Back to the Basics with Land Records: Part 1
Why would you want to search land records as part of your genealogy research plan? Are they really useful? How do you find them and what information can they hold? These are some of the questions we’ll be looking at in our new series on land records. If you’ve been wanting to delve into the land but haven’t felt comfortable, in this series I’ll demystify land research and show you how its done.
As a researcher in the southern United States, land records are the backbone of my work. Why? As the country grew, the lure of new land was irresistible to our ancestors. Who could turn down the temptation of being able to call a piece of land your own after living on it and improving it for a few years? Keeping records of land transactions was just as important to our ancestors as to us, so these records are valuable resources in our genealogy research. Here are a few reasons to search land records
Why Search Land Records
~ A land record may state family relationships found nowhere else.
~ Discovering the land places your ancestor in a certain place and time.
~ The land description reveals the adjoining landowners who are the neighbors and associates of your family.
~ Land records apply to more people than any other record because of the importance of keeping track of the transactions.
~ Land records exist from the early 1600’s and may be the only extant record for an early ancestor.
~ People re-registered deeds that were destroyed in a courthouse fire, so land research is a good strategy for a burned county.
~ Grantor/grantee indexes list residents and can be a pre-1850 census for a county.
~Land records began to be kept when settlers arrived in an area making them the earliest records in an area.
Types of Land Records
You may have heard lots of terms when it comes to land records such as bounty land, head-rights, patents, warrants, and grants. These are some of the terms used to describe land transferred from the state or federal government to an individual. These land records can be found in a variety of locations and we’ll learn how to find them in a subsequent article.
Once an individual owns the land, any sale of that land results in a deed being drawn up to transfer ownership of the land. Deeds are kept on the county level and are generally available at the county courthouse. FamilySearch has digitized the deeds for many United States counties and these can often be viewed at home. Locate them by searching the FamilySearch Catalog. My article The FamilySearch Catalog: A Researcher’s Best Friend can help you get started.
State Vs Federal Land States
First, we need to talk about how the land in the United States was originally distributed. You may have heard the term “state land state” or “federal land state” and wondered what that meant. It all has to do with how the land in an area was originally allocated – by the state government or the federal government.
Think back to your U.S. history class and what you learned about the original thirteen colonies. Land in the 1600’s and 1700’s was dispensed by whatever foreign power had possession of the colony at the time. The land along the eastern seaboard of the United States was primarily settled by the time of the Revolutionary War and these states retained control of the land.
With westward expansion, the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia were also formed as state land states. When Texas joined the United States, it already had a land system based on the Spanish colonial years and until 1848, the Hawaiian lands were distributed by the high chiefs of the islands. Consequently, the land of both Texas and Hawaii was dispersed by the state.
In all, twenty states of the fifty are known as state land states. In alphabetical order, they are: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The remaining thirty states are known as federal land states, meaning the federal government distributed the land, shown on the following map. (1)
State Land States Land Measurement
Land measurement in the state land states was generally surveyed in a system called metes and bounds. You may have seen a land record that gives reference points such as “the large oak tree” or “90 degrees south of the bend in the creek.” If you’re working with a land record in a state land state and want to map the land, it can be done! For an excellent explanation see “Metes, Bounds & Meanders” by Kimberly Powell. (2)
Here’s an example of a Tennessee land grant dated 9 December 1797:
. . . 50 acres part of said Warrant lying in Hickman County in the first District, on both sides of Mill Creek, of Pine River, between John Coopers and Jesse Coopers – Beginning at a small hickory near John Coopers house on the east boundary line of David Robertson entry made on location 435,99 poles South of said Robertson’s north east corner running east 89 poles across Mill Creek . .
What is the unit of measurement listed as a “pole” in the description above? A pole equals 16.5 feet. Other terms of measurement you’ll run across are chain, link, furlong, rod, league, labor, and arpent. No need to understand these terms until you come across them in your research and want to understand them further. You can do a quick Google search to convert each term to something more understandable.
If you’d like a good reference book to have on hand, an excellent source for learning about land is E. Wade Hone’s book Land & Property Research in the United States. (3). (This is affiliate link to purchase the book on Amazon. If you make a purchase, we receive a commission. Thank you!)
Federal Land States Land Measurement
If state land states’ measurements seem a little wacky, rest assured that the federal land states use a nice grid system that is fun to use once you understand it. Have you seen those land descriptions such as the NE ½ of the NE ¼ of Sect. 13 ? Using that description and grid paper, you can draw out your ancestor’s land.
Below is a great visual from the FamilySearch Research Wiki. (4) Starting at the top left corner you’ll see a township grid in blue. Each square represents a township. Don’t get this confused with a township that might be named on a census and relates to a populated place. These townships are only for marking off sections of 36 square miles. Each township is given a description based on how far north or south it is of the base line and how far east or west it is of the principle meridian.
Now look at the middle square in green. This is that township labeled as T2S R3W broken up into 36 squares each representing a square mile. Notice how the numbering pattern zigzags back and forth across the grid.
Now check out the brown square in the bottom right corner representing Section 14. This is further divided into squares or rectangles and represent the plots of land that our ancestors owned. Each quarter of the square can be divided and divided again which is why the land descriptions can have a lot of “1/4” in them.
Using a Land Description in Research
At this point are you asking, “why bother?” You may not see a point in learning to understand the land descriptions, but mapping the land can reveal important information for your ancestor.
For example, I recently did a research project based on determining if George W. Dillard of Russell County, Alabama, was the father of my 3rd great grandmother, Cynthia Dillard. She and her husband, Thomas B. Royston report owning lot of land in the 1850 census of Chambers County, Alabama yet the deeds of the that county don’t show how he received the land. I know Cynthia’s maiden name was Dillard from death certificates of three of her children and many clues point to George W. Dillard being her father.
Since George W. Dillard seemed a likely suspect to be Cynthia’s father, could studying the land reveal a connection between George and Thomas B. Royston? I searched all of the deeds for Thomas – both buying and selling land – and then I mapped them on grid paper. I discovered that he owned two unique plantations. Because my drawing was sort of messy, I created the nice clean image shown below for my research report.
Putting all of the information into a table I was able to determine that there was no connection between George W. Dillard and Thomas B. Royston through land. I couldn’t use the land to prove a relationship in this case, but I was able to clearly visualize the land and discovered many associates of my ancestor.
Was it worth it? Absolutely, because now I can put to rest the idea that George W. Dillard sold or gave land to Thomas B. and Cynthia (Dillard) Royston. This actually opened up many new areas to research and so the search continues. If you’d like to read the report, here is a link to the Google Doc: Is George W. Dillard the Father of Cynthia (Dillard) Royston?
If you’ve never paid attention to the land descriptions before, take a look and see whether the land was controlled by the state or the federal government. Then read the description and see what catches your eye.
Next up in this series, we’ll learn about some of the different types of land records and how you can access them.
Best of luck in all of your genealogical endeavors!
(1) Diltsgd, a FamilySearch Research Wiki user, “Federal Land States vs. State Land States,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/File:Federal_vs._State_Land_States.png : accessed 18 Feb 2019).
(2) Kimberly Powell, “Metes, Bounds & Meanders,” updated March 17, 2017, ThoughtCo. (https://www.thoughtco.com/metes-bounds-and-meanders-ancestral-land-1420631 : accessed 18 Feb 2019).
(3) E.Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry Inc., 1997).
(4) DiltsGD, a FamilySearch Research Wiki User, “Congressional Township Rectangular Survey Grid,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/File:Congressional_Township_Rectangular_Survey_Grid.png : accessed 18 February 2019).