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:
|| 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.
|| 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.
|| The disposal of the vacant land would be handled through
land offices located near settlers.
|| War service (at least prior to the Civil War) usually brought
the veterans a right to free land.
|| 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
|| Sales and miscellaneous
|| Grants to states
|| Military bounty
|| Private land claims
|| Railroad grants
|| Timber culture, etc.
|| Total disposed
|| Remaining federal lands
|| State-owned lands
|| Total U.S. acreage
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
U.S. Government Survey <--a.k.a. "Fractional System" or Rectangular Plan"
Legal Descriptions in the Federal "Township & Range" System.
|See: Figure 7-2.
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.
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.
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.
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
|| 1/4 Section
|| 1/2, of 1/4 Section
|| 1/4, of 1/4 Section
Arithmetic Review||Acre Unit
||= 43,560 square feet
||= if square, would be 208.71' x 208.71'
||= contains 640 acres
||= 5,280 ft. = 320 rods = 80 chains
||= 2,640 ft. = 160 rods = 40 chains
||= 1,320 ft. = 80 rods = 20 chains
||= 16 1/2 ft.
||= 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.
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:
| Homestead Act
|| Timber Act
|| Desert Land Act
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.
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.
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
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
(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
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
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.
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.
Would like any Corrections or Exchange and Share information on the BLM, contact me at:
Paul R. Sarrett, Jr. Auburn, CA.
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.
Text - Copyright © 1996-2002 Paul R. Sarrett, Jr.
Created: Dec. 01, 1996; Jan. 23, 2002