The tract books were ledgers used to record entries, leases, withdrawals and other actions affecting the disposition of lands in the public domain. This information allowed federal land officials to determine the status of lands and minerals. For further details about federal tract books available on the Internet, see also United States, Bureau of Land Management Tract Books (FamilySearch Historical Records).
This is similar to county governments today, which keep their own separate land records usually in the form of deeds and plat maps in order to track ownership and status of real estate within the county.
In most cases the tract books kept by the federal government are more authoritative than copies, if any, kept by General Land Office branch offices, or by states or counties for the same area.
Federal tract books 1820-1908
There are 3,907 United States federal tract books containing the official record of each parcel of public land until it was transferred from federal to private ownership in the federal land states between the years 1820 and 1908. Unfortunatly, the federal tract books for Alaska and Missouri are lost or missing.
Why they were created
These federal tract books show the federal government transactions and status of each parcel of surveyed public land. These books indicate who obtained the land, and include a physical description of the property and where the land is located. The type of transaction is also recorded such as cash entry, credit entry, homesteads, patents (deeds), timberland rights, or mineral rights granted by the federal government, and other conveyances of title such as Indian allotments, internal improvement grants (to states), military bounty land warrants, land grants from previous foreign governments, railroad grants, school grants, and swamp grants.
Why genealogists use them
Federal tract books show details about when and where an ancestor first obtained land from the federal government. Tract books provide information to help find further federal records (case files) and local land ownership records (deeds) which sometimes hold clues about an ancestor's residence and family members. Also, after finding where an ancestor lived, a researcher can search for a variety of non-land records of the ancestor in that area. Tract books also can be used to find information about neighbors—people who sometimes turn out to be relatives. Tract books even show when an ancestor applied for federal land but failed to obtain it.
Tract books lead to case files
Federal tract books serve as a comprehensive reference to over ten million land entry case files preserved at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. These case files show the application papers of each individual who attempted to obtain a private claim to some public land, whether they succeeded or not. Successful claims received a patent (original title) and are indexed in the BLM Land Patent Search 1820-1908 for all federal land states. Unsuccessful claims still have case files, and tract books are one of the best ways to find the information needed to obtain a case file from the two million otherwise unindexed land entry case files that were never finished, forfeited, rejected, or cancelled.
Information found in this tract book collection will probably include:
- Name of purchaser
- Description of the land (section, township and range)
- Date of transaction
- Type of transaction (cash, credit, homestead, bounty land, etc.)
- Final disposition of transaction (canceled, relinquished or completed)
Additional items of information might also be found in the tract books: number of acres, date of sale, purchase price, land office, entry number, final Certificate of Purchase number, and notes on relinquishment and conversions. Such remarks added near an entry sometimes provide clues to find additional records.
A Patent was issued for all successful transaction in the tract books. Patents are very reliable and represent the formal legal transfer of land from federal to private ownership. Think of a patent as the first deed for that land. Subsequent land transfers would be a deed recorded in the local county offices. Often a patent was also recorded in the county offices.
A Case file was created for each transaction in the tract books, even if the transaction was not successful. Case files can include a variety of records such as applications, reports, affidavits, genealogical pages from family Bibles, citizenship papers, letters from attorneys, surveys or etc. Since each case file is different, the contents must be evaluated individually to assess their reliability.
Reliability Tract book entries were almost always recorded close to the time of land transactions. They are part of the formal record and are considered accurate and reliable, at least as far as the transfer of ownership is concerned.
Coverage These tract books document nearly 100 percent of the land transactions for federal land states between 1820 and 1908. Every ancestor who applied to the federal government to obtain federal land should be entered in one of these tract books, whether the application was approved, or not. Unfortunately, tract books for Alaska and Missouri are missing or lost.
The availability of inexpensive land was one of the primary attractions for immigrants to come to America. As high as 80 percent of the population have owned property at some point in their life. However, only a small part of population obtained that land directly from the federal government. Therefore, only a small percentage of the land-owning population would be listed in federal tract books. Nevertheless, the remaining landowners would definitely be mentioned in county land and property records such as deeds.
Regional differences. Because of homestead laws, a higher percentage of the land owning population in the Great Plains states after 1862 are likely to be in tract books than in other western states. On the other hand, it is likely mining and mineral rights claims in tract books would be more common in the Mountain West states.
References to 2 million unindexed case files. There are over ten million land entry case files (applications) in the National Archives most of which would have a corresponding entry in a tract book. About eight million land patents have been indexed in the BLM Land Patent Search for successfully completed federal land applications. This suggests about two million applications were left unfinished or were rejected—the best remaining access point to such unpatented case files is through page-by-page tract book searches.
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 (section, township, and range); terms from the rectangular surveys used in the Public Land Survey System used for most parts of 30 federal land states. 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. 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.
How to use tract books
Tract books are easiest to use if you have an ancestor's land description with the section, township number, and range number to help you quickly turn to the page where an ancestor should be listed.
What it helps to know. To begin your search of federal tract books it is helpful to know (or guess) the following:
- Name of the entryman (person who filed the claim)
- Land Office (not needed for many tract books)
- County (not needed for many tract books)
- Land location (section, township, and range) See Rectangular surveys for an explanation of these terms.
1. Find the land description. The best strategy is to first find an ancestor's land description.
- Sources which 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 rejected or cancelled.
- Land patent. If your family still has the patent (original title) for a piece of property, that patent will show the land description.
- Seven states index. The seven states index at the National Archives in Washington, DC, also gives each entry's land description for Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and Utah for pre-1908 case files both patented and unpatented.
- Use search engines like Google to identify state land record indexes that could reveal land descriptions. Selected states may have indexed their own tract book records. For example, see the Nebraska 1860-1954 Tract Books Index.
2. Search tract books page-by-page. If you only have an approximate idea where your ancestor lived, then search page-by-page through the tract books for that area until you find his or her name.
Select the 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:
- FHL Catalog description. For a detailed list of this collection's contents by film number, see the FamilySearch Catalog entry:
- Index. Or, if you have access to the National Archives in Washington, DC, use the Index to Tract Books, RG 49, MLR# UD2321, to each state's tract books which allows researchers to identify the tract book number that covers the area in which they are interested.
- 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. 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.
Search the online tract books
To browse the 28-state online federal tract book collection 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.
Options depending on what you know.
- If you know the land description, locate land entry in the appropriate tract book volume 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, browse each appropriate tract book volume line-by-line and page-by-page for the name of an ancestor in order to find the accompanying land description. Use "Appendix A" in Land and Property Research in the United States to help determine which tract books cover a given county.
Using the Information
Once you find an ancestor's tract book land entry, be sure to
- photocopy both tract book pages (left and right) 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.
Evaluate and record the data. Evaluate each piece of information given. Assess its accuracy and likelyhood. 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 tract book to help find further records. For example:
- Case files. Every entry in a tract book should have a corresponding case file. Use the tract book information to order copies of the land entry case files from the National Archives. 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.
- 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.
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.
Internet digital versions of federal tract books, microfilms, and originals exist:
- 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.
Storage of the 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). The tract books for Alaska and Missouri are lost.
Local tract books and land records
General Land Office branch offices, state and county archives sometimes have partial copies of federal tract books. In general these are not as authoritative as the federal copies.
Counties are responsible for documenting all land transactions AFTER title was transferred from the federal government to an individual. Deeds, mortgages, property tax records, and plat maps are examples of land records typically generated at the county level.
Related Wiki Articles
- 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.
- Tract Books Coverage Table lists the state, volume, land office, township numbers and range numbers in each federal tract book 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.
- 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.
- Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records includes the Land Patent Search, instructions, and search tips.
- Form NATF-084 (pdf) used to order land entry case files from the National Archives.
- Land Records: Introduction and Links to Resources on Land Entry Case Files and Related Records National Archives explain land record research.
For Further Reading
- 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
- E. Wade Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry Pub., c1997), chapters 8 and 9. At various repositories (WorldCat); FHL Book 973 R27h.
- 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), 5. Internet version (pdf) At various repositories (WorldCat) FHL Ref Book 973 J53hrL
- 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.
- Hawkins, 1.
- Hone, 113-14.
- Hawkins, 5-6.
- Hawkins, front inside cover, and page 6.
- Hawkins, 6.
- Hawkins, 3-4.
- 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.
- Hawkins, 4.
- Hone, 213-67.
- Hone, 269-497.
- Hone, 213-67.
- Hawkins, 4-5.
- Hawkins, 5.