Michigan Land Records

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This entry was originally written by Arleigh P. Helfer, Jr. and Carol L. Maki for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Michigan Family History Research series.
History of Michigan
Michigan Vital Records
Census Records for Michigan
Background Sources for Michigan
Michigan Maps
Michigan Land Records
Michigan Probate Records
Michigan Court Records
Michigan Tax Records
Michigan Cemetery Records
Michigan Church Records
Michigan Military Records
Michigan Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Michigan Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Michigan Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Michigan
Michigan County Resources
Map of Michigan


Michigan is a Public-Domain State.

Private land claims based on grants made prior to U.S. sovereignty are found for Mackinac and Detroit. These records are in the National Archives (see pages 11-12). Most were “ribbon farms,” very narrow but very long to ensure river frontage. Consult Silas Farmer’s History of Detroit and Wayne County and Early Michigan (Detroit: Silas Farmer and Co., 1890) or D. B. Reynolds’s Early Land Claims in Michigan (Lansing, Mich.: Michigan Department of Conservation, 1940) for information on private land claims.

The first public-domain land was purchased by settlers in Michigan in 1818. The Ordinance of 1785 had provided the methods for dividing and selling the recently ceded regions. The land was first surveyed into six-mile-square townships, each containing thirty-six sections. The townships were surveyed from an east-west line called a “base line” and a north-south line called a “principal meridian.” These public domain lands were offered, at the first land office, in Detroit, for $2 per acre, with a minimum purchase required. “Installment plans” were available. In 1820 the cost per acre was lowered to $1.25, with “cash only” and a minimum purchase of eighty acres. Land was usually paid for with silver, gold, bank notes, or drafts. A “patent,” usually signed by a clerk, for the U.S. President, would be sent to the landowner, giving title to the previously federal property. A “pre-emption law” in 1841 gave the “squatters” the right to purchase 160 acres at a minimum price.

Federal land patents can be checked online at www.glorecords.blm.gov. Microfilm copies of the federal land patent records are also at the Michigan State Library. These provide information on the first ownership of all federal lands in the state. The State Archives of Michigan has the original state land patent records. It is necessary to have an exact legal description of the property to utilize either of these valuable sources.

The State Archives of Michigan has numerous records of land transactions. They include the following sources of information (not inclusive) under various departments: tract books of swamp lands purchases, original maps prepared by federal surveyors that show cultural and physical features as they existed between about 1815 and 1855, abstracts of land grants ca. 1837 to 1900, surveys of private claims as early as 1807, and land tract books from 1818 to 1962. See Circular No. 2, Land Records, published by the State Archives of Michigan, for more complete information.

Subsequent land transactions, no longer under federal control, are recorded in the appropriate county registrar’s office. Deeds for southeastern Michigan’s “Toledo Strip,” encompassing portions of Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties, may have been recorded in Ohio and Michigan.

The State Archives of Michigan indicates that a long-range goal of publishing “First Land Owners” volumes for each of the counties has been undertaken by either the Michigan Genealogy Council or Col. Paul Peck. To date, about thirteen have been completed.

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