Introduction to Red Book: Land Records

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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Introduction to Red Book.
Vital Records
Census Records
Background Sources
Land Records
Probate Records
Court Records
Tax Records
Cemetery Records
Church Records
Military Records
Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Archives, Libraries, and Societies
African American
Native American
Internet Resources
County Resources

The Land Records section of each state’s chapter focuses on what types of land records are available, and whether they are indexed, abstracted, or published in book form, on microfilm, or in some cases, online. This section indicates the officials or repositories in charge of the original records.

The following is a very brief discussion of general types of land records. For an excellent, comprehensive discussion of the history and use of land records in the United States, see E. Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997). All essential aspects of land acquisitions and sales from prior to U.S. possession through individual sales today are covered with strategies for using the records in research. Other good discussions can be found in Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, “Research in Land and Tax Records,” in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto D. Szucs and Sandra H. Luebking, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1997); Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000); and E. K. Kirkham, The Land Records of America and Their Genealogical Value (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1964).

Land records begin when the government claiming the land (be it crown, colonial, territorial, and, later, federal or state) conveys it to others, including private individuals, groups and corporate entities for, among other reasons, political favors, a fee, military service, or homesteading. These first-grant records are generally kept by the government that issued them. After the Revolution, land or property was transferred to private individuals either by the federal government in public-domain (federal-land) states or by the state in state-land states. Public-domain states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Federal land was divided into townships emanating from one or more principal meridians and a base line (rectangular survey). Both Hone’s book and Thorndale’s discussion (cited above) include illustrations of the rectangular survey system of identifying land in addition to a comprehensive explanation of the types of records generated.

See also James Truslow Adams and Roy V. Coleman, Atlas of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978).

Essential references for dealing with federal land in addition to Howe, cited above, are:

  • McMullin, Phillip W., ed. Grassroots of America: A Computerized Index to the American State Papers: Land Grants and Claims, 1789–1837. Reprint. Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1994. This indexes American State Papers, Public Lands (Washington, S.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832–61).
  • Smith, Clifford Neal. Federal Land Series. 4 vols. (Vol. 4 in 2 pts.) Reprint. Baltimore: Clearfield Publishing, 1999—.
  • Yoshpe, Harry P., and Philip P. Brower. Preliminary Inventory of Land-Entry Papers of the General Land Office. Reprint. San Jose, Calif.: Rose Family Association, 1996.

Land records in public-domain states east of the Mississippi River and those on the west bank of the river are served by the Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States Land Office, 7450 Boston Blvd., Springfield, VA 22153-3121. Titles for land records in that area from 1820 to 1908 can be searched on the website.

Western public-domain states are served by General Land Offices within each state or an adjacent state, but copies of tractbooks for western states are also in the National Archives. Both sets—those held by the Eastern States Land Office and those by the National Archives—are available on microfilm at those locations. The National Archives holdings on land records are outlined in Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States, 3d ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 2001).

Regional centers of the National Archives often have copies of microfilms dealing with transactions in that region. In some cases the claims for donation or homestead land have been abstracted and published.

State-land states include Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Legal descriptions for land in these states do not use the rectangular survey, but several other means of surveying—metes and bounds, or range and lot numbers among them. In addition to Hone’s strategies (cited above) for using land records to solve family history research problems, an explanation of metes and bounds and mapping terms can be found in, Julian G. Hoffman and B. Ransom McBride, “Mapping,” in Helen F. M. Leary, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History (2d ed., Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996). Software programs, such as DeedMapper, sold by Direct Line Software, 71 Neshobe Rd., Newton, MA 02468 make it possible to analyze and draw metes and bounds descriptions to assist in land research.

Once land has been conveyed by the government, a second group of land records documents transactions between individuals. Each state’s discussion indicates where government conveyances and individual conveyances are found. In the large majority of states, the county exercises jurisdiction over land transactions. But in others, deeds were recorded with towns, parishes, and judicial districts. Each state’s section clarifies this. States may have used different terms in deeds to describe the property, and those differences are reported in this section.