…whoever brings plenty of money-he will have it good. For whoever brings in money can buy a piece of land.1
As we have discussed in the first three posts in this series, one of the reasons our Pennsylvania Germans left their homeland and came to America was the promise of land. Letters and tracts that told of Pennsylvania’s virtues were widely distributed in Germany. Friends and family members shared these with one another. Escaping the troubles of their homeland to go somewhere like Pennsylvania was appealing to our ancestors. Because the abundance of land was on their minds, many of our Pennsylvania German ancestors sought land ownership as soon as they were able.
The Land Acquisition Process
In order to understand the records that were created during the process of land acquisition, here is a brief overview:
Pennsylvania was initially a proprietary colony, owned independently of government control by William Penn. William Penn and his sons owned and operated their own land company. After the Revolutionary War, Pennsylvania became a state-land state, meaning the state government was in charge of distributing government-owned land, but many of the proprietary procedures that had been established by Penn and his heirs remained in place. The time periods for each era are as follows:2
- Pre-Penn Land Settlement, prior to 1682
- Land Settlement, 1682-1732: The Proprietorship of William Penn
- Land Settlement, 1732-1776: The Proprietorship of the Penn Heirs
- Land Settlement, 1776-1990: The Commonwealth
First title to Pennsylvania land was usually acquired in a five-step process. It is important to know that the person who applied for the warrant could sell the rights to the land at any point in the process.3 Therefore, the patentee may be different than the warrantee, as you will see in my Adam Fisher example.
- Application – A request for land by an individual who wishes to obtain the land, usually a certain amount in a particular place.
- Warrant – An order to survey the land written by the proprietors. The warrant usually restates the amount and location requested in the application.
- Survey – The actual process of going upon the land, measuring and marking the courses and distances, and drawing a tract diagram.
- Return of Survey – A written restatement combining the warrant and survey. The return signifies that the purchase price and all fees have been paid.
- Patent – The final deed from the proprietor or the state passing ownership of the particular tract of land to its initial purchaser, or patentee.
Recommended Research Methodology
Genealogically significant information can be gleaned from items 1, 2, 3, and 5 above. You will want to find each of these records for your ancestor. Land records for first purchases in Pennsylvania can be accessed digitally for free through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, FamilySearch, and Ancestry. Because digital copies of the records are found in different places, I will walk you through the process of tracking down each record.
Step One – Identify the Ancestor’s Name
Carefully identify the name of the individual to be searched. Think of variant spellings. The person I am searching for is Georg Adam Fisher. The Fisher surname is interchangeable with Fischer. It is important to remember that Germans were often known on legal documents and throughout their lives by their “rufnamen” or call name, which we often think of as their middle name.
Step Two – Identify the Correct County
Discover the name of the county at the time of the individual’s residence and, if possible, the name of his or her township. Use the FamilySearch research wiki and the Newberry Atlas of Historical Boundaries to learn about boundary changes. Adam Fisher lived in Whitehall Township, which is in Lehigh County today. However, Lehigh county was not formed until 1812. The parent county for Lehigh is Northampton County. I will need to look at Northampton County land records to find Adam Fisher.
Step Three – Find the Ancestor in the Warrant Registers
Look for the individual in the Warrant Registers, available for free at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). These serve as a master index for warrants, surveys, and patents and include the following information:
- Number of the warrant
- Name of the warrantee
- Type of the warrant
- Quantity of land warranted
- Location warranted
- Date of the warrant
- Date of the return of the survey
- Acres returned
- Name of the patentee
- Patent volume, number, and page
- Survey volume and page
When searching for Adam Fisher in the Northampton County Warrant Register, I found the entry below. The register shows that Adam Fisher received a warrant for 25 acres in Macungie Township on 15 February 1759. The acreage measured by the surveyor was actually a little over 64 acres, and the final patent was issued on 23 February 1797, not to Adam Fisher, but to John Meyer. The register states that the patent was recorded in patent book P31, p. 327. A copy of the survey can be found in book C64, p. 235.
If you have an Ancestry account, a search of their collection, Pennsylvania, Land Warrants, 1733-1987, will quickly tell you whether a warrant exists for your ancestor of interest. This database is an index to land warrants in Pennsylvania. While it includes no images, it does list the name of the person associated with the warrant, the date, the acreage, and the location of the land. You can then navigate to the correct warrant register on the PHMC site to access the complete information.
Step Four – Locate the Survey
Using the information obtained from the Warrant Register, you will next locate the survey and see what information can be gleaned from the survey. A direct link to the survey images is here. Choose the county of interest, locate the book, then navigate to the correct page. In Adam Fisher’s survey below, you will see that the owners of the neighboring properties are shown. They are part of Adam’s FAN club and should be studied right along with Adam Fisher.
Step Five: Find the Patent
The easiest way to find land patents is by going to the FamilySearch catalog and searching with Place = Pennsylvania and then scrolling down to the collection, “Patent Books, 1676-1960.” Here is a direct link to the collection for your convenience. Use the information from the Warrant Register to locate the patent. The patent for John Meyer states that Adam Fisher paid the proprietors at the granting of the warrant and that John Meyer was now paying at the receiver general’s office. It also states the name of the tract of land, “Harmony,” located in Macungie Township, and provides a property description which names the neighbors: Peter Hammel, George Huffman, Leonard Heininger, Henry Hock, and Jacob Meyer. It also states that the “tract was surveyed in pursuance of a warrant dated 15 February 1759 granted to the said Adam Fisher, and the right of the said Adam Fisher to the said tract by virtue of divers conveyances and assurances in the law, became vested in the said John Meyer with the appurtenances.”
Step Six: Find the Land Application
Finally, you should try to find the original land application. The first step is to go to Pennsylvania Land Warrants and Applications, 1733-1952 at Ancestry. If you don’t find the application there, FamilySearch also has images of the applications in two collections: Application for warrants, 1755-1866, which is a browse-only digitized version of microfilmed records, arranged by date. Or, you might find it in Applications for warrants, 1734-1865, which is also a browse-only collection consisting of digitized versions of 173 microfilm reels. The applications are arranged chronologically, then alphabetically within each year. Adam Fisher’s application states that he was requesting land adjoining William Fegle and Christian Heisler, whose land is drawn on the survey above.
Now that you have read through this overview, and seen examples of each document, I hope you will be able to walk through the process of finding each of the documents that would have been created during the process your Pennsylvania German ancestors would have gone through to acquire land from the Penn Proprietorship. Although you have to jump around a little to find all the documents, each of them has information that will help you in your quest to learn more about your ancestors and their associates. Finding them will be well worth your time! In the next post, I will discuss how to locate deed records for persons who acquired their land from an original landowner rather than from the Penn Proprietorship.
- Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 72.
- Donna Bingham Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research (Wilmington, Delaware, Scholarly Resources Inc., 1991).
- “Land Records Overview: Five Basic Documents Created in the Land Process,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (https://www.phmc.pa.gov/Archives/Research-Online/Pages/Land-Records-Overview.aspx : accessed 7 December 2021).