” (
Although they are overlooked by many beginners to family history research, land records are a favorite resource of most professionals for the valuable genealogical evidence they can provide. According to William Dollarhide in “Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records” (Genealogy Bulletin, Jan.-Feb. 1995), “nine out of ten adult white males in America owned land before 1850.” He goes on to state that this claim still applies to more than 50 percent of white males today. With those odds, all genealogists with white American ancestors should be using land ownership records in their family history research. A land record can place an individual in a specific location and time that, in turn, can lead to further records or help distinguish between two individuals with the same name. Land records are also a good source for names and relationships of family members, such as when a group of heirs jointly sell a parcel of inherited land.
Land records include a variety of different document types, including patents, deeds, bounty land warrants, and homesteading grants. Depending on the type of record and the time period, these may be found at the national, state, county, or local level. To understand which records might tell you more about your family, you will need to become familiar with the types of land records created in your geographical area of interest during specific periods.
Who Owned the Land First?
The history of land acquisition and ownership in America could fill up an entire book. But it is also important to understand at least a little about how land was acquired, distributed, and transferred among governments and individuals in the area where your ancestor lived so you'll know what land records might be available and where they can be found. Search online for specific information on land history and ownership in your area, with a search query such as history land pennsylvania.
States where land was originally controlled and distributed by the colonial or state government are known collectively as the state-land states. These include the thirteen original colonies, plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia. As you might expect, these lands were surveyed and distributed in a variety of different ways. In some cases the government controlled the allocation of land, and in others this control was granted to a private citizen or citizens, such as the Lords Proprietors in North Carolina and the town proprietors of the New England states.
The majority of the state-land states, from Pennsylvania and New Jersey southward, continued the British survey system of metes and bounds to legally describe a piece of land. This system used local features such as trees, fences, stumps, and creeks to describe the property's boundaries. The distances along or between these features were usually described in poles, rods, or perches — all interchangeable with a distance of 16½ feet. In New England, this system was supplemented by the drawing up of town plats — most in a roughly rectangular shape. This town plat was granted by the government to a group of town proprietors who then oversaw the sale and distribution of lots within the town.
Land in the state-land states was generally first distributed by means of patents or grants. This patent/grant is the initial transfer of title from the government or proprietor to the patentee/grantee. It is the first title deed and the beginning of private ownership of the land.
Old land surveys are often hard to fit on a modern map because of magnetic declination, the difference between the true north (the axis around which the earth rotates) used for maps and magnetic north (the place the needle on a compass will point) used by land surveyors. Because the direction of magnetic north has changed over time, you'll need to adjust your survey plots to correct for this declination error. The National Geophysical Data Center (
Following the Revolutionary War, the new federal government got into the act — surveying and distributing the land under its control, also known as the public domain. The land in thirty states, often referred to as the federal-land states or public-land states, was initially controlled and surveyed by the U.S. government before its transfer into private hands. These public-land states were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
To keep things orderly, the government developed a new system for surveying its land prior to its being made available for purchase or homesteading, called the rectangular survey system or township-range system. The land was initially laid out into orderly squares organized along a meridian (imaginary line running from the North to the South Pole) and base line, which runs east and west. Meridian regions are divided into tracts of about 24 square miles, and these tracts are then divided into sixteen townships of about 16 square miles each. Each township is further subdivided into thirty-six one-mile square sections, each consisting of 640 acres, and these sections are further subdivided into smaller pieces such as halves and quarters called aliquot parts. Each piece of property in a public-land state is identified in this manner in relation to a particular base line and meridian line. More detailed explanation of the rectangular survey system can be found online by searching for public land survey system.
In some states you'll run across several different systems of original land survey. For an extensive overview of land divisions and surveys in the United States, read Land and Property Research in the United States by E. Wade Hone.
Land in the public-land states was first distributed into private hands in a number of ways. The most common of these include homestead grants, military bounty warrants, and cash purchases of land.
Dig for Deeds
Land deeds are the method by which land is transferred between individual owners, recording all land transfers following the original grant, warrant, or sale of the land by the government to the first individual land owner. These might include deeds of sale and gift, mortgages, estate settlements, and other land transfers. In addition to providing the location and description of your ancestor's land, a deed may also identify the names of neighbors or relatives; a relationship between the grantee and the grantor, if one exists; or a clue to the former location of the buyer (grantee) or next location of the seller (grantor).
When deeds are recorded, they are copied into deed books maintained by the county or other local jurisdiction. These can usually be found under the jurisdiction of the Registrar of Deeds at the county courthouse. In the New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, land deeds are kept by the town clerks. In Alaska, deeds are registered at the district level, and in Louisiana deed records are kept by the parish. Indexes to these deed books are also compiled. In most cases you'll find two separate indexes: one organized by grantor (seller), sometimes called a direct index, and one indexed by grantee (buyer), sometimes called an indirect index. The two indexes may be combined, with a separate column showing “to” or “from” to indicate the grantor and grantee.
The Family History Library has microfilmed the deed indexes and deeds for many U.S. counties. You can request these microfilms for use at your local Family History Center. Do a Place Search for the county name in the online Family History Library Catalog (
Since you'll generally be working with deed records in the courthouse or at your Family History Center, it pays to be thorough to cut down on the necessity of repeat visits. Check both the grantor and grantee indexes for your ancestors, as you can learn a lot from both the purchases and the sales. Index entries that list multiple names are a special treat, as they may signify family members or a group of heirs. The designation “et al.” — Latin for “and others” — following the name of a grantor or grantee often indicates such a deed. Before you leave, take time to make a copy of the deed index for your surnames of interest in the appropriate time period. This way you can easily order additional deeds by mail if you find others you need as your research progresses.
Locate Land Records Online
If your ancestor bought land from the federal government, you can do a free search for his land patent at the website of the General Land Office, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (
Patents are the final proof of land ownership, but there is also a wealth of information to be found in the paperwork generated by the land application process. This includes not only those who actually obtained patents, but the many who never completed the requirements or who had their application rejected. These application documents have been compiled into Land Entry Case Files, and are in the custody of the National Archives (
Look at an original land patent and you may notice a familiar signature at the bottom — that of the U.S. president in office at the time the patent was issued. Before you get excited, check the date as well. Patents dated after March 2, 1833, were actually signed by designated officials on the president's behalf. If you're lucky enough to have a pre-1833 original land patent handed down in your family, however, you may truly have a presidential treasure.
Since land in the state-land states was distributed by the colonial or state government, there is no nationwide database for these records. Instead, original land grant records can usually be found in the state archive or equivalent repository. They may also be found recorded in the county deed registers. Because of their historical value, many of these early land patents and grants are being digitized and placed online. Try a search such as historical “land records,” or “land grants” plus the name of the state or county in question to learn what is available online for your area of interest.
Bounty land was granted by the federal government and eight states in return for military service. Many bounty land warrants can be searched and/or viewed online. These records are discussed in detail in Chapter 9.
Deeds transferring land titles between private citizens are maintained at the county or local level rather than the state level. Therefore, you won't find quite as many deed records online. Many counties do offer online access to recent deeds and other property information. Historical deeds, however, take time and money to digitize that many counties just can't afford. Exceptions, such as the New Hampshire County Registries of Deeds (
For every record you find on the Internet, there are dozens that can only be accessed offline in archives, libraries, and similar repositories. Books such as Courthouse Research for Family Historians by Christine Rose and articles such as “10 Questions to Ask a Research Facility Before You Visit” (
County land ownership atlases are another source for information on landowners in the United States. What sets these maps apart from other maps is that they include the names of individual landowners at a given point in time, as well as county and township boundaries and other important historical information. Check with the local Register of Deeds, library, or historical society to see if such landownership maps exist for the area and time period in which you're interested. Some can also be found online in major map collections, such as the Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860–1918, (