What do you do when you have a great family history story and have just learned how to use a new set of historical records? If you’re my friend, Karen, you share the story with your extended family then help your interested niece find some land patents. Today we have a guest post from Karen telling how she helped her teenage niece connect with her ancestors.
By Karen Walters
A few months ago, we were enjoying a barbeque with extended family. My mother came from out of state and brought an old, forgotten memory book. It had a story about our Wells family who homesteaded in Iowa. I showed the kids the grass in the adjoining field that had grown almost as high as my husband’s head due to heavy rains and shared the story of the Wells family plotting out their 160 acres in grass as high as a horse’s back.
The father and sons found the starting corner of their land with the help of a neighbor. Then, using a compass and the distance it took for a rag tied to a wagon wheel to make one revolution, they figured both the direction and length of their homestead–1/2 mile for each side. Frontiersmen and math!
With this story in their heads, kids from all ages checked out and explored the path through the 5-6′ high grass. After dinner we pulled out the computers to peek at the Wells family on FamilySearch. My 18-year-old niece, Mallorie, was really excited, so I told her how to look up the Land Patents that this family got for their adjoining homesteads. The oldest son, at age 21 was eligible to get his own homestead a little later, and they worked both pieces of land together.
I directed her to the General Land Office Records on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management website, and went through the steps to find a land patent, entering in the state (Iowa) and our best guess for the county. For this we typed the city and state names into the “Place” window on FamilySearch (a quick and easy way to get a county name) and then checked an Iowa state map to confirm the information and get the neighboring county names. County boundaries can change over time, so there’s not a guarantee that you’ll get the right county on a current map, but the searching is part of the adventure! Kids–definitely my niece Mallorie–love a puzzle or mystery, and family history is a fascinating mystery!
We typed in the last, then first name of our ancestor, Wells, then Walter. And wow–(as I anticipated)–we found a Land Patent. Mallorie was thrilled! We then found the neighboring patent for Walter’s son, William, gained a year later. Often more than one patent can come up, with names of family members or friends.
With Mallorie in the driver’s seat, we clicked on the Walter Wells patent, and found a location description. The fun is in the map under the description, which, when you click the box next to the name of the Patent owner, you can zoom in to see where the homestead was. Some maps are more complete than others, but specific or not, Mallorie was thrilled. We then clicked the tab “Image” to see an actual image of the land patent about our ancestor, Walter Wells. I was surprised how excited Mallorie was, staring at his name written back in 1878. It was so real to her–her ancestor, signing up for the American dream!
I then asked Mallorie if she’d like to look for a patent I hadn’t found yet, and remembering a story I found in a county history years ago about another ancestor, Jacob Ish, we commenced with another search in Missouri. I couldn’t remember the county name for sure, but with the help of a map, we starting narrowing down our options, and when his Land Patent from 1823 came up, Mallorie was in transports. We shared this with several other excited family members, and eventually joined in the rest of the activities. When her family stepped out the door to leave, she walked out with them amid the “Goodbyes” then turned around and pushed through the intervening family members, coming back in the house to find me and give me a bear hug, exclaiming, “Aunt Karen, thank you for helping me find my ancestors!”
Steps to Finding a Land Patent for your Ancestor
– Go to the General Land Office Records on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management website,
– Click on “Search Documents by Type” tab
– Enter in the state name
– If possible, enter in the county name (you may have to try a couple of educated guesses on this–remember, this is a mystery, which county is the best possibility?)
– Enter in the last name of your individual
– Enter in the first name of your individual NOTE: I rarely use the middle name, since it often was not used on these documents, and by adding it, a Land Patent without the middle name will not come up. But without the middle name, Land Patents with middle names come up, so simpler is usually better.
– When a result comes up, if an image is available, click on the paper icon–somewhat orangish on the left side of the name–and you can see the original document.
– You can also click on the blue number in the “Accession” column to the immediate right of the name which will bring up details of the patent.
-Scroll down below the details and click in the “Map” column next to the patent (or the wanted patent if there are several “Descriptions” listed), and below that a map will appear (or is already there) which you can zoom in on by clicking the “+” button to zoom in on the location of your ancestor’s patent. Some are more specific than others, but you will get at least a general location!
-Change your search parameters if you don’t get a hit. Some used initials instead of first and middle names, some may have gone by a middle name. And maybe some just didn’t homestead . . . the mystery continues!
Thanks for sharing this awesome example, Karen. If you follow her steps and find a Land Patent for your ancestor, the next step is to order the land case file from the National Archives. I shared what I found in my ancestor’s homestead file in my post Back To School: Those Valuable Homestead Records. There is much more fun to be had learning about your ancestor’s land adventures.
Best of luck in your family history endeavors!