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Land Records

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Land Records
State-Land States
Survey Systems and Terms
Creating a Plat
Public-Domain States
Homestead Act of 1862
Military Bound Land
Taxes in Land Research
English Law in American Land Research
List of Useful Resources About Land Records

This article originally appeared in "Land Records" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

The U.S. government has sold or given away more than 1 billion acres of land (not including Alaska). In the process it granted more than 5 million patents kept in 9,386 bound volumes in the Springfield, 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. Searching 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 German auxiliaries (sometimes incorrectly known as 'Hessians'), and for a quarter of a century afterward, the U. S. Government 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. 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).
  6. 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 Domain Approximate Acreage
1. Sales and miscellaneous 300,000,000
2. Homesteads 285,000,000
3. Grants to states 225,000,000
4. Military bounty 73,000,000
5. Private land claims 22,000,000
6. Railroad grants 91,000,000
7. Timber culture, etc. 35,000,000
Total disposed 1,031,000,000
Remaining federal lands 411,000,000
State-owned lands 462,000,000
Total U.S. acreage 1,904,000,000<ref>Brief Notes on the Public Domain (Bureau of Land Management, 1957), 21.</ref>

Thus, the disposed public domain was more than 1 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 suggest. Engineering Indian cessions was often 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 which they petitioned Congress to make good; private land claims under foreign title were proven with fake documents and perjury; dry lands were purchased at cut-rate 'swamp' prices; timber lands and cattle ranges were 'homesteaded' by frontmen acting for timber 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), the 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 land-entry paperwork adheres to formula does not mean it presents the truth.

Clearly, good genealogy may require an understanding of frontier history. A good place to begin is in Western Expansion, A History of the American Frontier by Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge.<ref>Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, Western Expansion, A History of the American Frontier, 6th ed. (University of New Mexico Press, 2001).</ref> It is a masterful summary of American frontier history with an extensive bibliography. Other recommended histories of public lands:

Donaldson, Thomas. The Public Domain: Its History with Statistics. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970 reprint of 1884 GPO original. House Misc. Doc. 45 pt. 4, 47th Cong., 2nd Sess.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Reprint. Arno Press, 1979. Robbins, Roy Marvin. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776'1970. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789'1837. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990.

Treat, Payson Jackson. The National Land System, 1785'1820. New York: E. B. Treat, 1910; reprint, William S. Hein & Co., 2003.

An older, though still useful work, is Lawrence B. Lee's 'American Public Land History: A Review Essay.'<ref>Lawrence B. Lee, 'American Public Land History: A Review Essay,' Agricultural History 55 (1981): 284'99.</ref> A more general work is Public Land Bibliography, published by the Bureau of Land Management.<ref>Bureau of Land Management, Public Land Bibliography (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, 1962).</ref> To go deeper into the literature, access to the library catalogs of two major government agencies is online. The National Agricultural Library search database is online and collections at the United States Geological Survey Library may be searched [1] as well. 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 (cited above), the commission also compiled 1,300 pages of U.S. land laws in 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, published by the U.S. Public Land Commission.<ref>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 (1881; reprint, Arno Press, 1979), House exec. doc. no. 47, pts. 2'3, 46th cong., 3rd sess., serial no. 1976.</ref>

In short, the subject of United States land law history is voluminous. In 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 who still owed 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 improvement (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 (eighty 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 U.S. citizenship or an already-filed declaration of intent to become a citizen, valuable information for a genealogist. Later laws increased homestead acreage in arid areas, including the Desert Land Act of 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. The Homestead Act was in effect until 1986 (the 1976 repeal granted a ten-year extension on claims in Alaska). America's last homesteader was a Vietnam veteran and native Californian named Kenneth Deardorff. In 1974 he filed a homestead claim on 80 acres of land in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements in 1979 and received a patent in May 1988.<ref>'Found: America's Last Homesteader!' Homestead National Monument of America,></ref> 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.

The principal meridians and baselines used to survey in the public land states. The points of intersection are 'initial points.' From E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997 p 104).

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 baseline, then 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, illustrated in the attached images. Because many states have more than one principal meridian, the meridians are part of the legal description'for example, NW 1/4 of SE 1/4, Sec. 9, T13S, R11E, 6th P.M. The standard descriptive text on the surveying system, The GlO Survey Primer (circa 1921), is online. A brief but well-done work in print is Ohio Lands: A Short History.<ref>Ohio Lands: A Short History, 8th ed. (Columbus: Auditor of State, 1997).</ref>

Most legal descriptions of a parcel of land include the principal meridian, such as '3rd p.m.,' shown in sketch 1, top right. From the initial point, ranges are numbered as 'east' or 'west' of the principal meridian and townships are numbered as 'north' or 'south' of the baseline (see sketch 2, top left). Each township has 36 sections (sketch 3, lower left) and each section is further reduced to describe and locate the parcel.

Once the land was surveyed and could be legally described, a local land office was opened, the auction was held, and land was available at the minimum price to claimants/entrymen who paid a credit installment (before 1820) or a down payment on a cash purchase. In addition to cash, applicants could obtain land through a variety of congressional acts which allowed for preemption (the opportunity for 'squatters' to purchase land they had occupied and improved); donation (various acts granting certain land to qualifying settlers in states such as Arkansas, Florida, Oregon, and Washington); homestead, mineral, timber culture, and desert land (land given to qualified persons who could demonstrate compliance to the conditions of a particular act); and bounty warrants or scrip. 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 the money. 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, which was a map of entries for each township showing patented tracts.

Once the entryman had fulfilled the requirements of purchase or homesteading, the local officials sent the case file (the entryman's paperwork and the final certificate of entitlement to a patent) to GLO headquarters in Washington, D.C., 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, and so forth). The GLO headquarters recorded chronologically a copy of the patent in a bound volume by state and district and stored the land-entry case file. After 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, because the new lands were often exempt from property taxes for a set term, such as five years.

The 1897 affidavit of Virgil W. [Wyatt] Earp (right) states he has met the military service requirement to homestead under the Soldiers' and Sailors' Homestead Act of June 8, 1872. This act allowed honorably discharged soldiers and sailors with at least 90 days of service to apply up to four years of their service towards the settlement requirement (five years) of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Homestead case files tend to be richer in genealogical information than the cash, credit, and bounty-warrant files. A homestead final certificate file usually includes the homestead application, certificate of publication of intention to complete the claim, final proof of homesteading (testimony from the claimant and his or her witnesses), and a final document authorizing issuance of a patent. A certified copy of the naturalization papers, if needed for the application, may be present. 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 and a good overview of homestead records, see E. Wade Hone's Land and Property Research in the United States.<ref>E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997), 140'46.</ref>

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 canceled and stored, now available from the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC 20408. However, some went to state and regional federal archives. For the genealogist, these canceled case files, traceable through the tract books (see following), are valuable records of an ancestor's life and sometimes give clues about why the claim was never completed. The number of canceled entries is large:

Act Name Entries Patents Percent Canceled
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

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

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

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. The BLM 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, 7450 Boston Blvd., Springfield, VA 22153. The eastern states comprise all public-domain states east of the Mississippi River and all states on the river's west bank (Louisiana to Minnesota). Most western states have their own offices; however, Washington's is with the Portland, Oregon, office, and the Great Plains states are under adjoining states farther west. The local land offices and 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 records potentially helpful to genealogists:

Survey Plats and Field Notes

Government surveys were made prior to the allocation of public land. Surveyors began in Ohio and moved west as each territory or area was opened for settlement. Survey plats are drawings of boundaries. Survey field notes describe land formations and conditions. Plats and notes may include specific, crude drawings of homes and outbuildings on the property and in some instances give the names of settlers living in the area surveyed. The cadastral survey field notes and township plats for twenty-five of the thirty public domain states surveyed under the rectangular system of surveys are located in the Eastern States Office of the BLM (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri are located in the National Archives).<ref>'General Land Office,'</ref> The plats have been microfilmed and are usually deposited in the same locations as the tract books. Similar records may be in the state's land office (most common), the state archive, or the appropriate regional federal archive (see 'Summary of Land Records by State,' at the end of this chapter). Some states have made their plats and field notes available as scanned images for online viewing. The federal township plats for Illinois have been scanned and are available for viewing at Wisconsin's field notes are searchable by legal description.

Tract Books

Tract books record the names of the land entryman (and in some areas, subsequent buyers), a description of the land and the number of acres, the type and date of entry, and the patent number. Tract books are arranged by legal description, i.e., geographical location. The tract books may reveal the names of claimants and patentees who, for whatever reason, do not appear in the Bureau of Land Management's online index, explained below.<ref>Kenneth Hawkins: 'Since GLO-ARS covers only patented entries, it does not serve as an index to the many thousands of cancelled or relinquished land case files for eastern public-land states. To obtain file information on eastern states cancelled entries, researchers must consult the General Land Office tract books.' General Information Leaflet Number 67, 'Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office (Record Group 49),' 1997,</ref> To expedite a search, determine the land office or the county where land was patented. These books have been microfilmed, and the appropriate eastern (Eastern States Office) or western states offices have sets for their regions. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City and some state archives, regional archives, and other local research libraries also have tract books on microfilm.


Daniel Kinard's 1849 patent is an example of a typical cash-entry sale. Patents give the patentee's residence, the legal description of the parcel(s), the certificate number (needed to order the case file) and the date of purchase.

Patents transfer land ownership from the U.S. government to a private party. Patents are the first records in a chain of title to a piece of property. The originals or duplicates for the whole public domain are in the Eastern States Office of the BLM. The patent documents result primarily from cash entries, homestead and military bounty land warrants. Each patent document has a primary identification number in the upper left-hand corner, the name of the patentee, the land office that handled the transaction, a full legal description of the property, and a signature and date reflecting the president of the United States of America in office at the time of purchase (only a very few early patents or certificates issued to the patentee and found among family memorabilia, were actually signed by a president).

Finding Patents

General Land Office - Automated Records System (GLO-ARS)

As March 2006, more than 4.2 million documents from before 1 July, 1908, mostly cash and homestead patents issued by the United States, can be viewed online at the Bureau of Land Management's excellent website. Federal patents dating from the late 1780s to 1 July 1908 have been scanned and indexed for the eastern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The cash and homestead entries for Iowa (1820'1908) should be completed in 2006.

For the western states, most of the pre-July 1908 data is already in the database. As the data is verified against the land patent certificate for accuracy, the image is connected to the index entry. Automation of the remainder of the records in BLM possession, notably the serial patents (1 July, 1908 and later) continues. Serial patents are filed numerically instead of by state, thus covering the eastern and the western public land states. Project completion of the remaining two million records is expected by 2010. More information on the GLO-ARS is available from 7450 Boston Blvd., Springfield, VA 22153; telephone (703) 440-1600; or online. Users should read introductory materials carefully to take advantage of the full range of search methods.

Land-Entry Case Files

The finding of a patent suggests there is an associated case file. Case files (except for some canceled files never sent to GLO headquarters) are held at the Old Military and Civil Records, National Archives and Records Administration. The contents of these files depend in part on how the land was patented: as cash, credit, military bounty land, preemption (a type of cash file), donation, homestead, or mineral, timber culture, or desert land. Case files that document cash or credit purchases may have the receipt(s) for payment. A file created for a purchase under the Homestead Act of 1862 may include the entryman's declaration of intent or final naturalization papers, supporting documents and witness testimonies, bounty-land warrants (if used in lieu of cash) or preemption documents (if used for homestead in lieu of cash), and declarations of intent or final naturalization papers (which may have been submitted to satisfy homestead requirements). The files are arranged by the act which provided for the type of patenting, the state and land district from which the property was purchased, and thereunder numerically. The patent (see Finding Patents above), or tract book will provide the land district, document number, and date of purchase. This information, and the patent number, must accompany the request for the case file. The files may be ordered online or by mail from the National Archives, Washington, DC 20408; e-mail <[email protected]>; or order online. Instructions are on the GLO-ARS website.

Unindexed Patents: Legal Description

The legal description is the key to locating an unindexed patent. There are three ways to find the legal description. (1) Search the tract books. See appendix A, 'Tract Book and Township Plat Map Guide to Federal Land States' in Hone's Land and Property Research.<ref>Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States, 213'67.</ref> (2) Locate the patent recorded in a deed book (the grantor will be the U.S. government) or a reference to the tract in a subsequent deed. (3) Calculate the legal description from a historical atlas. These historical atlases are often called plat books because they featured land ownership plat maps. Some good discussion concerning these atlases is in Richard W. Stephenson's Land Ownership Maps, and in the List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress published by the Library of Congress.<ref>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).</ref> A number of maps have been reproduced on microfiche from the Library of Congress. Libraries which hold the microfiche set generally catalogue it as LC G&M Land Ownership Maps (1983). Historical atlases'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, which lists pre-1900 plat maps and plat books for the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.<ref>Newberry Library, Checklist of Printed Maps of the Middle West to 1900, 11 vols. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980).</ref>

This map of T16S R9W in what is now Columbia County, Arkansas (established 1852 from Union County) shows Daniel Kinard's two parcels in section 19. Because the map gives names and purchase dates for all federal patents, Kinard's 'neighborhood' can be reconstructed for various years. Township map from Family Maps of Columbia County, Arkansas, Deluxe Edition (Norman, Okla.: Arphax Publishing Co., 2005). Used with permission.

In 2005, Arphax Publishing Co. of Norman, Oklahoma began producing county maps listing original patentees and their year of purchase. These 'patent maps' are produced in two editions, Homesteads and Deluxe. The latter adds a road and a geographical feature map for each Congressional township. Indexes to names of patentees makes these an extremely useful tool for researchers.

Indian Reservations and Allotments

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 microfilmed as Bureau of Indian Affairs agency records (Record Group 75). For instance, the records of the Winnebago Agency, Nebraska, are in the National Archives'Central Plains Region in Kansas City, Missouri, and include land sales, 1902'10; Santee acknowledgments of allotments, 1885; lists of Ponca and Santee tribe members never receiving allotments, 1936'41, and so forth.

In 1855, Congress extended military bounty land laws to Indians, entitling veterans from the Revolutionary War and the Indian Wars of 1818 and 1836 to warrants that could be exchanged for public lands. A few earlier acts had specified bounty lands for Indians, but this act marked the first time land was made available on a large scale. Finding applications is explained in Mary Francis Morrow's 'Indian Bounty Land Applications.'<ref>Newberry Library, Checklist of Printed Maps of the Middle West to 1900, 11 vols. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980).</ref>

The National Archives has maps pertaining to American Indians, mostly in the western United States, circa 1800'1944. A substantial number of these maps show the names of individuals within the boundaries of the lands granted or allotted to them. Considerable place name information also appears on these maps. A card index provides access to these maps by state, thereunder by tribe or reservation.<ref>Mary Francis Morrow, 'Indian Bounty Land Applications,' Prologue 25 (Fall 1993), available on the National Archives and Records Administration website,</ref>

Preemption Rights

The problem of settlers claiming land before surveyors arrived was a very pressing one that Congress attempted to solve by preemption rights. Despite passing many different preemption acts before 1840, Congress did not seem to address the issue to the satisfaction of settlers before the 1841 act.<ref>See table 25, 'Checklist of National Archives Publications Relating to Cartographic Records,' in Anne Bruner Eale and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States, 3rd ed., p. 348. An excellent summary of Native American land records is chapter 13, 'Native American Land Records,' in Hone, Land and Property Records, 201'12. See also Overview of Native American Research.</ref> Claims clubs, which were private associations sworn to enforce their members' claims when local land was offered for sale or homesteading, sprang up in various areas and were especially numerous and active in Iowa and Minnesota and the adjoining states to the west. Often armed and intimidating, members would attend land office auctions as a group to convince non-members not to enter lands the members claimed. Such clubs were often quite formal in organization and kept records, some of which have survived and may be at an area historical society. A record book (1864'65) of the Prickly Pear Valley Club for the Protection of Claims or Ranches is at the Library and Archives Department of the Montana Historical Society in Helena. It gives resolutions and a register of claims.

At its best, preemption offered only first rights of purchase. Preemption records, which are housed at the National Archives, are not indexed. They will appear in land entry case files, but finding them requires a legal description or the name of the individual who ultimately received the federal land patent. Either piece of information may be obtained by searching the original entries in the appropriate tract book, then using the information (legal description or name) to search the GLO-ARS database and then order the land entry case file.

Titles to State Lands

The land offices of 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 archive or the state secretary of state's office to determine the location of the records. In many states, they are still held by the equivalent of a state land commissioner or by a state land board (as in Colorado).

Private Land Claims

There was a special type of federal land grant called the private land claim, wherein the American government recognized as valid certain land grants made by the earlier French, Spanish, and British governments in areas acquired by the United States after the American Revolution. These areas were the Old Northwest north of the Ohio River, the Gulf states from Florida to Louisiana, the tier of states on the west bank of the Mississippi, and the Spanish Southwest from New Mexico to California, but not including Texas.

Sometimes the foreign legal titles were quite old and meticulously documented; often they were vague claims without clear bounds. Near villages it was common to find communal fields divided into long, individually owned arable strips surrounded by a communally maintained fence. Also characteristic, though not universal, were the 'long lotsnarrow, adjoining tracts, each a few hundred feet wide, along a road or river and each running far back into the woods or prairie, sometimes a mile or more. The French and Spanish authorities also made larger grants, such as the square leagues common in Texas and the rancheros in California. Barring the usual losses, the Spanish and French administrations usually kept adequate records, and land titles were recorded and preserved.

The Texas General Land Office today has a series of sixty-nine volumes of Spanish and Mexican records. (See Overview of Hispanic Research for a discussion of Hispanic records.) The Spanish land system is discussed in detail for Texas, New Mexico (with Colorado), Arizona, and California in Henry Putney Beers's Spanish & Mexican Records of the American Southwest: A Bibliographical Guide to Archive and Manuscript Sources.<ref>The 1841 Preemption Act allowed anyone who was the head of a family (including widows) or over twenty-one, and who was a U.S. citizen or had declared intention to become one, to stake a claim on any tract up to 160 acres and then buy it from the government for $1.25 per acre. (Some lands were not open to preemption.) See Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States, 137'40.</ref>

When the U.S. government assumed control of areas containing Spanish and French grants, it had to create private land claims commissions to separate the authentic and legal titles from the fraudulent and dubious. (It is said that nine hundred Kaskaskia, Illinois, claims were perjured.)<ref>Henry Putney Beers, Spanish & Mexican Records of the American Southwest: A Bibliographical Guide to Archive and Manuscript Sources (1979; reprint, Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 44'60, 141'56, 247'68, 328'39.</ref> In addition to land claims commissions, standing committees were appointed in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States. Prior to the Civil War, the records focus most heavily on attempts by individuals to confirm land titles in what are now the states of Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa'areas that were formerly French and/or Spanish'and Florida, which included lands under either Spanish or British grants. After the Civil War, the committees were occupied with claims concerning former Mexican lands from the New Mexico Territory (present states of New Mexico and Arizona) to California.<ref>Payson Jackson Treat, The National Land System, 1785'1820 (1910; reprint, William S. Hein and Co., 2003), 215.</ref> By international law, the new government was obliged to recognize the valid property titles of the previous regime. Validation was not an easy, nor a quick, process. Pursuit of claims by petitioners sometimes lasted decades. Richard W. Meade, his wife and his descendants, labored for over 100 years to obtain satisfaction of his 1803 claim against Spain which had been assumed by the United States under a treaty. Members of the Meade family submitted claims in every Congress between the 16th and the 52nd (1819'93) except for the 17th and 38th, and they continued to pursue settlement until at least 1911.<ref>'Records of the Committee on Claims and Other Claims Committees, 1816'1946,' chapter 6, Guide to the Records of the U.S. Senate at the National Archives (Record Group 46), item 6.14 and 6.15,</ref>

The private land claims ruled valid by the claims commissions of the U.S. state and federal courts are first-title deeds surveyed outside the regular federal system of townships and ranges. For example, on the attached image, a survey of Vincennes, Indiana, the federal survey lines stop at the irregular lots and tracts of the private land claims of the old French outpost called Vincennes Common. Even today, the legal titles run back to the confirmed first-title patents of the Vincennes private claims validated by the governor of the Northwest Territory, as directed by a Congressional resolution of 1788. The legal description of this land is not in terms of sections, townships, and ranges, but in terms of the lot numbers the governor assigned to the validated and surveyed private land claims at Vincennes. The general system of private land claims, however, did not always run smoothly. Some perfectly good pre-American titles were not presented to claims commissions, engendering litigation much later.

'Private land claims' can also refer to the claims directly presented to Congress for private relief. These papers could be in different archives, depending on the administrative route taken. Claims to 1837 are recorded in The American State Papers, Class VIII, Public Lands and The American State Papers, Class IX, Claims and are indexed in Phillip W. McMullin's Grassroots of America.<ref>'Records of the Claims Committees,' Chapter 6, Guide to the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789'1989 (Record Group 233), item 6.7, at <>.</ref> The National Archives has congressional records, case files, and plat maps of private claims. According to the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives,

Originals of the congressional committee reports to Congress on private land claims are among the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, and the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233. They are filed by session of Congress, thereunder by name of committee, and thereunder chronologically.
Committee reports on individual land claims considered from 1826 to 1876 by the two congressional committees on private land claims are collected and published in Reports of the Committees on Private Land Claims of the Senate and House of Representatives, 2 vols. (45th Cong., 3d sess. Misc. Doc. 81, serial 1836). Each volume is indexed by name of claimant or subject, but many names were omitted. Also available is an 'Index to Reports of Committee on Private Land Claims, House of Representatives' on pages 5'20 of House Index to Committee Reports by T.H. McKee (Y1.3:C73/2). The Congressional Serial Set provides digested summaries and alphabetical lists of private claims presented to the U.S. Congress from the 1st to the 60th Congress (1789'1909).<ref>There are two editions of the American State Papers. McMullin's work indexes the Gales and Seaton edition, but not the Duff Green edition, which is consequently not cited here. U.S. Congress, The American State Papers, Class VIII, Public Lands and The American State Papers, Class IX, Claims (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832'61; reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1993); Phillip W. McMullin, Grassroots of America (1972; reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1993).</ref>

Online Access to Private Land Claim Documentation offers at least two databases of private land claims: U.S. House of Representative Private Claims, Vol. 1 and Land Claims in Mississippi Territory, 1789'1834. The latter comes from the American State Papers.

The Law Library of Congress offers full-text search and page images of the U.S. Serial Set, House Journal, Senate Journal, and the American State Papers. A surname and given name search can be done either as separate titles or collectively to locate all references to a claim.<ref>Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 2001), 298.</ref>. It is necessary to read all the entries for full detail. For example, references in the House Journal to the petition of John Potter of North Carolina appear sporadically from 9 April 1806 through 15 March 1810, when the petition is shown as denied.<ref>The most comprehensive index of private land claims in the American State Papers is McMullin, Grassroots of America.</ref> Yet only the American State Papers explain that Potter seeks permission to locate land on a warrant issued by the British government in 1755.<ref>House Journal,, image 283.</ref> The warrant, obtained from Lord Dunmore, governor of the then-colony of Virginia, was for 3,000 acres and was granted to Robert Munford, who served as chaplain in the War of 1755. Munford assigned the warrant to John Potter who, in 1780, located in the western part of Virginia (now Kentucky). Unfortunately, Potter, 'by mistake or accident,' failed to return the survey to the proper office, and lost the land. In 1790 he relocated but afterwards discovered the land was covered by other claims. Subsequently, Kentucky refused to locate the warrant, as did Virginia. Potter sought to use the warrant in the Virginia Military Tract of Ohio. His claim denial was explained, 'it is inconceivable to the commission how the United States should become liable to satisfy a claim originating . . . of the King of Great Britain.'<ref>American State Papers, land claims 2:84,</ref>

Private land claims are also found in various court records, because disapproved claims could be taken to court. In fact, Congress, in abolishing particular claims commissions, routinely authorized the holders of unsettled claims to prosecute their cases through the courts. Case files concerning land grants originally made by Spanish and Mexican authorities in California between 1769 and 1846 have been reproduced on microfilm as Private Land Grant Cases in the Circuit Court of the Northern District of California, 1852'1910.<ref>Private Land Grant Cases in the Circuit Court of the Northern District of California, 1852'1910, NARA microfilm T1207.</ref> The microfilm includes maps. For further reading, see Paul W. Gates's History of Public Land Law Development, and his 'Private Land Claims in the South,' in the Journal of Southern History; Louis Pelzer's 'The Private Land Claims of the Old Northwest Territory' in Iowa Journal of History and Politics; T. P. Martin's 'The Confirmation of French and Spanish Land Titles in the Louisiana Purchase'; Lemont K. Richardson's 'Private Land Claims in Missouri' in Missouri Historical Review; E. Wade Hone's 'Private Land Claims' and 'Congressional Collections' chapters in Land and Property Research; and 'Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in the Southwest: A Symposium,' edited by Clark S. Knowlton.<ref>Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington, D.C.: Public Land Law Review Commission, 1968), 87'119; Paul W. Gates, 'Private Land Claims in the South,' Journal of Southern History 22 (1956): 183'204; Louis Pelzer, 'The Private Land Claims of the Old Northwest Territory,' Iowa Journal of History and Politics 12 (1914): 363'93; T. P. Martin, 'The Confirmation of French and Spanish Land Titles in the Louisiana Purchase' (M.A. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1914); Lemont K. Richardson, 'Private Land Claims in Missouri,' Missouri Historical Review 50 (1955'56): 132'44, 271'86, 387'99; Hone, 'Private Land Claims,' 131'36, and 'Congressional Collections,' 156'58; Clark S. Knowlton, ed., 'Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in the Southwest: A Symposium,' Social Science Journal 13 (October 1976): 1'63.</ref>



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