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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 6/9/2004

Land Record Review

Land records are a popular topic in this column, particularly because they can shed light on situations that other records sometimes do not. This week, we review several past articles where utilizing these records was a crucial part of the research process. While they will not answer every question, there are times where digging in land records is the only way to find a solution to that hole in your pedigree chart.

Federal Land States
The bulk of records discussed in these columns are those from Federal land states, but records in state land states (typically along the east coast of the United States) frequently will answer problems as well. In Federal land states the attempt was made to place an imaginary grid upon the Earth. While there is some variation, this most often resulted in a township consisting of a square six miles on each side. Each of the resulting thirty-six squares, each with one mile on a side, is called a section.

The breakdown usually is as follows
- A section contains 640 acres
- A half section contains 320 acres
- A quarter section contains 160 acres
- A half of a quarter section contains 80 acres
- A quarter of a quarter section contains 40 acres

The terrain, political squabbles, family disagreements, and surveying errors can easily create crooked lines that result in non-square corners and a variety of property shapes. And keep in mind that there are occasionally slight surveying differences from this size and numbering scheme, particularly in Ohio (which was settled and surveyed as parts of the rectangular survey system were still being ironed out).

Some background on the rectangular survey system can be viewed on the Bureau of Land Management website. It can be a very interesting history lesson.
- Rectangular Survey System

- Public Lands History

- Map of Base Lines and Meridians

What Are Land Records Likely to Give Me?
While land records typically do not provide dates of birth, death, and marriage, they can provide clues such as:
- Relationships (more often implied than directly stated)
- Approximate moving dates
- Financial status of a family
- Ability to distinguish between individuals with the same name

One problem with land records is that they are not often five-minute fixes to a genealogical problem. One must analyze what is found. The advantage of using land records is that they typically are one of the records kept from the very early days of settlement in an area and may be available when other records are not. Given that for much of American history a significant proportion of the population owned land (even if it was just a small lot), land records should always be considered for inclusion in any research project.

Previous Land Record Articles Discussed in this Column
N-S-E-W.” This article discusses a homestead in Nebraska and emphasizes the importance of having a working knowledge of the rectangular survey system and how Congressional townships are numbered.

Lots of Leads from a Little Lot.” Tracking the ownership of a small lot in the city of Davenport, Iowa, led to many clues on the owner, her deceased husband, and her children. This article reminds readers that land records are not just for farm families. Some urban problems can be solved with them as well.

Tracking the Tract” and “More Tracking the Tract.” These two articles discuss finding aids for land records in Federal land states. Knowing how a deed is typically indexed makes it easier to find the desired record. Grantee (buyer) and Grantor (seller) indexes are common to nearly all land records, both in state land states and Federal land states, and are organized alphabetically. Tract indexes are more often found in Federal land states and are organized based upon the location of the property, not the name of the seller.

Turn the Page.” This article discusses three successive deeds located in Delaware County, Ohio, which provided clues to an inheritance. Deeds are sometimes recorded successively, so checking the pages before and after the located record is always a good idea.

One Hundred Acres, a Mortgage, and Three Sisters.” A follow-up to “Turn the Page,” this article outlines a series of nineteenth-century land records over a thirty-year period in order to untangle the original ownership and the relationships involved.

Where Did the Farm Go?” This article discusses the importance of tracking how your ancestor obtained his real estate and how this property left his possession. Sometimes locating these transactions will be easy, and sometimes it will not. Finding the deeds of obtaining and “un-obtaining” property is an excellent idea in both state and Federal land states.

Mortgages, Signatures, and Geometry.” An 1878 mortgage in a Federal land state contained a metes and bounds description for the property. In some cases such specific descriptions are still necessary in Federal land states. This article discusses the occasional necessity for platting out properties in Federal land states and also mentions cases where a recorded handwritten copy of a document may still contain an actual ancestral signature.

Milling around for Leads.” This article discusses the importance of searching all land records in an area, even when you think you know “everything” about an ancestor. Two deeds located on this individual indicated two things: he owned property in a previously unknown location, and for a short time his occupation was not what we had believed.

Get Wild! Using % and _ at the BLM Site.” The Bureau of Land Management website allows users to freely search land patents for Federal land states in their database. The search interface allows for wildcard queries in an attempt to circumvent misspellings and misinterpretations of first and last names. Land patents are generally “first” land sales where the Federal government transferred property to private ownership. Consequently these records are usually (but not always) concentrated in the early days of settlement of a state or territory. Users who are unfamiliar with land patents or the rectangular survey system are encouraged to visit the site's Visitor Center and learn more about the records and the survey system before beginning searches.

Your ancestors might have spent a significant proportion of their life digging in the dirt to support their family. Digging in their land records might support your research as well.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,

Michael's other genealogy articles are here.