Genealogy: Researching land records

Researching land recordsBy Barry J. Ewell

One of the major factors influencing our ancestors coming to America was the availability of land. There is a high likelihood that your ancestor can be found in land records. It is estimated that by the mid-1800s, as many as ninety percent of all adult white males owned land in the United States.

There are many types of land records—title abstracts, land purchases, grants, and more. Land records are typically one of the records kept from the very early days of settlement in an area and may be available when other records are not. These records provide information on relationships between individuals, approximate relocation dates, and the financial state of a family.

What you will find. Use the land records to find death date and place; find residence; find names (and addresses) of descendants; learn details to search for land records; discover other places where the ancestor may have held property; discover relationships; get a feel for an ancestor’s economic standing; look for clues about an ancestor’s feelings toward family members; find clues to the deaths of other family members; sort out adoptions, guardianships, and other unclear relationships; learn names of stores and vendors frequented by your ancestor; and find your ancestor’s signature, occupation, citizenship, and marital status.

Brief Overview of Land Records You Will Find
The following is a brief overview of some of the land records you will find.

Deeds. Deed books record the ownership and transfer of property, usually real estate.

Bounty-land Warrants. The federal government provided bounty land for those who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and Indian wars between 1775 and 1855. Bounty lands were offered as incentive to serve and as a reward for service. Bounty land was claimed by veterans or their heirs. The federal government reserved tracts of land for this purpose. The states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia also set aside tracts of bounty land for their Revolutionary War veterans. Federal bounty land applications and warrants for the Revolutionary War have been microfilmed. They are available at the National Archives, its regional branches, and through the Family History Library system.

Donation Land Records. In 1850, in an attempt to lure settlers to the new western lands, the government gave lands to would-be settlers in Florida, New Mexico, and Oregon and Washington Territories. These land grants were known as donation lands. Settlers were required to reside on and improve the land by cultivation for four years before receiving a patent. Unique to the donation lands was the limits placed on the time of arrival rather than time of application. Young children who came with their families between 1850 and 1855 could claim their land when they became adults.

Homestead Records. The first homestead law was enacted in 1862 and was intended to encourage settlement in the west. As with the Donation Lands, the only requirement was to live on and improve the land through cultivation. Only a small filing fee was required. Although only an estimated 780,000 people received patents under the Homestead Law, two million applications were made, dispersing approximately 285 million acres.

Land Record Research Insight
Research insights. Start by determining the time and place your family might have owned property. Begin your search at the smallest jurisdictional level—usually the county (except in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, where town clerks have kept the records). First look in the indexes. You will want to check both the grantor or direct (seller) and grantee or indirect (buyer) indexes for all possible entries of the ancestor you are searching. Once you find them, copy the references, which you will then use to look up land transitions in the appropriate books or volumes and page numbers. When you find the transaction, review every detail, which includes dates, names, relationships, and property description. Make a handwritten, photo, or digital copy of the full entry.

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