Give Me Land, Lots of Land!

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: February 1, 2003

In the 1700's and 1800's the American and Canadian colonies grew. They had established a foothold and were no longer dependant on imports from Europe to survive the long winters. Basic manufactured goods were becoming more and more available from local makers. Families were now growing, communities were being built and governments were being set up. With all of this growth came a whole new host of issues and problems.

The laws in the colonies were pretty much the same as in England at the time. The eldest son inherited his father’s property, thus leaving all the rest of the sons and daughters landless. And even for the fortunate son, more land meant larger crops and more income. And if North America had an abundance of any resource, it was land! More and more families flooded in from all over the world in search of this commodity. The one thing that would allow them to work and support their families without being dependant on a landlord.

And records were kept of who owned the land and how they had obtained it. Legally, all real property, land, must be transferred in writing. Writing means records and records mean a chance to learn about who owned the land and, perhaps, who they were related to. In an effort to prove that their title was valid, children would get a new deed filed, showing that they had inherited the land from their father. The deed or transfer intrument might indicate that their title was dependant upon a right given to their mother, or the wife of the deceased.

After the Revolutionary War many soldiers were given land, or the right to buy land, in the ‘wilds’ because the new states had no money to pay the soldiers their wages. All of the unsettled land that had been under the control of the British Crown was now available for the states to use and destribute as they wished, the spoils of war. The migration paths of early settlers were determined newer or ‘safer’ routes to get the settlers to newly availabile land at cheap prices, sometimes even free. Most of these early land acquisitions were through the use of a document called a Land Patent. It was a legal document issued by the Federal Government to show that the owner had complete rights to the property in question. Most of us are used to the passing of title through deeds. But if no one had ‘title’ then there was nothing to show that they had a legal right to the land unless they could acquire a patent from the government.

So this leads me to one of the best uses of my tax dollars that I’ve found! The new Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office (GLO) Records Automation division has created a web site. Through it you can obtain access to Federal land conveyance records for the Public Land States. Not only can you search by name and state, it has the actual document image available for many of the patents! Included in this are more than two million Federal land title records for Eastern Public Land States issued between 1820 and 1908. They are in the process of adding images of Serial patents (land titles issued between 1908 and the mid-1960's). And while they caution that the site does not contain every Federal title record issued for the Public Land States, they are adding items all the time. Note that unfortunately, this does not include the original 13 colonies!

Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office (GLO)

A search for Land Patents will bring up thousands of hits. You should be aware that the majority of them are abstracts of what someone has found in the BLM’s search. Given a choice, I’d go to the source! But here are a couple that are not abstracts:

The Library of Virginia provides a searchable database with image links. Pretty neat to see Thomas Jefferson’s signature at the bottom of the page! Library of Virginia - Land Patents

Land Patents were also a common method of conveying land to Native People here in North America. Canada documented property through this method, and some of these items can be found online also. Ontario has one page shown on their web site with information on how to contact them to obtain additional information, as well as genealogical data! Ontario Collections

This site provides links to many of the Native American Land Patents. Native American Land Patents

Good Luck in searching for the land that your ancestors put their roots into!

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Updated on 10/25/2005