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You Never Know Until You Look (Part One)
Research Tip 4

No one can tell you exactly which document will provide a research breakthrough for any given question or ancestor. Fellow researchers and books or articles on genealogical research can suggest a myriad of promising sources and techniques. However, successful research usually combines a variety of sources and techniques appropriate to each ancestor’s situation. Remember: each ancestor was unique, so each research effort will be unique to a specific ancestor or family cluster. Let the ancestor guide you.

Research Tips 4 and 5 focus on four record groups that contain information on thousands of ancestors—possibly some of yours:

  • Part One—federal land records
  • Part Two—census records, manuscript collections, and The Territorial Papers of the United States.

These records sometimes contain special gems of detail. You never know what gems await you until you look.

Exciting Online Source. Numerous online databases and research aids are available on privately constructed sites, commercial subscription sites, and government and academic sites. Cyndi’s List can guide you to thousands of helpful sites. However, the online source chosen for this tip is the General Land Office records on the federal Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Web site. Using the tab “Search Land Patents,” you can investigate both a valuable source and a useful research technique.

This database will be most useful to you if your ancestors lived in one of the “public domain” or “federal land” states. These are the thirty states created out of the public domain—land acquired and owned by the federal government. It’s easier to list the twenty states that are not federal land states—Hawaii and Texas, both of which entered the Union after being independent republics; the original thirteen states; and the five states created basically from the original thirteen—Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The BLM database will eventually include most of the public domain states. The most thorough coverage is for what the BLM calls their thirteen Eastern States—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Some other federal land states are also now part of the online database.

Acquiring Federal Land. The federal government transferred tracts of the public domain to individuals through instruments called (1) patents or (2) bounty land warrants resulting from military service. The individual buyers were patentees. (Many early veterans or their widows received bounty land warrants but never settled new land; they simply sold the warrants and remained in their established homes.) As Congress passed various laws opening new regions of federal land to settlers, patentees included those paying small cash fees for land, homesteaders, and those settling land under such laws as the Timber Culture Act. The patents provided individual ownership of land at very low cost and, sometimes, after the fulfillment of other requirements involving improvements on the land.

One important point to remember is that the federal land patents represent the first transfer of ownership from the federal government to individuals. Subsequent sales of this land were recorded in county courthouses, not in federal records. Thus, if your ancestor was the first to acquire a particular tract of land, he or she could be listed in the BLM database.

The Online Search. When you search the land patents online, you can choose (1) a “basic search” (using an ancestor’s name and state) or (2) a “standard search,” which allows you to narrow the search by specific criteria such as county name or legal description of the land. It is often a good idea to begin with the wider basic search because (1) your ancestor may have acquired land in a county you were not expecting and (2) you may find several people by your ancestor’s name and will need to determine which patentee was your ancestor. As you follow the instructions on the screen, you will learn how many acres an ancestor acquired and where that land is located.

A convenient feature of federal land is that it was surveyed into easily identified tracts called townships, ranges, and sections. Townships and ranges, as surveyed, were usually about six miles square; each sections was about 640 acres or about 1 mile square. Sections were often subdivided into smaller tracts, such as a quarter section of about 160 acres. Depending on mountains, bodies of water, and other natural features, some townships, ranges, and sections had odd shapes.

Your ancestor may have patented land in the north half (N1/2 or N2) of S36 T14N R10W. The legal description of that land would read like this: the north half of Section 36 in Township 14 North, Range 10 West. (See sample chart below.) Many maps and atlases of federal land states or counties identify the townships and ranges for you. Use such maps to locate the land. (See Unpuzzling Your Past or The Genealogist's Companion and Sourcebook, 2nd edition, for more about the “rectangular survey system.”)

When you have a legal description for your ancestral land, you can use the “standard” search on the BLM web site and manipulate the “land description” and “results list” fields to identify your ancestors’ neighbors—those who patented land near your family in the same or nearby sections. This information helps you recreate the ancestral “neighborhood” when you need to broaden your research. In this way, you may also discover known relatives who patented land near each other—siblings, cousins, or father and adult children. In addition, this kind of study could help when you are looking for a wife’s maiden name and childhood family. Did she meet her future husband because they were neighbors? Using land records to identify other families in the area, you can then study these families to determine whether they were related to your ancestor.

Tip: You may need to combine the use of the patent-search results with county deed records to get a more thorough picture of who lived where and when they lived there. Nevertheless, the “neighborhood” search is a useful technique for answering a variety of genealogical questions. The case study in chapter eleven of The Sleuth Book for Genealogists illustrates one use of this technique.

Getting Additional Records. Once you identify an ancestral patent, you can view the original patent certificate online and print out a copy for your records. However, this certificate may not be the only record available. You can also use the document or certificate number and other information on the certificate to request a copy of the ancestor’s “land entry file” from the National Archives. You can order the necessary form (NATF 84) at the National Archives web site. These land entry files may contain one or two documents or an entire stack of papers. You may find your ancestor’s signature, marriage record, evidence of naturalization or military service, and historical details about the family’s home and farm.

These “gems” are more likely to be found in homestead and timber culture files, but cash entry files may also contain surprising information. You never know until you look.

(Printable chart available here)


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