Taking The Mystery
Out of Land Records

Now in book Form

How it All Began

(c) Linda Haas Davenport

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We all know when we begin to use an unfamiliar record group we need to understand why the records were generated and to become familiar with the terms used in the records. This is especially true with land records. As you encounter an unfamiliar term or word check Terms Found In Deeds for the definition. One term you won't find there, or any other list probably, is Chain of Ownership. I coined the term a long time ago to help people new to land records research visualize and better understand how the land records for a piece of property are interconnected from the first landowner up through the current owner. For every piece of land in the U.S. there is a chain of ownership. The first link in the chain of ownership is the patent issued by a government, or an agent appointed by a government, to an individual. The second link is forged when the patent holder sells the land or a part of the land. The third link is forged when that 2nd owner sells the land to someone. Links are forged each time the land changes hands. This means that every piece of land has its own individual historical record.

In most of the records we family historians use (census, marriage, death, births, etc.) the record was generated to account, in some manner, for an individual. The same is not true for land. Land records are concerned with a piece of land and the owner of that land is secondary. Except for extraordinarily rare cases, legal ownership of land rests on documents recorded in the county courthouse of the county where the land is located. We can be thankful that this is true because it has resulted in the generation and safekeeping of millions upon millions of documents, stretching from today back to the very beginning of the colonies.

How it All Began:

Land ownership, as it relates to the point of this tutorial, began in the U.S. with land grants (Royal Charters) from the King of England to groups of wealthy speculators (Companies). These royal charters formed the basis of the 13 original colonies. The vast majority of the companies' stockholders remained in England and granted protected blocks of land within their charter to individuals or appointed agents to act for them. These individuals were called Proprietors and proprietors had the right to sell land, to set aside common areas for towns and were responsible for the day-to-day administration of the colony. The Crown and the companies expected to make a profit from the new world. The companies were allowed to keep a part of the profits generated within their charter with the rest belonging to the crown. Proprietors, in their turn, were expected to make sure a profit was generated and returned to the companies.

To be profitable the colonies needed farmers, skilled craftsmen and families. To attract those people the companies advertised in newspapers, broadsheets and flyers throughout Europe. At first land in the colonies was offered for sale, but later free land was offered. "Free" of course had stings attached but still it was available. It was the right inducement and the immigrants came.

The first link in the chain of ownership in the colonies were patents issued by the Proprietors. After the Revolutionary War the new federal government owned all the land that had previously been claimed by England with the exception of the land within the boundaries of the 13 original colonies. As each of the colonies joined the Confederation of States it retained the right to its own land. The 13 original colonies and later Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia all issued patents within their state boundaries. For the rest of the land in the U.S. patents, with the exception of land previously owned by foreign powers, were issued by the federal government.

Considering that the first land grants were made by the King of England, the stockholders of the companies were English (with most residing in England) and the Proprietors were Englishmen, it isn't surprising that our land laws, with a few modifications, are the land laws of England.

One of those laws requires that each piece of land has to be uniquely identified. This unique identification is called a legal description and a legal description comes from a survey of the property made by a man called a surveyor. From the beginning of the colonies a legal description was produced by using a surveying system called metes & bounds, although the New England States used a modified metes & bounds survey called the New England survey. Metes & bounds was the standard until after the Revolutionary War. This War changed many things, not the least of which was land ownership. After the war the new federal government got into the land business and to dispose of parts of its land a new surveying system was developed. This new surveying system was called the Rectangle Survey System (which is rather funny since the survey actually lays out the land in orderly squares). The Rectangle Survey system is more commonly called the Public Domain Survey (or at times the Section, Township & Range survey) since all land that belonged or belongs to the federal government is called Public Domain Land.

Although the new public domain surveying system was much more accurate than the older metes & bounds system it was impossible to change from the metes & bounds system to the new one in those states where land ownership began under metes & bounds. Having two entirely different surveying systems results in two very different types of legal descriptions, different ways of issuing patents and different land records. For us family historians all of this means how we research land records depends on whether our state of interest is a state land state (those using the metes & bounds system) or a public domain state (those using the public domain survey).

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