Welcome to Part 3 of our six-part series, “Key Records and Repositories.” In this section, we’ll thoroughly inspect land and property records, emphasizing this region’s Spanish land grants. This module is particularly beneficial for genealogists researching family histories in the American Southwest. These records are a valuable resource, offering insights into land ownership, family linkages, and key aspects of migration, economic development, and legal structures that have influenced the region. After our discussion on the key aspects of land and property records, I will provide a resource guide. This guide will include links that are specific to each state, helping you begin your research focused on the county of your interest.
Understanding the Homestead Act and its implications in the Southwest:
The Homestead Act of 1862 was a significant legislative milestone that accelerated westward expansion. In states like Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, this act allowed many to claim and cultivate land, creating new communities and opportunities. Genealogists can access these records through the National Archives, Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office (GLO) records, and state archives. These documents often contain crucial details such as land location, descriptions, and proof of improvements, which can be pivotal in tracing your ancestors’ footsteps.
I was investigating the history of my 3rd great-grandfather, George W. Dunn, and identified a potential homestead linked to him.1 To advance this research, I hired a researcher based near Washington, D.C. The researcher went to the National Archives, where they found and scanned a case file thought to be associated with George W. Dunn. Among the documents sent to me was a witness affidavit, which was one of several loose papers in the file. This document was valuable as it included the name of an associate of George, the size of his family, a description and dimensions of his home, and an estimated date of when he settled in the area. However, upon reviewing the details in this case file and comparing them with the information I already had about my 3rd great-grandfather, I concluded that the George W. Dunn in this record was not, in fact, my ancestor.
PRO TIP: Obtain your ancestor’s Land Entry Case Files through the National Archives research services or by hiring a researcher in the local Washington D.C. area. Be sure to request all documents contained in the folder. To view examples of the various documents contained in a case file, see this Sample Homestead File for Charles Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie.
Reading and analyzing land grant documents:
Land grant documents are often complex and dense with legal terminology. However, they are invaluable resources that contain names, dates, and descriptions of land that can pinpoint an ancestor’s location and economic status. To effectively utilize these documents, one must learn to decipher old handwriting and understand legal property descriptions. Repositories like county clerk offices and state archives store these documents, and many have been digitized for online access through portals such as FamilySearch or Ancestry.com. The article Researching Property History by the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service provides an excellent base-level understanding.
I discovered a Homestead certificate for my 2nd great-granduncle, John William Avery Timms, on Ancestry.com.2 This certificate signifies that he successfully completed the process to acquire a land grant in Utah. The file on the website includes an image of the original document. I’ve added a red box on the image to highlight the description of his land, which reads: “South East Quarter of Section No. Four, in Township No. Six South of Range No. Two East, containing one hundred and sixty acres.”
The history and genealogical value of Spanish and Mexican land grants:
The Southwest’s history is deeply intertwined with Spanish and Mexican influence, reflected in the land grants from those periods. These grants can uncover lineages that predate American control and provide insights into the social fabric of the time. Genealogists can access these records through state archives, historical societies, and special collections in university libraries. Records often include grant applications, maps, legal documents, and correspondence. These documents are often found transcribed in genealogical publications specific to regions influenced by Spanish and Mexican governance.
For example, I used evidence from a California Spanish land claim to confirm the identity of my 2nd great-grandmother, Antonia Feliz (as mentioned in Part 2).3 This document provided the details about her father’s relationships and location, which helped to distinguish him from another person with the same name. Specifically, it enabled the accurate identification of her father, Antonio Feliz. However, the Antonio Feliz mentioned in this record was ultimately ruled out as Antonia’s father.
Mapping ancestral properties, Tools and techniques:
Modern tools have revolutionized the genealogical research of land records. With geographic information systems (GIS), historical maps, and online land plat tools, researchers can visualize the exact locations where their ancestors lived and worked. Resources like the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer and the Bureau of Land Management’s Land Patent Search are invaluable. By overlaying old maps onto modern ones, one can trace property lines, natural features, and community changes over time, offering a unique perspective on an ancestor’s daily life.
For example, on the BLM land patent search page, I typed in a few basic details for my 2nd great-granduncle, John William Avery Timms (noted above):
I was surprised that only one hit came back. Typically a common surname or given name will result in many hits. Next, I clicked on the icon in the “Image” column.
That brought up the original patent image with a written description of the land. This information matched the land description on his Homestead certificate. Notice this image is nested in the second tab labeled, “Patent Image.”
When I selected the first tab labeled “Patent Details,” a new page appeared displaying John’s information organized in several tables. In the table titled “Land Description,” located in the upper left corner, I found a small checkbox under “Map.”
When I checked the box on the BLM website, it automatically created an overlay on the map. This feature acted almost magically, as it zoomed in to show John’s land. The display highlights township six, marked in a larger orange-shaded area, and then section four, indicated by a smaller orange square within that township. To understand the specific location of John’s land, imagine dividing this smaller orange square into four equal parts. John’s property is located in the bottom right part of this square, which represents the southeast quarter of that section.
Where to Find Land and Property Records in the Southwestern United States
Tracing your ancestry in the Southwestern U.S. can be a rewarding journey, especially when you explore land and property records. These records can provide valuable information about your ancestors’ lives, their movements, and their economic status. This regional guide focuses on accessing land and property records in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.
- FamilySearch: Offers digitized records and is particularly strong in Mormon land transactions in Utah. For all southwestern states, begin with the United States Land and Property wiki page. Another favorite is United States Land Terms and Definitions which includes a detailed diagram of the rectangular grid system. TIP: To discover state-specific details, explore the links at the bottom of each state wiki page inside the purple box.
- Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records: Provides federal land conveyance records for the public land states, including patents, surveys, and land status records. For researchers new to land records, the BLM GLO Records home page describes each record type and includes a small image of the actual document. If you already know where your ancestor homesteaded or you’re ready to dive in, the Land Patent Search is a great place to start. TIP: for a quick refresher, see the simple instructions listed in a box right on the search page.
- Ancestry.com: Subscription-based services that often have digitized land records and deeds. Ancestry’s collection of U.S. Homestead Records, 1863-1908, currently includes records from Arizona, Nevada, and Utah (watch for future updates). Denver Land Office Records, 1862-1908, has records for Colorado. For Japanese ancestors, see California, U.S., Alien Land Ownership Records, 1921-1952, which includes primarily agricultural land ownership and may contain details about a family’s business affairs.
- State Land Department: Holds records of state land transactions. Their archives can be accessed in person or through their website.
- County Recorder’s Offices: For historical deeds, mortgages, and maps. Each county, such as Maricopa or Pima, maintains its own records.
- Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records: Provides access to a range of historical land records.
- California State Archives: Offers a collection of land grant records and maps dating back to the Spanish and Mexican eras.
- County Assessor and Recorder’s Offices: Vital for more recent property records. For instance, the Los Angeles County Recorder has extensive online resources.
- California Historical Society: A useful resource for historical maps and property transaction records.
- Colorado State Archives: Contains land records, including pre-statehood documents.
- County Clerk and Recorder’s Offices: Each county, like Denver or Boulder, has archives of property records, deeds, and land surveys.
- Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Department: An excellent resource for historical land records and maps.
- New Mexico State Records Center and Archives: Home to Spanish and Mexican land grant records, as well as territorial and statehood period documents.
- County Clerk’s Offices: Essential for accessing more recent deeds and property records.
- Nevada State Library and Archives: Offers a collection of land records, including those from the territorial period.
- County Recorder’s Offices: Each county, such as Clark or Washoe, holds property records, deeds, and maps.
- Utah State Archives and Records Service: Provides access to territorial land records and other historical documents.
- County Recorder’s Offices: For recent property records. The Salt Lake County Recorder, for example, has an extensive online database.
Tips for Research
- Always start with the most recent record and work backward.
- Note that boundaries and county names may have changed over time.
- Consider visiting local historical societies for additional insights and resources.
Land and property records are invaluable in genealogical research. They can reveal patterns of migration, economic status, and familial connections. By exploring the resources outlined above, you can uncover a wealth of information about your ancestors in the Southwestern United States. Please join us in Part 4, where we’ll dig into mining and agricultural records.
Complete series of Key Records and Repositories for Southwestern United States Research:
Part 5 – Native American and Spanish Language Resources
Part 6 – Using University and Private Collections for Genealogical Research
- George W. Dunn (Cowley County), case entry file, state volume patent no. 9582, Wichita, Kansas, Land Office; Land Entry Papers 1800-1908, Record Group 49: Records of the Bureau of Land Management; National Archives, Washinton, D.C.
- “U.S., Homestead Records, 1863-1908,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/60593/ : accessed 18 January 2024), image 236; John W. A. Timms (21 November 1881), Salt Lake City, Utah, Land Office, Application no. 5360.
- General Land Office Records (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov : accessed 1 November 2020), “Land Patent Search” for Antonio M. Feliz (San Luis Obispo County, California), document #06378, homestead claim of “Frecia Feliz, widow of Antonio M. Feliz” on 21 June 1919, digital image.