How did your ancestors receive their land? Did they win the land lottery? Could they have received a bounty land grant for military service? Perhaps they homesteaded and lived on the land long enough to obtain a land patent.
If your ancestor was the first person in the chain of land transfer, he would have either received the land directly from the colony/state or from the federal government. After the initial land distribution, the subsequent transactions for that parcel of land were recorded in deeds at the county courthouse. It is possible to trace the land an ancestor owned back to the original owner through the records.
In Part 1 of this series I discussed what might be revealed in a land record: a family relationship, clues to past or present residence, associates, evidence of migration and more. I also described the difference between a state and a federal land state and the differences in land measurement.
Part 2 was all about deeds and how to find them in the county deed books both online and at the courthouse.
This is the final article in the series and I’m going to briefly describe the process our ancestors went through to qualify for a land patent, which was the first title to the land. The process differed by location and time frame, but the basis steps are as follows.
Five Steps for Receiving a Land Patent
Step 1: Entry or application
To receive a land patent, an individual had to make a formal application. He’d give an estimate of the acres involved and list the improvements he’d made on the land. Different states and time periods required various other types of information. Once those were met, the application was dated and filed. The fee was paid with cash, or credit arrangements were made and a receipt was issued.
Step 2: Warrant
If the application was successful, a warrant would be issued to survey the land. The warrant would give a surveyor authorization to measure the land and make a record of a formal description of the land. If this was a state land state, the description would be in metes and bounds. If a federal land state, the township, range, and section would be described.
Step 3 : Survey
The land was then surveyed. Surveys often show bordering properties, including neighbor’s names. They can describe natural features such as streams, rivers, and swamps as well as man-made objects such as mills and roads. A drawing could accompany the survey or notes. The survey was generally carried out by an approved surveyor and recorded in the land office (state land state) or township plat book (federal land state).
In the federal land states, the land survey was next filed in a tract book, then transferred to the General Land Office. Accompanying the survey would be other paperwork such as witness statements, affidavits, receipts, proof of citizenship and more. This paperwork made up the land-entry case file.
Many land-entry case files were rejected for various reasons so a patent was never issued. The case files, however, still exist and hold the information from the original application.
Step 4: Patent
In a state land state, once the survey was filed, a patent was prepared. The patent was the official title to the property and marked the completion of the land acquisition process.
In federal land states, a final certificate for the patent was issued showing that the application had been approved. An individual would take the final certificate to the local land office and exchange it for an official patent from the General Land office. Some patentees also registered the certificate with the local courthouse.
An ancestor who received a land patent was the first owner of that piece of property. After the patent was issued, the property became part of the private sector and the next transfer of land was in the form of a deed.
Step 5: Assignment of Property Rights
It wasn’t unusual for an individual to begin the process of applying for a land patent then assign his rights to the land to another person. This might have been done to pay a debt, or in return for goods and services. I’ve seen this in many records and wished I knew the rest of the story. In the case of Thomas B. Royston, he received the land patent, then assigned it to a John Graves. Whether Thomas was paying off a debt or received a large sum of money for the land, I don’t know, and other land records haven’t survived to tell the story.
Case Study – Land Entry Case File for Thomas B. Royston
My first foray into land records was using the Bureau of Land Management’s website to find land patents for my ancestors. On this website you can search for your ancestor in each federal land state and view the completed patent, the original survey, and other related documents. Performing a search for “Royston” in Chamber County, Alabama, I found a land patent for Thomas B. Royston dated 1 May 1845.
I noticed that Thomas B. Royston had made full payment for the parcel of land described as “the South East quarter of Section twenty, in Township nine of Range seven, in the District of lands subject to sale at Lebanon Alabama. Containing one hundred and sixty acres, and sixty-eighth hundredths of an acres.”
A fun feature of the BLM website is the ability to map the parcel of land granted, shown below. The small orange square is the south east quarter of section twenty. The large orange square is Township 9 South Range 7 East. I can also look at related documents and see the neighbors.
Armed with the actual patent number of 5969, I was able to order the land-entry file from the National Archives in Washington D.C. First in the file was a document with the file number of 5969 underlined in red and my ancestor’s name, Tho. B. Royston with the land description and the land act. Other notes on the document were the signature of a notary, and a note that the claim was approved.
The next document was a witness letter by Wm. C. Smith and Isaac D. Wall stating that they were well acquainted with Thomas B. Royston and also with the land described. They attested to the fact that “said Royston settled on said quarter prior to January 1837 – that he erected a dwelling house upon it in which he has lived and made his home from that time to the year 1840. . . was the head of a family, having a wife and children.”
The file contained just two other images that held only the name and number of the file. This was a relatively small file, but considering it contains information on my 3rd great grandfather in 1837, huge in benefit.
I wanted to find this land patent in the tract books and discovered they are digitized on FamilySearch. To learn how to use them, see this excellent article on the FamilySearch Research Wiki, “Tract Books.” The tract books are where you can find the file number of an application that was declined with no patent issued. Approximately 2 million individuals did not complete the process and although they did not receive a patent, their land-entry case file still can be ordered.
Here is the entry for Thomas B. Royston’s land patent which was recorded in the tract book of the Land Office at Lebanon, Alabama. The land description was given, the amount of cash paid – $200.85, the date of 23 May 1842, and John Graves, assignee noted. On the same page I saw that three other entries were declined, now I’m interested to find out why!
Other Types of Land Records
Aside from land patents, there are other types of land records to learn about: headright grants issued in the colonies, state grants, lottery land issued by Georgia, and military bounty land awarded by the federal government to veterans. The FamilySearch Research Wiki is an excellent place to learn about land records in your locality: “United States Land and Property.”
Many of our ancestors took advantage of the opportunity to own a piece of land and will be found in the records. You might be surprised by what you find. So far I’ve discovered three generations of Roystons in the land-entry case files. Besides Thomas B. Royston, I found his son – Robert C. Royston, and grandaughter, Effie D. Royston Huntley in Homestead records and wrote about them: “Back to School: Those Valuable Homestead Records.”
About 2 millions individuals applied for up to 320 acres of free land under the Homestead Law of 1862 and your ancestor might be among them! The homesteaders followed the steps listed above to receive a land patent and created files full of interesting documents. I especially liked learning about a woman receiving land in 1915. Land records have opened up new possibilities of research in my family and may in yours also.
Best of luck in all of your genealogical research!