Public-Domain Records

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More than 1 billion acres has been doled out by the government of the United States over the years. That doesn’t count Alaska land. That process involved the granting of approximately 5 million patents. All of those patents are kept in a series of 8,978 volumes at the Bureau of Land Management in Springfield, Virginia. The National Archives has an even larger collection of records relating to all of those patents that were granted by the government. Therefore, researchers must contact both the National Archives and the BLM in order to obtain those land grant records. In order to know which records to ask for, researchers must first understand how federal land grants were issued.

The Federal Land Grant Issuing Process:

Beginning in 1776, the United States government told German auxiliaries, often mistaken for "Hessians." that they could have land in the United States. From those first promises through the next 25 years or so, the government kept trying to refine their land grant policies, particularly in Ohio. As a result, the federal land grant system was fairly well-tuned by the time Ohio gained statehood, which was in 1803.

  • For a start, the policies stated that lands ceded by the original states in the west would be doled out by the federal government. In 1802, Georgia became the last state to give up its western lands in that way.
  • Prior to any grants being given out by the government, the Indian titles had to be obtained. Once the government took control of the land, it was divided into 6-mile squares. Each one was designated as a township. However, there were some smaller townships created, due to irregularities and land curvature. Land offices were then given the authority to dole out the lots of vacant land.
  • Veterans were generally given free land after they served, at least before the Civil War took place. Land obtained as part of a military bounty and entry claims that had been legally registered could often be sold without getting a patent first. However, the same rule did not apply to the sale of homesteads.
  • Over 3,500 laws relating to public lands had been created by the United States government by 1880. Among them was a law that stated that all British, Spanish, and French land titles were considered to be valid and were to be honored as such.

Although public domain lands were distributed and given state or private titles, the process wasn’t always as easy as the system makes it sound. For example, trying to get the Indians to cede lands often involved deceit and a great deal of time. As a result, the land was used by white settlers for years, even though they had no right to live on or work on that land. Both foreign titles and claims made by land speculators were often based on lies, shady dealings, and false documentation. Lower "swamp" prices were often paid for dry lands. Not only that, but front men for cattle and timber companies often created false homesteads on timber and cattle lands. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s Mesabi Range and other mineral lands were obtained by entrymen with no proper legal claims. The government also allowed squatters rights to those who first lived on land. However, their neighbors would often falsify records and land arrival dates. So, despite the fact that all records pertaining to land-entry were kept using the same methods, the information within the documents wasn’t always truthful.

The United States Public Land Commission was created by Congress in 1879. The purpose of the Public Land Commission was to be in charge of all policies relating to lands that were already implemented, as well as to take charge of any policies to be created in the future. The commission was responsible for Donaldson’s history, which was a 1,500-page report. It was also responsible for creating a general report and a compilation of laws relating to United States land, which was a 1,300-page report.

There are so many records relating to United States land laws that research into the subject can be a daunting task. In 1787, New York City public domain land auctions were held. They were also held in 1796 in Pittsburgh, but they were largely unsuccessful. Then, starting in 1800 in Ohio, local land offices began to pop up all over the country. Eventually, there were 362 land districts across the country. During the time period of 1796 to 1820, there was a $2 per acre minimum price set on land and many land auctions were held. At a certain point, the minimum size of a given tract was cut in half to 320 acres from 640 acres. Also, the terms of credit became easier and easier. The result was that, in 1819, panic arose regarding over-extensions. At that point, the minimum was reduced to 80 acres at $1.25 per acre and all long-term credit options ceased. Anyone who still owed money based on the old system was assisted by various government relief acts. In 1841, the government also issued rights of general preemption.

As time passed, Congress generously gave out land for various reasons, beginning with military wagon roads being financed from 1823 onward. The following are the starting years of other causes that Congress contributed land for:

  • Canals (1827)
  • River Improvement (1828)
  • Swamp Reclamation (1849)
  • Railroads (1850)
  • Colleges (1862)
  • Desert Reclamation (1894)

Minimum land purchases were lowered to 40 acres in 1832. Then settlers in the following states were given land from 1842 through 1853: Florida,
New Mexico,

The Homestead Act of 1862 stated that each settler was to be given 80 acres of land within areas designated for railroad grants or 160 acres in other areas. The provision was that settlers had to live on the land and improve upon it for at least 5 years. Claimants were required to either prove that they were United States citizens already, or at least that they had filed paperwork of their intent to become one. Genealogical researchers may find such paperwork to be quite useful. Later on, greater amounts of acreage were granted to those settling in dry climates. For example, 640 acres was granted in 12 of the western states, thanks to the 1877 desert Land Act. 640 acres was also granted in the western part of Nebraska in 1904, thanks to the Kincaid Act. Then, in 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act was past, granting 320 acres in 7 of the states in the West. After that came the 1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act, which granted 640 acres of land. By the 1930s, homesteading had essentially come to an end. However, as late as 1983, some state lands have come about as a result of so-called "sagebrush rebellions." Back in 1891, preemption rights and cash sales had ended. However, even in the present day, leasing and sales of federal grazing lands and mineral lands continue in some areas.

It’s important for researchers to have a good understanding of how the records for all of those transactions were filed. For instance, once the government gained land from the Indian tribes and any land claims made by private citizens had been surveyed and adjudicated, the office of the surveyor-general took over. It was up to them to establish both the baseline and principal meridian in order to survey the area in increments of 6 miles. Doing that created townships, which each had 36 distinct parts that measured 1 square mile apiece. Several states contain multiple meridians. So, there are designations in the legal paperwork. For instance, one might look like this:

NW 1/4 of SE 1/4, sec. 9, T13S, R11E, Sixth P.M.

After land surveys were complete, it was possible for land to be described and defined. Then, land offices were opened. They held auctions at which entrymen/claimants were able to make cash purchases or down payments. Prior to 1820, credit installments were also allowed. There were only very low payments required for homesteads. Each land office was run by a receiver and a registrar. The receiver took money, while the registrar recorded land claims and monitored which lands could still be claimed. Occasionally, those officers would send copies or summarized records to their national headquarters. Up until 1812, that was the Treasury Department. After that, it became the General Land Office (GLO). Each local land office recorded two area indexes for each land entry, along with the separate file for the land entry itself. The two indexes were the map of patented tracts for the township, which was called a plat, and the description of land, which was written in a tract book.

Once a person (entryman) met the required rules for homesteading or land purchasing, all paperwork filed by them was compiled into a case file. Then that information and the certificate of patent entitlement were sent to the Washington office of the GLO. At that point, the GLO would issue the first-title deed (patent) only if all of the paperwork was in order. At that point, the land would pass from government ownership to private ownership, railroads, cattle companies, states, or similar entities. Patent copies were kept by the GLO in bound volumes. They were organize according to first state, and then district and placed in the case file for land entries. A national series of patents has existed from June 30, 1908 onward. All patentees listed in that file are recorded in an index. Land owners also may have filed records of their patents with the county in that county’s deed book. However, it’s also possible that an agreement may have existed between the GLO and the state, allowing state and county officials to be automatically informed when new patents were filed, That agreement existed, in some cases, due to the 5 years of property tax exemption that were often given when new lands were released to property owners

The case files for homesteads go beyond just bounty-warrant, credit, or cash records. For example, the application for homesteading is included, along with a publication of intention certificate. Claimant and witness testimonies in the form of the claim final proof and the final patent authorization are all also included in the records. So, there is valuable genealogical information to be had in those case files. In fact, certified naturalization papers may also be in those files, if they were required. The claimants address, name, and age will all be listed in the completed proof records. A date of established residence, description of the house and land, and the number of people in the house and their relationships to one another will also be included. Other useful pieces of information that the researcher may find in the records includes the number of cultivated acres, types of crops, witness testimony, and citizenship notes.

Patents were never fully pursued for some homestead claims and other claims. If the claim deadline wasn’t met or the claimant didn’t stay on the land and use it for 5 years, the claim was voided. Voided entry claim records were kept after they were canceled. Many of those records are now housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 20408. State archives and regional federal archives also received some of those canceled files. Many of those files contain excellent ancestral information, often including why the claims in question were incomplete. They can be traced through the tract books that are on file for each area.

There are more than 1,185,000 entries for homesteads that never reached the point of officially being patented. However, their case files still exist and contain a lot of useful genealogical information, including when and why the patent processes were canceled.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Prior to 1946, the Grazing Service and the GLO were separate entities. Then they were put together to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Therefore, many of the old GLO records are held by the BLM. The National Archives keeps GLO records (Records Group 49) at the BLM. In 1996, the BLM was divided into two halves. Once covers the western states and one covers the eastern states. The Eastern States Office, which is located at 7450 Boston Blvd., Springfield, VA 22153, holds plats, patents, and tract books for the eastern states. That includes all states that are east of the Mississippi River and considered to be public-domain states. It also includes states along the western bank of the river, including Minnesota and Louisiana. As for the western states, the majority of them each have a BLM office. However, the Great Plains states’ information is held by adjoining western states. Also, the state of Washington’s BLM records are located in the Oregon BLM office. Duplicate copies of many of those records, including plat books, may be found at the GLO headquarters or in various land offices.

All the way along the line from the land surveys to the patents has left a trail that genealogical researchers can follow. Below are some examples of information that could be helpful to researchers.

Survey Field Notes

Each survey involved field notes. Those were kept in the records of the surveyor general. Those records are now most commonly found in the land offices of each state. However, they may be found in a state or federal regional archive, instead, at least in some cases. Although these field notes don’t contain a lot of useful genealogical information, they can still be helpful. Some of them list people who lived on the land before the survey was taken. They may also describe the area, including specific buildings and landmarks.

Tract Books

Sometimes a legal description of the land may be missing. In those cases, tract books might list entrymen and other helpful information. Tract books have all been filed on microfilm at the western or eastern states offices according to their region and location. Copies may also exist in local research libraries, regional archives, or state archives. In states that have not had their records placed on computers, the tract books are the best research sources for those looking for patentee and claimant information.

Township Plats

Some plats may be impossible to read because they have been written over multiple times. Legal descriptions and legible information are more likely to be found in the tract books. However, plats, which can be found on microfilm along with tract books, can still sometimes contain useful bits of information.


The Eastern States Office holds the whole public domain patent originals. They are organized according to state and land district (up to June 30, 1908). They are listed in chronological order within their groups. Each of the patents has been placed on microfilm. Patents for the Western states have been mounted on aperture cards (IBM cards). That makes them easier to sort according to their townships and ranges. Researchers must contact the appropriate BLM office to obtain those records.

The following states have computerized indexed patent records from the late 1780s through July 1, 1908:

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin

The following website lists over 1 million cash and homestead deeds and patents that were federally issued:

Preemption Rights and Indian Reservations

The government got rid of many Indian reservations between 1830 and 1934. They did that by giving each Indian some land and then selling the remaining land. There are many records of those land allotments in various places. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has many of them on microfilm. The Kansas City, Missouri National Archives-Central Plains Region branch, meanwhile, is home to the Winnebago Agency, Nebraska records. Those records include 1902 through 1910 land sale records, as well as Santee allotment acknowledgments from 1885 and Santee and Ponca tribe member lists for those who didn’t receive lands from 1936 to 1941. Other related records are also located at the Kansas City branch.

Many settlers tried to claim land before it was ever surveyed. The federal government tried to use preemption rights to solve that problem. Unfortunately, that didn’t completely solve the problem. In fact, claims clubs were formed. The goal of a claims club was to enforce any land claims made by members whenever land sales or homestead sales took place. These groups would often show up at auctions held by land offices and, armed with guns, try to prevent outsiders from entering lands that had been claimed by the members already. Those groups were generally well-organized, and so were their records. Many of those records are still available. Claims clubs are more interesting from a historical standpoint than from a genealogical one, but their records can contain some useful genealogical information. Minnesota, Iowa, and other western states were most likely to have claims clubs.

In cases where settlers came to the area before the federal government stepped in, land claims were often illegally enforced by settlers. Claim-jumping was fairly common, but the California Gold Rush mining camp laws and other similar laws sought to reduce that problem.

One example of an area where claims were questionable was in Utah. Brigham Young, who was among the Utah settlers, once threatened to "give them a preemption right that will last them to the last resurrection." Part of the problem there was that the land office in Utah was not opened until 22 years after settlers came to the area.

In cases where states were public domain states, the state land offices handled those records. Large amounts of acreage were split into smaller pieces and either leased or sold to settlers. The state archives and land offices hold some of those records. However, many of them are located in other places. For instance, the state land commissioner or equivalent or, in the case of Colorado, the state land board, may hold the records. Therefore, locating the records of interest involves writing to either the secretary of state’s office or the state archives.

Private Land Claims

Some federal land grants were known as private land claims. Those occurred in situations where other governments granted land to individuals first. Such governments included those of Britain, Spain, and France. Areas that became United States-owned after the American Revolution had many of those private land claims. Those areas included:

  • The Old Northwest North of the Ohio River
  • The Gulf States from Louisiana to Florida
  • The States on the Mississippi River’s West Bank
  • The Spanish Southwest from California to New Mexico, Excluding Texas

Many of the land titles from foreign countries were very old, but well-kept. However, others were extremely vague and important details were decidedly missing. Some villages had communal fields that were divided into sections. They often had fences that were maintained by the entire community as a whole. Those sections were often very long, but only a few hundred feet across. Many of them ran a mile or more back into the woods, but had a small section that met with a river or a road. In California, larger square lots called rancheros were common. Similarly large lots in Texas were also common. They were all granted by either the Spanish or the French.

Both the French and Spanish governments kept meticulous land records, many of which still exist today. However, there have been some that were lost over the years.

Whenever land was taken over from France or Spain by the United States, private land claims commissions were created. They were necessary in order to determine which claims were legitimate. Records seem to indicate that about 900 claims in Kaskaskia, Illinois alone were fraudulent. International law required that legitimate claims continue to be honored. So, it was necessary to weed out those fraudulent claims.

In cases where United States federal and state courts ruled that claims were valid, the first-title deed surveys were not completed within the standard townships and ranges system. Private land claims systems were not always run without problems, though. In some cases, claims commissions did not handle older land titles at the appropriate times, which led to court hearings at later times.

Some claims were presented for private relief to the federal government. Those were also known as private land claims. Their records are located in various archives. For example, U.S. Congress, The American State Papers, Class VIII, Public Lands includes claims up to 1837. Case files, congressional records, and private claim plat maps can all be found at the National Archives.

Since claims that were disapproved were often challenged in court, many court records hold records pertaining to private land claims. Congress often encouraged people to try to settle their land claim cases in court, especially when they dissolved certain claims commissions.

Related Reading:

  • Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, Western Expansion, A History of the American Frontier, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1982). It is a masterful summary of American frontier history with an extensive bibliography.
  • John F. Vallentine, “Histories of the American Frontier: A Series,” Genealogical Journal 6 (1977): 200–05.
  • 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. Washington, D.C.: Public Land Law Review Commission, 1968.
  • Hibbard, Benjamin Horace. A History of the Public Land Policies. New York: Peter Smith, 1939.
  • 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.
  • Lawrence B. Lee, “American Public Land History: A Review Essay,” Agricultural History 55 (1981): 284–99.
  • Bureau of Land Management, Public Land Bibliography (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, 1962).
  • Dictionary Catalog of the National Agricultural Library, 1862–1965, 73 vols. (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1965–70)
  • Department of the Interior, Catalog of the United States Geological Survey Library, 24 vols. plus a first supplement of 11 vols. and a second of 4 (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1964, 1972–74).
  • 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: Government Printing Office, 1881), House Exec. Doc. no. 47, pts. 2–3, 46th Cong., 3rd sess., serial no. 1976.
  • Bureau of Land Management, Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States (Washington: Department of the Interior, 1973), Technical Bulletin 6.
  • E. Kay Kirkham, The Land Records of America and Their Genealogical Value (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964)
  • Richard S. Lackey, “The Genealogists’ First Look at Federal Land Records,” Prologue 9 (Spring 1977): 43–45; A brief background of federal land records
  • Natchez Trace Genealogical Society; and W. Frank Meek, “Federal Land Office Records,” University of Colorado Law Review 43 (1971–72): 177–97.
  • Henry Putney Beers, Spanish & Mexican Records of the American Southwest: A Bibliographical Guide to Archive and Manuscript Sources (Tucson: University of Arizona Press and the Tucson Corral of the Westerners, 1979), 44–60, 141–56, 247–68, 328–39. The Texas General Land Office today has a series of sixty-nine volumes of Spanish and Mexican records. The Spanish land system is discussed in detail for Texas, New Mexico (with Colorado), Arizona, and California