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History - Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

   Public Domain States
The U.S. Government has sold or given away over one billion acres of land not including Alaska. In the process it granted more than five million patents, kept in 8,978 bound volumes in the Alexandria, Virginia, office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). An even greater mass of records in the National Archives represents the paperwork granting those patents. Hunting for the record of a particular land grant from the federal government requires contacting both the BLM and the National Archives. To know what to request means understanding something of how the federal government processed the paperwork.

   Federal Land Grants
From 1776 when Congress promised land to Hessian deserters and for a quarter century afterwards, it experimented, mostly in Ohio, to find a workable public land policy. By 1803, when Ohio became a state, the major characteristics of the federal land system had been set:

 1.   The federal government, not the state, would dispose of the western lands which the original states had ceded, Georgia in 1802 being the last to surrender its western claims.
 2.  Before any grants were made, the Indian title had to be removed and the land surveyed in rectangular townships of six-mile squares, each township having thirty-six sections each a mile square. Some partial townships would exist due to the curvature of the earth.
 3.  The disposal of the vacant land would be handled through land offices located near settlers.
 4.   War service (at least prior to the Civil War) usually brought the veterans a right to free land.
 5.  Legally registered entry claims and military bounty land could usually be sold before a patent was obtained. (Homesteads could not.)
 Valid land titles obtained from previous French, Spanish, and British governments would be honored.

By 1880, Congress had passed more than 3,500 laws dealing with public lands. In summary, the federal government granted lands in seven broad categories:
   Disposed Public Land  Appr. Acreage  Percent
 1.  Sales and miscellaneous  300,000,000  15.8%
 2.  Homesteads  285,000,000  15.0%
 3.  Grants to states  225,000,000  11.8%
 4.  Military bounty  73,000,000  3.8%
 5.  Private land claims  22,000,000  1.2%
 6.  Railroad grants  91,000,000  4.8%
 7.  Timber culture, etc.  34,000,000  1.8%
   Total disposed  1,031,000,00  54.1%
   Remaining federal lands  411,000,000  21.6%
   State-owned lands  462,000,000  24.3%
   Total U.S. acreage  1,904,000,000  100%
  Source: Bureau of Land Management, 1957, pg 21

Thus, the disposed public domain was over one billion acres. It included all states west of the Mississippi except Texas and Hawaii, all states north of the Ohio River west of Pennsylvania, and the four Gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Much of the public domain was transferred to private or state title, though not so smoothly as a description of the system might pretend. Engineering Indian cessions was often both slow and deceitful; white settlers lived for years on Indian land without any legal claims to the land they cleared and farmed; land speculators amassed doubtful legal claims they petitioned Congress to make good; private land claims under foreign title were proven with faked documents and perjury; dry lands were purchased at cutrate "swamp" prices; timber lands and cattle ranges were "homesteaded" by dummy frontmen acting for lumber and cattle companies, and mineral lands such as the iron deposits of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota were acquired through bogus entrymen. When the government allowed squatters first claim on lands (preemption rights), then neighbors bearing witness for each other might testify to earlier arrival dates than were true. In short, confusion and fraud were common. Just because the landentry paperwork adheres to formula does not mean it is telling the truth.

Clearly, good genealogy may require an understanding of frontier history. A good place to begin is Ray Alien Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward. Expansion, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1982). This is a masterful summary of American frontier history, and its extensive bibliography is the most current available as of 1983. It includes the tides discussed in John F. Vallentine, "Histories of the American Frontier: A Series," Genealogical Journal 6 (1977): pp. 200-205.

In 1879, Congress created the U.S. Public Land Commission to take stock of past and future land policies. In addition to its general report and Donaldson's 1,500 page history listed above, the commission also compiled 1,300 pages of U.S. land laws in U.S. Public Land Commission, Laws of the United States of a Local or Temporary Character and Exhibiting the Entire Legislation of Congress upon Which the Public Land Titles in Each State and Territory Have Depended (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1881), House Exec. Doc. no. 47, pts. 2-3, 46th Cong., 3rd sess., serial no. 1976.

In short, the subject of United States land law history is voluminous. Here is a very condensed summary. Public domain lands were first sold by auction in New York City in 1787 and in ; Pittsburgh in 1796 but not successfully. Then on-the-spot local land offices were created, the earliest in Ohio in 1800, the first of 362 land districts to span the continent. Newly opened lands were offered at auction, then at a set minimum price — $2 an acre from 1796 to 1820. Credit was allowed on ever easier terms, and the minimum tract size was reduced from 640 to 320 acres. Over extension of credit and the resulting panic of 1819 caused the elimination of long-term credit in favor of eighty-acre minimums at $1.25 an acre.
Congress passed many relief acts for those still owing money under the abolished credit system, and it also gave general preemption rights in 1841.

From the 1820s Congress became increasingly generous in giving away lands to finance military wagon roads (from 1823), canals (1827), river impiwement (1828), swamp reclamation (1849), railroads (1850), colleges (1862), and desert reclamation (1894). In 1832, minimum purchases dropped to forty acres, and from 1842 to 1853, land was donated to early settlers in Florida, Oregon/Washington, and New Mexico/ Arizona. The famous 1862 Homestead Act gave a settler 160 acres (80 within railroad grant areas) for living on the land for five years and improving it. The donation and homestead acts required the claimant to show United States citizenship or an already filed declaration of intent to become a dozen, valuable information for a genealogist.

Later laws increased homestead acreage in arid areas, including:
the Desert Land Actof 1877 for 640 acres in a dozen Western states;
the Kincaid Act of 1904 for 640 acres in western Nebraska;
the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 for 320 acres in seven Mountain West states; and
the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 for 640 acres.
Homesteadmg essentially ended in the 1930s, although Western "sagebrush rebellions" have offered some state lands as late as 1983. General cash sales and preemption rights had been stopped in 1891, though some sales and much leasing of federal mineral and grazing lands continue to the present.

As always, the researcher should understand the paperwork flow. After the Indian title was extinguished and private land claims, if any, were adjudicated and surveyed, the surveyor general's office established a principal meridian and base line surveyed at six mile intervals to create townships of thirty-six sections, each a mile square. The manner of describing these resulting squares is the legal description.

 U.S. Government Survey <--a.k.a. "Fractional System" or Rectangular Plan"
 Legal Descriptions in the Federal "Township & Range" System.
See: Figure 7-2.
Click on Thumbnail for Larger Doc.!
 A. Consist of Township & Range Survey System -- parcels of land in 30 States may be accurately located and discribed by reference to a survey "mounment" placed at the intersection of two major survey lines
     A-1. a BASE LINE --running East & West
     A-2. a MERIDAIN LINE --running North & South
The Land involved is further divided into "Ranges" and "Townships" identified by direction and number.
See: Map 7-3.
Click on Thumbnail for Larger Doc.!
 B. Ranges and Townships --
     B-1. RANGE LINE --starting at each Meridian, parallel North-South lines are drawn at 6 mile intervals.
     B-1.a These range lines form vertical strips of land called "ranges", which are numbered "East" and "West" of the "Meridian", and may extend North and South.
     B-2. TOWNSHIP LINE --starting at each Base line, parallel East-West lines are drawn at 6 mile intervals.
     B-2.a These lines form "Township" -- squares of land 6 miles by 6 miles, and numbered "within each Range" North and South from the "Base Line."
     B-2.b A horizontal "layer" of townships is a "Tier", and each vertieal "Stack" is termed a column of Townships.
See: Map 7-2.
Click on Thumbnail for Larger Doc.!
 C. TOWNSHIP --a "Standard" township
     C-1. is a 6 mile square; 36 square miles; 24 miles around perimeter
     C-2. contains 36 Sections--- numbered from the NE corner as illustrated on Map 7 C.
     C-3. There are many "Non-Standard" townships caused by adjustment where systems meet, at the seashore or international boundary, and due to survey adjustments.
     C-4. Due to the curvature of the earth a "Correction jog" is made every 24 miles (4th Township) along the North and West sides of the Township.
     C-4.a 25 "Perfect" sections.
     C-4.b 11 "Fractional sections.
     C-5. Government Lots --- term applied to "less-than-regular size" parcels of land created by survey adjustments, boundaries, and conjunctions of Township and Range systems.
See: Map 7-1.
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 D. SECTION --one of 36 squares in Township:
     D-1. One mile square -- 5,280 lineal feet on each side.
     D-2. 640 acres -- 43,560 square feet in each acre.
 Equivalency Table for Legal Units
 Legal Unit Acres Unit  Feet Unit 
 Section 640  5,280 x5,280 
 1/4 Section 160  2,640 x2,640 
 1/2, of 1/4 Section 80  1,320 x2,640 
 1/4, of 1/4 Section 40  1,320 x1,320 
 Arithmetic Review
Acre Unit  Feet Unit 
1 acre  = 43,560 square feet
1 acre  = if square, would be 208.71' x 208.71'
1 section  = contains 640 acres
1 mile  = 5,280 ft. = 320 rods = 80 chains
1/2 mile  = 2,640 ft. = 160 rods = 40 chains
1/4 mile  = 1,320 ft. = 80 rods = 20 chains
1 rod  = 16 1/2 ft.
1 chain  = 66 ft. = 100 links
  Reading or prepareing Township Lot Legal Descriptions
     40 Acres of NW1/4 of SE1/4, Sec. 9, T-13-S, R-11-E, 6th Merdian, P.M.
1. Find the Section 9 on the Township Map.
2. Read the Quarter sections backwards, find the South East 1/4.
3. Then Find the North West 1/4 of that section. etc.

Reference Source: The standard descriptive text on surveying systems used is;
     My Uncle George K. ANNAN, (1915-1996, age 81yrs) to this writer June 1986
     Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States
(See: Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, 1973, Technical Bulletin 6.)
     Manual of SURVING INSTRUCTIONS - 1947
Prepared & Published by: United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management
United States Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. 1947

Once the land was surveyed and could be legally described, a local land office was opened, the auction was held, then land was available at the minimum price to claimants/entrymen who paid a credit installment (if prior to 1820) or a down payment on a cash purchase. Homesteads required a very small fee. Each land office was run jointly by two officials; a registrar who recorded entries and kept track of which tracts were claimed or still open and a receiver who handled thejnoney. These officials kept daily journals and account ledgers and sent periodic summaries to the national headquarters, first the Treasury Department, and, from 1812, the newly created General Land Office (GLO). The local land office kept a separate file for each entry and two indexes by area:
(1) the tract book, which was a written description of each entry on sheets arranged by township and range and
(2) a township plat.

See: Figure 7-4.
Click on Thumbnail for Larger Doc.!
 Typical Page from GLO Township. from BLM

Once the entryman had fulfilled the requirements of purchase or homesteading, the local officials sent the case file (his paper work and their final certificate of entitlement to a patent) to GLO headquarters in Washington, which confirmed that all paperwork was in order and issued a patent (first-title deed) transferring the land from the government to the private individual (or to the states, railroads, canal companies, etc.). The GLO headquarters recorded chronologically a copy of the patent in a bound volume by state and land district and stored the land entry case file. The post 30 June 1908 patents were recorded chronologically in one continuous, national series regardless of state. This series is indexed for all patentees. The new owner may then have had the patent recorded in the county deed book or the state may have had an agreement with the GLO that the appropriate county and state authorities would be automatically informed of all patents, since the new lands were often exempt from property taxes for a set term such as five years.

Homestead case files are richer in genealogical information than the cash, credit, and bounty warrant files. A homestead final certificate file includes the homestead application, certificate of publication of intention to complete the claim, final proof of homesteading (testimony from the claimant and his/her witnesses), a certified copy of the naturalization papers if needed, and a final certificate authorizing issuance of a patent. The final proof documents give the claimant's name, age, and post office address, describe the tract and the house, date the establishment of residence, give the number and relationship of the members of the family, and note citizenship, crops, acres under cultivation, and testimony of witnesses. For illustrations of some of these documents, see: E. Kay Kirkham, The Land Records of America and Their Genealogical Value (Salt Lake City: DeseretBook, 1964).
A brief background of federal land records is in Richard F. Lackey, "The Genealogists' First Look at Federal Land Records," Prologue 9 (Spring 1977): 43-45; and W. Frank Meek, "Federal Land Office Records," University of Colorado Law Review 43 (1971-72): 177-97.

Not all claims homestead and otherwise were brought to patent. If the entryman did not obtain title by the deadline for the final charges or complete the homestead residency of five years, then the entry claim was cancelled and stored, now in the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland. However, some went to state and regional federal archives. From the genealogist's viewpoint, these cancelled case files, traceable through the tract books, are valuable records of the ancestor's life and sometimes give clues about why the claim was never completed. The number of cancelled entries is large:

 Act  Entries  Patents  Percent
 Homestead Act  1,968,264  783,053  60.2%
 Timber Act  290,300  67,382  76.8%
 Desert Land Act  87,247  23,984  72.5%

Over 1,185,000 homestead entries were never patented but should have files containing some of the same information as patented case files, plus a date and reason for the cancellation.

In 1946 the GLO and the Grazing Service were consolidated into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which today holds many GLO records or is the agency title under which the National Archives and its regional branches store GLO records. (Record Group 49.) Soon afterwards, the BLM initiated a "records improvement program" to repair the old GLO records, microfilm the tract, plat, and patent books, some used since 1800, and create clean copies of Western tract books. In 1983, it began a computerized master index to patentee names. At present there is no such patent index prior to 1 July 1908, except for Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Utah, none of whose pre 1 July 1908 indexes include private land claims.

The BLM (as of 1983) is divided into Eastern and Western states. Its working records—the tract books, plats, and patents for all the Eastern states are at the Eastern States Office, 350 South Pickett Street, Alexandria, VA 22304. The Eastern states are all public domain states east of the Mississippi River, plus all states on the river's west bank (Louisiana to Minnesota). Each Western state usually has its own office with the exceptions that Washington is with the Portland, Oregon, office and the Great Plains states are placed under adjoining states farther west. The local land office and the GLO headquarters made duplicate tract and plat books, so the researcher often has a choice of several repositories for microfilm or original records.
Each step of the process from survey to patent has left a record potentially helpful to the genealogist:

  Survey Field Notes
The surveyor general's records for a state may be in that state's land office (most common), the state archives, or the appropriate regional federal archives. Surveys have little information directly usable by genealogists; but for ancestors on the land prior to the survey, the surveyor's field notes may supply background descriptions of the area and sometimes specific, crude drawings of homes and outbuildings on the property.

  Tract Books.
In the absence of a precise legal description, the tract books can be consulted for entrymen in a township. These books have been microfilmed and the appropriate Eastern or Western states offices should have a set for their region. Some state archives, regional archives, or other local research libraries may also have microfilms. At present, the tract books are the best index to claimants and patentees.

See: Figure 7-3.
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 Typical Page from a GLO Tract Book, from BLM

  Township Plats.
After many years of being written on and over, the plats are often rather illegible, and the tract books are a better finding tool for the legal description. The plats have been microfilmed and are usually deposited in the same locations as the tract books.

See: Figure 7-4.
Click on Thumbnail for Larger Doc.!
 Typical Page from GLO Township. from BLM

The originals for the whole public domain are in the Eastern States Office, recorded in chronological order by state and thereunder by land district up to 30 June 1908. They lack indexes but have been microfilmed, and the Western states patents have been mounted, one patent per IBM card (aperture card), allowing them to be sorted into township and range order for ease of location. Patents should be obtained from the appropriate BLM local office. (See Summary of State Land Records)

  Land Entry Case Files.
The Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland (mailing address: Eighth and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20408), holds all the case files except for some cancelled files never sent to GLO headquarters. These files contain such things as the entryman's declaration of intent, supporting documents, witness testimonies, bounty-land warrants (if used in lieu of cash), and naturalization papers. No copy of the patent is in the file except under unusual circumstances such as inability to deliver the patent to the patentee.
The files are arranged by acts, state, land district, and thereunder numerically. The tract book or patent should supply the necessary information, but the Suitland archives does not have either, so the information must accompany the request for the case file. The case files are briefly described in Harry P. Yoshpe and Philip P. Brower, Preliminary Inventory of the Land-Entry Papers of the General Land Office (Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1949).

The legal description is the key to finding a patent and case file except for post 30 June 1908 records and for the seven states listed above as indexed for pre 1 July 1908. The BLM state offices will do research by the quarter hour pre-paid, but genealogists may find this does not work well for fishing expeditions. The cost is too high, and genealogists usually want the names of the kin and in-laws living in the ancestor's neighborhood and cannot usually afford to send all the possible names. Therefore, try to search the tract books yourself at a convenient repository or use a private agent, first confirming where the tract books are in original and/or microfilm. Microfilm copies of the tract books are increasingly available at nearby research libraries.

Two other ways to obtain the legal description may be even easier:
(1) a reference in the county deeds either recording the original patent or making reference to the tract in a deed, and
(2) the legal description calculated from a historical atlas. These historical atlases are often called plat books, since they featured land ownership plat maps. Some good discussions concerning these atlases are:
Richard W. Stephenson, Land Ownership Maps (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1967);
Library of Congress, List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress, 8 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1909-74);
Michael J. Fox, "The Map Collection," in James P. Danky, ed., Genealogical Research: An Introduction to the Resources of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1979).
Historical atleases and subscription county histories, for that matter—were a Midwestern phenomenon which makes especially valuable the Newberry Library, Checklist of Printed Maps of the Middle West to 1900, 11 vols. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), which lists all known pre 1900 plat maps and plat books for the eleven states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

For the early years, the patent references may be in Clifford Neal Smith, Federal Land Series, 4 vols. to date (Chicago: American Library Association, 1972 in progress). Among the records he lists are the outgoing correspondence of the GLO and its predecessor office, which include the cover letters to transmitted patents as found on National Archives microfilm M25. Volumes 1 and 3 bring this correspondence down to August 1814.

From 1830 to 1934, the government dissolved many Indian reservations by first allotting each Indian a tract of land, then selling the remainder. The records of such allotments are voluminous, and many have been filmed as Bureau of Indian Affairs agency records. For instance, the records of the Winnebago Agency, Nebraska, are in the Kansas City federal archives and include land sales 1902-10, Santee acknowledgments of allotments 1885, lists of Ponca and Santee tribe members never receiving allotments 1936-41, etc.

The problem of settlers claiming land before the surveyors arrived was a very pressing one which Congress attempted to solve by preemption rights. That this was not a complete solution is shown by the existence of claims clubs, which were private associations sworn to enforce their members' claims when local land was offered for sale or homesteading. Often armed and intimidating, members would attend land office auctions as a group to convince nonmembers not to enter lands the members claimed. Such clubs were often quite formal in organization and kept records, some of which have survived. Claims clubs may be more interesting for historians than for genealogists but are definitely worth searching where they exist. Claims clubs were especially numerous and active in Iowa and Minnesota and the adjoining states to the west.
Such extralegal policing of land claims existed wherever the federal government's land title system came later than the settlers. The mining camp law of the California Gold Rush is an obvious instance of trying to avoid the violence of claim jumping.
In Utah, the settlers arrived twenty-two years before the land office and were openly worried about their legal position. Brigham Young once threatened, "If they jump my claim here, I shall be very apt to give them a preemption right that will last them to the last resurrection."

State land offices of the public domain states will not be described here. These states received title to large acreage from the federal government and in turn sold or leased it to individuals. These records are in state land offices and archives. If you suspect that your ancestor had land dealings with a state, you can write either the state archives or the state secretary of state's office and ask where the records are. For many states, they are still held by the equivalent of a state land commissioner.

BLM - Index
BLM Ref. & Notes

George K. ANNAN, 1915-1996, age 81yrs, Click on Thumbnail for Larger Photo! These records are dedicated to one of my best friends, my Uncle: George K. ANNAN, 1915-1996, age 81yrs Compiled and self Published in Jun. 28, 1986 by Paul R. Sarrett, Jr. George, grew up in rual area of Yorktown, Page Co., Iowa. He was a large land owner, and Farmer, and was Commissioner on the Page County Soil Conservation District for over 30 years; Director of the Iowa Association of Soil Conservation District Commissioners; Served on the State Soil Conservation Committee; Member of the Lions Club of Clarinda, Iowa; Was a 4-H leader for many years; Helped organize the Lincoln Leaders Boys 4-H Club. Received many awards as a commissioner,  Outstanding Commissioner for Region VII in 1960;  Watershed Achievement Award in 1979;  Emmett ZOLLARS Award in 1974;  Page Co., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Award in 1976; just to name a few.
Would like any Corrections or Exchange and Share information on the BLM, contact me at:
E-Mail: Paul R. Sarrett, Jr. Auburn, CA.

Text - Copyright © 1996-2002 Paul R. Sarrett, Jr.
Created: Dec. 01, 1996; Jan. 23, 2002