Grants to Land Companies and Railroads

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Portal:United States Land and Property

Land Companies

To encourage settlement of large tracts of land, many colonies and states allowed land speculators, often organized as land companies, to purchase large tracts of land for resale to settlers. Records of these transactions may be difficult to obtain. They may have remained in private possession, or have been deposited in a state, local, or private archives or historical society. Some have also been published. The Family History Library has copies of some of these records (especially the published sources) such as the Susquehannah Company Papers. Land company records are generally listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under [STATE] - LAND AND PROPERTY.[1]


Railroad land grants in a checkerboard pattern on both sides of their track.
Starting in the 1850s state governments offerred land grants as an incentive to several railroad builders in Illinois and Wisconsin. In 1862 the federal government offerred land grants for building transcontinental railroads. The expectation was the railroads would quickly sell the land to settlers to raise the money to pay for the building of the railroad. However, in practice government conditions usually prevented, and railroads often chose not to sell the land. Instead, railroads usually used their land grants as collateral to obtain loans (bonds or government sponsored mortgages). Railroad land grants rarely resulted in records that are useful to genealogists.[2] When the railroads sold or transferred parts of their land grants to individuals those sales were usually recorded in the appropriate county land office.

Different railroads had different land grant rules. The most well-known form of railroad land grant was made in a checkerboard pattern along the line of the first tracks (see illustration). In 1862 the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads were orginally promised ten miles of checkerboard land on each side of the tracks, but to help meet expenses, ten was changed to twenty miles on each side in 1864. Because of the checkerboard pattern twenty miles would result in ten railroad blocks on each side of the tracks, and the federal government would keep most of the non-railroad blocks of land. The 1864 law also gave the railroad the mineral rights to their land as well. If a railroad failed to meet certain requirements such as a completion deadline these land grants could be forfeited.[3]


  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Land and Property." United States Research Outline. Salt Lake City, Utah: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1988, 2002.
  2. Wade E. Hone, Land and Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997), 153.
  3. Terry Cox, "Railroad Land Grants Explained" in Collectible Stocks and Bonds from North American Railroads: Guide with Prices, 2nd ed. at (accessed 8 July 2009).