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Family Tree Friday: Land records – knowing Public from Private

by on October 28, 2011


In a previous blog post I mentioned how veterans could acquire homesteads via bounty land warrants they received as a benefit for military service.  Since then, I’ve been thinking it would be worthwhile to offer some general advice about land records at the National Archives, and more importantly to explain the distinction between public and private lands.  The National Archives, of course, holds the records of the General Land Office (GLO)–the predecessor of the Bureau of Land Management–that document the first or initial transfer of public land from the United States to private ownership.  These lands or homesteads were usually located in the Public Domain, or those territories owned directly by the Federal Government.  (You can think of the Public Domain as generally encompassing the Northwest Territory ceded to the U.S. from Great Britain after the Revolutionary War; the Louisiana Purchase; and the western territories acquired from Mexico after the end of the Mexican War).  States created from of the Public Domain became known as Public Land States, which basically meant that the United States retained ownership of any lands that were not turned directly over to the control of the state governments.  The Federal Government used much of this land, of course, to encourage western settlement, and issued land patents–or deeds of title–to homesteaders through Federal land offices.

By contract, Private Land States included the original 13 states that achieved independence after the American Revolution, as well as the states of Vermont and Texas (which were both sovereign republics at the time of their admission to the Union), Kentucky and Tennessee (both ceded from lands claimed by the original states of Virginia and North Carolina, respectively), Maine and West Virginia (carved directly from the original states of Massachusetts and Virginia), and Hawaii.  The Federal Government did not issue land grants in those locations.  Instead, land patents were issued by the state governments.

And so, when you are researching information about an ancestor who went homesteading, it’s important to note the location of the land patent. If you are looking for a land grant that an ancestor took up in South Carolina or Virginia after the Revolutionary War, you won’t find the records at the National Archives; that grant was issued by the government of those states and you will have to go to the state archives to track down any pertinent paperwork.  If, however, you want to research how Laura Ingalls’s family went homesteading from the Big Woods in Wisconsin to their Little House on the Prairie in Dakota Territory, then the Public Land Records from the General Land Office will hold the answers (for a great discussion of those records about the Ingalls family, see the Prologue article “De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives“).  A good general explanation of NARA’s land records is also available in our online finding aid, Reference Information Paper (RIP) 114, “Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office.”


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