Taking The Mystery
Out of Land Records

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Public Domain States

(c) Linda Haas Davenport

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After the Revolutionary War the new federal government was the owner of all the land claimed by England prior to the War, excluding the land in the 13 original colonies. The federal government gained other land over the years through the taking of Indian lands, the Louisiana Purchase and other acquisitions. All of the land owned by the federal government is called The Public Domain and all of the states other than the original colonies and a few others (see Which State is What) were carved out of the public domain. This means that the vast majority of patents for the United States were generated in public domain states. The federal government has sold or given away over one billion acres of land not including Alaska. In the process it has granted more than 5 million patents.

The government got into the land business when it passed the Land Act of 1785. This act was passed for two reasons, both having to do with money. During the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress ran out of money. It promised its servicemen land in lieu of cash if they would continue to fight and the new government was deeply in debt and had no money to pay those debts or to run the new government. What the new government did have was land and lots of land at that. The government intended, with the Land Act of 1785, to fulfill its promise to its servicemen and sell land to raise much needed cash. To raise the most cash possible it was decided to auction land off to the highest bidder. The Treasury Dept was put in charge.

To be able to offer land at a public auction the land had to be easily identified and that couldn't be done under the metes & bounds surveying system. A new surveying system was devised, land in the new state of Ohio was surveyed and things were ready to roll. However, to say the first land auction didn't run smoothly is a major understatement. The first auction was held in D.C., a long way from Ohio. The cost (and time) of traveling to Ohio to find the land (or buying it sight unseen) and then traveling to D.C. for the auction was more than many servicemen could afford and they sold their warrants, often for pennies on the dollar, to land speculators. These speculators used the warrants to purchased huge tracts of land, moved on into Ohio, set up their own land offices and sold the land, making the cash money the government had expected to make. The government had set 640 acres as the minimum that could be purchased and even at a dollar an acre (and since this was an auction most land went for much more than a dollar an acre) the small farmer was priced out of the market. The land speculators, on the other hand, sold areas as small as 40 acres - certainly at more than a dollar an acre, but it was affordable for many small farmers.

The government learned its lesson and later land openings saw a land office located in the closest town to the land being opened. The government continued to auction off land, but over time it lower the minimum acres, raised the price per acre, sold land on credit and offered free land under a variety of different Acts. (Timeline of Public Domain Land). The one thing that began with the Land Act of 1785 and continued on through all land openings and free land acts was the generation of Land Entry Case Files. For every patent issued or applied for a land entry case file was established. These files, numbering several million, are now found at the National Archives.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Land Entry Case Files:

The Bureau of Land Management is an outgrowth of the old General Land Office and it is now responsible for all public domain land. The BLM is divided into Eastern and Western divisions. The eastern division is responsible for the states east of the Mississippi River and the western division has individual offices in most of the western states. The eastern division has a website and the patents prior to 1908 for the eastern states and all patents after 1908 are on-line. This should be your first stop if your ancestor was in a public domain state. As I mentioned above for every patent issued by the federal government there is a companion land entry case file containing all the documents relating to the issuance of the patent. For the person who paid cash for their land the file normally contains little more than a cash receipt and a copy of the patent. But, if the person purchased land for anything other than cash all of the supporting documents are found in the files.

Land entry case files are located in the National Archives and to be able to order a copy of the file you have to attach a copy of the patent (or have all of the information found on a patent) to form 84 or you can order the file on-line. You can, and should, print the patent from the BLM site. One thing to keep in mind is that the BLM site has only patents that were issued. There are thousands of land entry case files for rejected claims and these too are found at the National Archives. These rejected claim files usually contain as much or more information than the files for issued patents. Since patents weren't issued for rejected claims you need the legal description of the land your ancestor tried to buy to be able to order these files.

Reject Claims:

When a land office was opened anyone who was trying to purchase land for anything other than cash presented the documentation supporting their claim to the land office officials. The official issued a Final Certificate for Patent which was used during the land auction, recorded the individual's name on the land opening plat and sent the land entry case file off to the federal department in charge of the land opening. Once the land entry case file was received by the department the information was recorded in a tract book, the file was numbered and sent to the appropriate officials for review. These officials either accepted or rejected the claim. That means for rejected claims the information needed to order the land entry case file is found in two places - the land opening plat and the federal tract book. Without a starting point - some kind of idea of the time and area you think your ancestor may have tried to purchase land - finding your ancestor in these records is much like looking for a needle in a haystack. The BLM recently started adding plats to their site and I had hoped those were the ones used during the land opening that included the names of the buyers but the ones that are on-line that I searched are the original surveys (prior to the land opening) and do not include names. For information, by state, on the location of the federal tract books see Where to Locate Patents.

Finding Aids:

Because of the way an individual piece of property is identified in public domain states the finding aid is usually different from the deed indexes found in state land states. Since the legal description generated under the public domain survey identifies each piece of property by range, township and section the finding aid in public domain counties is set up by those identifiers. A large book, called a Tract Book, takes the place of the master index book found in state land states. A tract book is a large bound book divided first into sections by range and within the range by the townships and within townships by the sections. For each section the land owners of the individual pieces of property are listed. Keeping in mind it is a piece of property that land records are concerned with, not individuals, you rarely find an index by name in public domain states. This means that if you don't know the exact place or area your ancestor lived in you'll have to scan each page of the tract book.

In state land state legal descriptions you find the names of neighbors and often references to prior owners, here you find that information in the tract book. Once you find your ancestor's name, you'll have a list of all of the owners of the property, names of neighbors and can easily locate the property in the here and now. If you ancestor is the first name listed for a piece of property there is an excellent chance he was the patent holder, unless he is the first buyer of a piece of property that was previously owned by someone else. If you find the buyer as the state or county that usually means the property was taken back for unpaid taxes and most county courthouses have a separate book for those.

A Word to the Wise:

If a county was formed from existing counties the tract book covering the townships being given to the new county is usually transferred from the old county to the new. The deeds are still found in the deed books of the old county but the tract book will be found in the new county. Sometimes the county clerk in the new county will copy the deeds noted in the tract book, but just as often they don't. I've run across a couple of counties were the townships that moved to a new county are noted on the top of the tract book page with the old county's name. But, by and large, there's nothing in the tract book to indicate the townships once belonged to another county. Many a family historian has been frustrated to find the deed book and page number listed in the tract book is for a deed that has nothing to do with their ancestor. On the reverse side just as many have been frustrated by not finding their ancestor listed in the tract books for a county they are sure their ancestor was living in. It's always of the utmost importance to know when a county was split or boundary lines changed but in public domain states it can mean the difference of finding your ancestor or not.

Researching In Public Domain States:

Although the form and contents of deeds in public domain states is much the same as those in state land states the big difference is the legal description. Whereas in state land states the legal description is full of details legal descriptions in public domain states are pretty cut and dried. These legal descriptions give only the location within the section, the section, township, range and meridian. For example:

SW1/4, SW1/4, S5, TS9, R8E, Choctaw Meridian.

(The southwest quarter of the southwest quarter, Section 5, Township 9, Range 8 East of the Choctaw Meridian).

Trust deeds do give more information because they often contain a description of the items being pledged as security. Farmers often pledged the crops they planned on raising during the coming year and those, along with the land, are noted. Sometimes land inherited is noted as such, but just as often it isn't and you need to look at the prior owner's deed to see if there is a possible relationship.

It is difficult to locate your ancestor's property in state land states but is very easy in public domain states. Even if a state or county's boundary lines changed the legal description didn't. The section, township, range and meridian that were set at the land opening are the same ones in use today. Most public domain county property tax departments have maps showing the sections, townships and ranges within the county. Using one of those makes it easy to find your ancestor's actual property on a current road map.

You won't find many clues in public domain state deeds so your research has to be more creative than your research in state land states. Most of the deeds you find will contain only a legal description, although there are times when more information is listed. Locate the property in the here and now. This allows you to narrow your search to a relatively small area. Search the area for cemeteries, churches, schools, local newspapers, county histories with information on the town (or closest town) and check current phone books for people with the same surname. Local libraries often contain information on a town or its history that you won't find elsewhere. If the area has a genealogy library there may well be vertical files of family information donated by genealogist. In my search for one of my ancestors a small local museum contained hundreds of old photos of the people and town donated by a local photographer.

If you are saying - I Can't Find My Ancestor

Go back and re-read this section in state land states.

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