Beginning United States Land and Property Research
Determine the time and place your family might have owned property.
Research should begin at the smallest jurisdictional level - usually the county (except in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, where town clerks have kept the records). These records are found in the local town or county office, or many times on microfilm at state archives or the Family History Library.
There is a high likelihood that your ancestor can be found in land records. “It is estimated that by the mid-1800s, as many as ninety percent of all adult white males owned land in the United States.”
What’s the Next Step?
- Begin with indexes. Check both the grantor/direct (seller) and grantee/indirect (buyer) indexes for all possible entries for the ancestor of interest. Copy the references.
- Look up each land transaction reference in the appropriate books, or volumes, and page numbers.
- Notice the details of the transaction: dates, names, relationships, and property description.
- Make a reliable copy (handwritten, photocopy, or digital) of the full entry.
- Evaluate the results.
Finding Your Ancestor in the Record
If your ancestor is male, follow the steps outlined in “What’s the Next Step?”
Finding a female ancestor in land records can be more challenging because of property laws in earlier time periods. It is more likely to find your female ancestor in records of her husband’s property being sold. The wife often was examined separately because of laws pertaining to her “dower right.” (This term is NOT an indication that she brought land into the marriage, but rather it is related to her right to use of land following her husband’s death.) Therefore, look for her husband’s name in the grantor/direct (seller) index, then search in the related entry.
Land indexes only list the names of the grantor/direct (seller) and grantee/indirect (buyer). Therefore, search the indexes for names of other relatives and neighbors to assist you in finding a land record in which your ancestor might be named.
There are instances when an ancestor bought land from the government such as:
homestead grants, military bounty land warrants, lottery land, mining and timberland claims and more. If an ancestor received or bought land from the government, review the topics having to do with the "Government to Person" Land Acquisition Process as well as the topics named above to learn how to obtain these records. Return to the United States Land and Property page for information on these topics.
- Recognize that it may take time to navigate the complexities.
- Land records exist in cases in which other record types didn’t. This is because the line of ownership has to be proven.
- Names of neighboring property owners and witnesses might provide clues to other relatives.
- The transaction might have been recorded at a much later date. This is especially true if the land remained in the family. Selling to a non-family member may have prompted the recording of the title decades after the initial owner died.
- Remember that land may be in a different jurisdictions (aka counties) in different years as county boundaries changed and new counties were formed.
- Notice if there is a record of the person selling land but no record of the purchase. This can be a clue that 1) the land was acquired by inheritance, or 2) the land was acquired from the state or federal government (which means that a higher jurisdiction needs to be considered.)
- Plat each transaction. This may reveal additional acquisitions or divisions between transactions and identify mixed jurisdictions. It may also allow you to analyze what is happening to neighboring properties.
- Land Records Search has many county and some state indexes to land records online.
- General Land Office - Patent Search are searchable online and most have free images of patents to download. The minimum information needed for a search is the state where the land is located and the name of the person receiving the patent. Surveys and Land Status Records can also be searched here.
- General Land Office - Track Book Search are searchable online. They contain the name and legal land description on all applications for land from the federal government. Even if that application did not result in a patent. This is a manual search, so a general idea of where the land is located is needed. Otherwise there is too much to search.
- William Dollarhide, forward to E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc., 1997), xi.