Rectangular Surveys

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The National Archives in Washington, DC has over 10 million land entry case files of individuals trying to obtain a private claim to some of the public land in 30 federal land states from 1820-1908. In almost all these cases the land was surveyed and described as part of the Public Lands Survey System, which divided the land into Congressional townships on a township and range grid based on rectangular surveys. A township consists of 36 sections of one square mile each. Sections are organized into a 6 x 6 square to form each township.

It will be easier to find and understand the land records of ancestors if you learn something about the Public Lands Survey System and its records. In the United States, depending on the state, one of two main survey systems have been used to determine the borders of property:

The Land Ordinance of 1785  established the Public Land Survey System. Land was systematically surveyed into square "Congressional" townships, six miles (9.656 km) on a side. Each of these townships were sub-divided into thirty-six sections of one square mile (2.59 km²) or 640 acres. These sections could then be further subdivided for re-sale by settlers and land speculators.[1]

Principal Meridians and Base Lines[edit | edit source]

The rectangular survey system is based on principal meridians  and base lines  determined by precise scientific measurements. As each territory or state opened new public lands, the government identified a meridian (running north and south) and a base line (running east and west) to guide all future land surveys in that area.[2] Each color-block in the following map shows the states, or part of a state, surveyed using that area's principal meridian and base line.

U.S. Principal Meridians and Base Lines.png

For a larger version of this map, click here, and then click again to further enlarge it.

Numbered Townships and Ranges[edit | edit source]

Numbered townships were laid out in tiers north and south of the baseline; numbered ranges were laid out east and west of the meridians. The intersecting strips of townships and ranges formed a checkerboard or grid of townships.[2]

With careful examination for grid markers, the federal-land-state townships and ranges usually can be identified in a Rand McNally Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide[3] found at most large libraries. Each township has a range strip and a township strip. Together they create an address for that township within the boundaries of their principal meridian  and baseline. Begin counting where the principal meridian and baseline intersect. If the township address is T2N R3E, it means that the township is two units north of the baseline, and three units east of the principal meridian. Similarly, a township address of T3S R1W would be three units south of the baseline, and one unit west of the principal meridian.

Congressional Township Rectangular Survey Grid.png

Numbered Sections[edit | edit source]

The basic unit of the rectangular survey system is the section. A section contains one square mile (640 acres). Thirty-six sections in a square pattern, (6 miles by 6 miles), makes up a township. The following diagram shows how standard sections are numbered starting in the northeast corner of a township:

6 5 4 3 2 1
7 8 9 10 11 12
18 17 16 15 14 13
19 20 21 22 23 24
30 29 28 27 26 25
31 32 33 34 35 36

One of the center sections of a township was often reserved for community property such as a school or fire station.

Section subdivisions[edit | edit source]

Each section is usually divided into subdivisions of varying size, usually with rectangular (square) shapes. The sections can be further subdivided into quarter sections of 160 acres. The quarters can be divided into half-quarters of 80 acres or into quarter-quarter sections of 40 acres.[4] These various subdivisions of the whole section are sometimes called aliquots.

Internet map tool[edit | edit source]

Earthpoint: Tools for Google Earth displays a Google Earth map based on BLM township, range, section, and quarter-quarter section if you zoom in close enough (most, but not all areas have quarter-quarter sections mapped). The tool can also convert township, range, and section to latitude and longitude, or vise versa.

Rectangular Survey Land Records[edit | edit source]

Access. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the repository for records documenting the transfer of public (federal) lands to private ownership. They preserve the case files of over 10 million individual land transactions called land entries in 30 federal land states. They also preserve tract books and various name indexes to help access the case files. NARA has all the land entry files for all 30 of the federal land states.[5] NARA has the successful land entries  that received patents (original private titles) before 1908. For the same period they also have the unsuccessful land entries  that did not finish the process, cancelled, or relinquished their claims and did not receive a patent.[6]

Content. Land records, depending on the time period, may show an applicant settler's (entryman's) age, birthplace, citizenship, military service, economic status, and family members. They could also show land title, land use, rights of way, land surveys, crops, improvements, and conflicting claims.[7]

Arrangement. The National Archives keeps land entry files arranged by:[8]

  • military bounty land warrants  by year of the act authorizing them
  • pre-1908 land entry files  by state, land office, type of entry (credit, cash, homestead, timber, or mineral), and final certificate number
  • post-1908 land entry files  by serial patent number
Indexes[edit | edit source]

Seven states index. Seven states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and Utah) have an entryman name index for pre-1908 case files both patented and unpatented.[9] This index is available at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Online index. An important computerized index of patented land entries 1820-1908 for all federal land states is available on the Internet at the BLM Land Patent Search site.[10]

Other indexes. Selected states may have indexed their own land records. Use Internet search engines like Google  to find statewide land indexes that can be used to find legal land descriptions by section number, township number, and range number. For example, see the Nebraska 1860-1954 Tract Books Index.

Obtaining patented case files[edit | edit source]

All the land entry case files are indexed for ancestors who completed the application process and obtained a patent (original title) for their land. The indexes provide the information needed to request a copy of the case file.

For $50 the National Archives will copy a land entry case file if you properly complete form NATF-084 (pdf) and submit it. They prefer online orders but will accept mail orders. Instructions are on the form.

Obtaining unindexed case files[edit | edit source]

An unfinished, rejected, or otherwise cancelled claim will nevertheless have a land entry case file. These files, especially when contested, can provide more detailed genealogical information than cases which were readily accepted. Unfinished, rejected, or cancelled files are indexed for only a few states. Nevertheless, they still can be found by researching tract books for the area where an ancestor started the claim. Tract books can also be used to find information for pre-1820 cases.[11] The information from the tract book and a land entry in that tract book is usually enough to allow the National Archives to pull an otherwise unindexed case file for you.

The form NATF-084 (pdf) instructions assume a researcher has a patent number (or final certificate number), which will not exist for unfinished, rejected or cancelled land entries. Therefore, you must provide as much information as possible  including tract book page photocopies, and cite the tract book title, volume, and page number for the ancestor's entry. Explain that the case never received a patent, and any relevant information you know about why it failed. These will help, but the National Archives may still have difficulty pulling a file without a patent number (or final certificate number).

Tract books[edit | edit source]

Tract books serve as a comprehensive reference to over 10 million of land entry case files held at the National Archives in Washington, DC. However, they are arranged according to the land description  (township, range, and section) rather than the name of the claimant. They include all applicants for federal land, including those whose claim failed to receive a patent because it was unfinished, forfeited, rejected or cancelled.[11]

Finding unpatented entry information. If you know (or can guess) the state and county where an ancestor started an unfinished, forfeited, rejected, or cancelled land claim, you can search page-by-page through each of the tract books for that county looking for the ancestor's name. When you find an ancestor's name, the legal land description and land office listed in the tract book is usually enough to order a copy of the unpatented case file from the National Archives.[11]

Access. Original tract books, Internet digital versions, and microfilms exist:

  • Originals. The National Archives in Washington, DC has the original tract books for 16 western states. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Eastern State Office, 7450 Boston Blvd, Springfield, VA 22153 has custody of the tract books for the 12 eastern federal land states (AL, AR, FL, IL, IN, IA, LA, MI, MN, MS, OH, and WI).[10] The tract books for Alaska and Missouri are lost.[11]
  • Internet. Digital copies of each federal-land-state's tract books (except  Alaska  and Missouri) are available in FamilySearch Historical Records online at United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908
  • Microfilms of tract books are also on 1,265 films for each federal-land state (except  Alaska and Missouri) at the National Archives in Washington, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Content. Tract books show the type of land entry, its legal description (numbered section, township and range), acreage, price, entryman's name, application date, and (if applicable) patenting date and numbers.[10]

Determine which tract books to search. 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
  • Index. Or, if you have access to the National Archives in Washington, DC, use the Index to Tract Books, RG 49, MLR# UD2321,[12] to each state's tract books which allows researchers to identify the tract book number that covers the area in which they are interested.[13]
  • 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.[14] 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.[15]

Tract book arrangement. Tract book volumes are organized by state, in some states by land offices, and then by township number and range number. Within each tract book volume, the land entries are in order by their legal land description[11][16] (section, township, and range). Typical tract books list the land entries for anywhere from one to 30 townships; about five townships per tract book seems to be the most common. Within most townships the order is usually by section number.

Each land entry in a tract book was recorded across two pages.[17] Each page set covers part or all of one township; tract books rarely have two different townships listed on the same page. The townships usually only change one range number or one township number at a time after several pages within a tract book volume listing several townships.

  • If you know the land description, locate land entry in the appropriate tract book under the appropriate numbered section, township, and range listed on the left side of each page in the volume.
  • If you do NOT know the land description, search each appropriate tract book line-by-line and page-by-page for the name of an ancestor.

When you find an ancestor's entry. Once you find the record of the land entry, be sure to

  • photocopy both tract book pages  of the entry
  • write down the exact title, volume number, and page number  (source information) of the tract book volume in which the ancestor's entry was found

This information is important to helping the National Archives retrieve the land entry case file for you.

Related Wiki Articles[edit | edit source]

  • Tract Books history, preparing for them, 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.
  • Land Entry Case Files describes the 10 million files in the National Archives created to document individual claims to federal land using cash entry, credit entry, homestead, military bounty land, private land claims, mineral or timberland rights. A case file exists for each tract book entry.
  • 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.
  • Canada Land and Property where a rectangular survey system was one of four main types of surveying systems, especially in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces.

Related Websites[edit | edit source]

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Land Ordinance of 1785 in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia (accessed 25 November 2014).
  2. 2.0 2.1 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, 2007), 9. Internet version (pdf) At various repositories (WorldCat) FHL Ref Book 973 J53hrL
  3. Rand McNally and Company, Commercial Atlas and Marketing Guide (Chicago : Rand McNally, 1989). At various repositories (WorldCat).
  4. The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) in Department of the Interior - Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at (accessed 28 November 2014).
  5. Hawkins, 1.
  6. Hawkins, 4.
  7. Hawkins, 1-2.
  8. Hawkins, 2-3.
  9. Hawkins, 3-4.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Hawkins, 5.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry Pub., c1997), 113. At various repositories (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 R27h.
  12. 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.
  13. Hawkins, 4.
  14. Hone, 213-67.
  15. Hone, 269-497.
  16. Hawkins, front inside cover, and page 6.
  17. Hawkins, 6.