Overview of Land Records
Land records provide two types of important evidence for the genealogist. First, they often state kinship ties, especially when a group of heirs jointly sells some inherited land. Second, they place individuals in a specific time and place, allowing the researcher to sort people and families into neighborhoods and closely related groups. By locating people with reference to creeks and other natural features, the deeds, land grants, and land tax lists help distinguish one John Anderson, son of Mark, from another John Anderson in the same county. Prior to the Civil War, most free adult males owned land; so if the land records of an area have survived but do not mention your ancestor, you should reevaluate the assumption that he or she lived in the area.
Most beginning genealogists underestimate the importance of using land records to pin persons to specific locales. Donald Lines Jacobus, considered the founder of scientific New England genealogy, wrote of Connecticut, 'The most important town records, genealogically, are the land records.'<ref>Donald Lines Jacobus, 'Connecticut,' in Genealogical Research Methods and Sources, ed. Milton Rubincam and Kenn Stryker-Rodda, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: American Society of Genealogists, 1960'71), 129.</ref> In the South, which has far fewer vital records than New England, the land records are even more crucial to genealogical success.
This series on land is divided into two major parts. The first describes deeds, survey systems, military bounty land, private land claims, and taxes, and offers some information on real property law. The second half is a synopsis of each state's land grant records, along with historical notes and bibliographic references. Observe especially the distinction between 'state-land states' (where the state or colony made the land grants) and 'public-domain states' (where the federal government made the grants). The first part of the chapter explains these two systems; the state-by-state synopsis indicates which system was used in each state.
Many of the land records mentioned in this chapter have been microfilmed. The Genealogical Society of Utah (a nonprofit entity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City) includes state land grants and county and some city deeds among its routinely microfilmed records. Consult its catalog. However, despite the society's vast number of land records on microfilm, you should not regard its catalog as a complete inventory of what survives.
Other microfilmed records belong to libraries and archives that have made available their manuscript collections of private land company papers and other records. The millions of federal land patents have been digitized and are available from the Bureau of Land Management, by mail or at its website, described later in this chapter's public land section and state-by-state synopsis.