Land Entry Case Files

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The National Archives preserves over ten million land entry case files which document each transfer of federally controlled public land parcel which changed to private ownership.

These files indicate who applied for the land, if a patent (original title) was issued, and include a physical description of the property and where the land was located. The type of transaction is also shown such as cash entry, credit entry, homesteads, patents (deeds), timberland rights, or mineral rights, military bounty land, private land claims (from previous foreign governments), railroad grants, school grants, and swamp grants.[1]

Case files may cover from the time of the American Revolution (1776) to the mid-1900s, but mostly apply from 1820 to 1908. The vast majority of case files pertain to land in 30 federal land states.

Two kinds of land records are closely associated with case files. For EVERY case file there should be a corresponding tract book entry showing the location of the property and its status. If the status was successful or complete, then a patent was issued. However, if the status was canceled or rejected, there is still a case file, but no patent.

Value of case files[edit | edit source]

Case files show details about when and where an ancestor applied for land from the federal government. Case files sometimes include information about family members, neighbors, military service, or citizenship naturalization records. Knowing the location of an ancestor's new property provides clues to help search for the records of the disposal of that property, or nearby properties. You can also search for a variety of non-land records of the ancestor in that area. Case files, and the associated tract books can be used to find information about neighbors—people who sometimes turn out to be relatives. When few other clues exist, a case file can lead to subsequent  land transfer records that state or infer a parent-child relationship between the people involved.

Jurisdictions[edit | edit source]

Land entry case files are from the 30 federal land states. These are states west of the Ohio-Mississippi River, and Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi (except Texas and Hawaii). Case files pertain to the transfer of federal public land to non-federal (private or state) ownership .

The subsequent disposal of that formerly-federal property should be recorded in local county deeds, mortgages, property tax records, and plat maps.

Contents of case files[edit | edit source]

Example: homestead case file for the father of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie; 24-page 1880-1886 De Smet, South Dakota

Case files can include a variety of record types. Military bounty land case files will have different kinds of records than homesteads, cash entries, mining, or timberland cases. For example,

  • Military bounty land  case files can include warrants, treasury certificates, exchange certificates, and applications.[2]
  • Cash entry  may include an application, receipt, warrant for survey, survey, testimonies, affidavits, newspaper notifications, naturalization papers, final certificate, and patent.[3]

Variation over time. Case file contents varied over time.

Before 1840 usually listed: [4]
  • the entryman (applicant)
  • location
  • acreage
  • price
  • date
  • place of the land entry
After 1840 case files often contain:[5]
  • the entryman (applicant)
  • the entryman's age
  • place of birth
  • citizenship
  • military service
  • literacy
  • economic status
  • similar information about family members
  • land title
  • land use
  • rights of way
  • land surveys
  • crops
  • improvements
  • conflicting claims

Land descriptions. Case file land descriptions use the terminology of the rectangular survey system, including sections, townships, and ranges.

Tract book entries. In addition to the case file, a related entry would always be made in the appropriate tract book. Tract books are arranged by state, land office, township number, range number, and section number.

How to obtain a case file[edit | edit source]

Steps to obtaining a case file

Step 1. Find the legal land description of the property:

A. in an index under an ancestor's name, or
B. by browsing appropriate tract books page-by-page for an ancestor's name.

Step 2. Submit NATF-84 (a land entry case file request form), and $50 to the National Archives.

Step 1A. Find the land description. The best strategy is to first find an ancestor's land description.

Sources which show the land description:
  • Land patent. If your family still has the patent (original title) for a piece of property, that patent will show the land description.
  • BLM land patent search. The online index to eight million land patents 1820-1908 and military bounty land shows each entry's land description. However, this index does not include the two million case files which were never finished, forfeited, relinquished, or cancelled.
  • Seven states index. The seven states index  at the National Archives in Washington, DC, also gives each entry's land description. The index covers Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and Utah for pre-1908 case files both patented and unpatented.[6]
  • Use search engines like Google  to identify state land record indexes that could reveal land descriptions. Selected states may have indexed their own land records. For example, see the Nebraska 1860-1954 Tract Books Index.

Step 1B. Search tract books page-by-page. Alternatively, IF  you cannot find elsewhere the section, township number, and range number, you could search page-by-page through the tract books for the county where an ancestor lived until you find his or her name.

1Bi. The following sources can help narrow the number of tract books to search:
  • Coverage table. Use the description of the townships and ranges covered in each tract book as described in the Tract Books Coverage Table to narrow down the volumes you will need to view to find an ancestor's land entry. For example:
    Tract books coverage table example.png
  • FHL Catalog description. For a detailed list of this collection's contents by film number, see the FamilySearch Catalog entry:
United States, Bureau of Land Management, Tract Books (Washington, D.C. : Records Improvement, Bureau of Land Management, 1957). At various repositories (WorldCat); On 1,265 FHL Films starting with 1445277.

  • Index. Or, if you have access to the National Archives in Washington, DC, use the Index to Tract Books, RG 49, MLR# UD2321,[7] to each state's tract books which allows researchers to identify the tract book number that covers the area in which they are interested.[8]
  • Townships and ranges in each county. In addition, "Appendix A" in Land and Property Research in the United States  lists each present-day federal land state and county together with its farthest north-, east-, south-, and west- township and range for that county, and the meridian(s) that applies.[9] This information can help you narrow down the number of tract books you will need to search.
  • Land offices. Tract books for some states, such as Alabama and Ohio are organized by land office. Others are organized for the whole state. "Appendix B" in Land and Property Research in the United States  shows the varying land office boundaries in each state over many years.[10]
1Bii. Browse the tract books looking for an ancestor's name. To browse the online tract books 1820-1980, click here.
⇒Select the "State"
⇒Select the "Volume." In some states the land office is mentioned with the volume number. Clicking on a volume takes you to the images.

Can't find your ancestor?
  • Re-try the BLM Land Patent Search  using variant spellings of the ancestor's name.
  • Check for an index among the tract book volumes. Sometimes a separate index volume exists for all the tract books from the same land office.
  • Hunt for the land records of relatives. Sometimes one ancestor would obtain land through the name of a relative, or even a neighbor.
  • Look for county land records if an ancestor obtained land from an individual rather than from the federal government.
  • Look for county land records showing an ancestor disposed of a parcel of land in order to learn where he or she first obtained the land from the federal government.
  • Search alternative local record types like census, church records, cemeteries, court records, and tax records to find ancestor information.

Step 2. Submit a filled-out NATF-84 (a pdf land entry case file request form), and $50 to the National Archives. Instructions are on the form.

To obtain a land entry case file you will need information about the ancestor's state, county, land office, and land description listing the section, township number, and range number. The form also requests the patent number, but if that is lacking, you can substitute  photocopies of the tract book entry, and the exact citation for the tract book and page number of the entry.

Use the case file data[edit | edit source]

Once you obtain a photocopy of an ancestor's land entry, be sure to

Evaluate and record the data. Evaluate each piece of information given. Assess its accuracy and likelihood. Compare and contrast the new data with previous information about the ancestor. Try to explain contradictory data.

Add any new genealogical information and source footnotes to your personal records of the family. For example, add a custom event for a land transaction to the ancestor's family group record. Also, share the new genealogical data and source footnotes in public records like FamilySearch Tree.

Follow-up sources. Then use the new information from the case file to help find further records. For example:

  • Tract books. Every case file has a corresponding tract book entry. If you have not already found the tract book entry, do so now. Look for relatives and neighbors in nearby tract book entries.
  • Other related files. Case files are usually only part of the iceberg. Patents, warrants, surveys, and newspaper notifications are among the kinds of records that may  be found outside of case files. Look for extra land records at the federal, state, or county levels.
  • Disposal of the property. Find out how your ancestor disposed of the property as a way of finding clues about possible relatives. For example, your ancestor may have sold or given land to his or her heirs before death, or the heirs may have sold the land after the individual died. For daughters, the names of their husbands are often provided. For sons, the given names of their wives may be included. Heirs may have sold their interest in the land to another heir even though the record may not indicate this.
  • Nearby property transactions. Look for your ancestor acquiring, or disposing of nearby property. Also, look to see if the ancestor disposed of property at a previous residence before moving to this property.
  • Neighboring people. Use tracts books, other land records, and censuses to find neighbors. Neighbors sometimes turn out to be relatives.
  • Other non-land sources. Use the residence and names to locate other records in the area such as church and census records.
  • Similar surnames. Search for records of people in the area who shared a similar surname. These may have been the couple’s parents, uncles, or other relatives. Your ancestor may have been an heir who sold inherited land that had belonged to parents or grandparents.
  • Earlier or later time periods. Search the land records for years before and after an ancestor's land transaction. Families are sometimes part of a chain migration. In such cases one family moves into an area and some years later their old neighbors or relatives join them, or leave for another new home. Studying older and newer land records may help show this.

Availability[edit | edit source]

Case files for 10 million land entries are available only at the National Archives in Washington, DC. For $50 photocopies can be ordered preferably by e-mail, but are also available by postal mail. Use Form NATF-84 (pdf) to order photocopies.

Related Wiki Articles[edit | edit source]

  • Tract Books history, preparing and how to use them, content, access, and related case files.
  • United States, Bureau of Land Management Tract Books - FamilySearch Historical Records describes the online federal tract book collection for 28 federal land states from 1820-1908.
  • Grants from the Federal Government (Public Domain) explains public lands, how individuals claimed some of it, and the paperwork created during the process.
  • BLM Land Patent Search discusses the index to eight million patented (finished) land applications, and military bounty land papers. Each entry in this index includes the land description useful for finding an ancestor in a tract book.
  • Rectangular Surveys includes a section about tract books. This article shows how principal meridians, baselines, townships, ranges, sections, and aliquots are used for land descriptions found in tract books and other property records.
  • United States Land and Property page is a general discussion of land record research for genealogists. It serves as a table of contents to related Wiki pages about American land records including tract books, related land entry case files, and the BLM land patent search.

Related Websites[edit | edit source]

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry Pub., c1997), 115-56. At various repositories (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 R27h.
  2. E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry Pub., c1997), 115-26. At various repositories (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 R27h.
  3. Hone, 111-13, and 127-18.
  4. Kenneth Hawkins, Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office: Record Group 49, Reference Information Paper, 114 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2009), 1-2. Internet version (pdf) At various repositories (WorldCat) FHL Ref Book 973 J53hrL
  5. Kenneth Hawkins, Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office: Record Group 49, Reference Information Paper, 114 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2009), 1-2. Internet version (pdf) At various repositories (WorldCat) FHL Ref Book 973 J53hrL
  6. Hawkins, 3-4.
  7. Index to Tract Books, RG 49, MLR# UD2321, maps arranged by state. Copies of these maps are available for consultation in room G28 of the National Archives Building, Washington, DC, as cited in Hawkins, page 6.
  8. Hawkins, 4.
  9. Hone, 213-67.
  10. Hone, 269-497.