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Overheard in GenForum: Land Records? Any Worth to Them?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

February 17, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I recently found ancestors' land online through the Bureau of Land Management. I wrote down the legals, etc. and have the name, but has anyone ever applied for the certified copy? What info do they have and release? We are looking for ties to family,etc. so this could be important, especially if he even signed it, but if he didn't and I get the computer looking copy, it is a waste. Any ideas? -- Melissa

A: Land records are one of those peculiar resources that genealogists rely on. They are peculiar because there are no guarantees that the record will reveal some useful information.

Your mention of the Bureau of Land Management's database is just one type of land record that researchers are likely to be using. In fact, most researchers looking for land records will be found working in the local county books. Land records for most states, excluding New England, are found at the county courthouse. And for many areas, these records have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library.

Land records range from just the basics to gold mines of family relationship.

Understanding the Difference in Land Records

The records found in the Bureau of Land Management's online database are the land patents primarily dating from 1820-1908. The scanned images that are available at the web site are the final papers showing ownership of the land by the individual who purchased or received it. These patents have less information on them than other land records can have. They basically point out that the payment responsibilities have been met and that the individual named is entitled to the specific land described on the patent.

When working in the Bureau of Land Management database, while the available patent is a great addition to your family file on that individual, the real clues can be found in the Patent Description section of the search results. This section details, among other things, the authority for the ownership of the land. It is in this section that you are going to find such entries as "April 24, 1820: SALE-CASH". If you find anything in this Authority field other than a cash sale, then you have the possibility of a gold mine.

The final patent available on the Bureau of Land Management's web site will not be any different, however, the information available in the land case file, which you can order from the National Archives, may include many additional records. Military or Homestead authorities may include proof of relationship, possible questionnaires answered by your ancestor, copies of information entered in the family bible, and other similar documents.

Working with Regular Land Deeds

Once an ancestor was in possession of this land from the federal government they could then turn around and sell it to another person. When this happens, the records are entered in the local county records.

Benefits of the county records include possible relationships mentioned in the document, the release of dower (supplying you at least the given name of a wife) and possibly a new location if your ancestor had moved before selling the land in question.

Working with land records requires a little tenacity. You will have to diligently seek all possible land transactions both from the federal government and also in the county records. Using indexes is helpful, but it is imperative to look at the actual records themselves. The land descriptions will help you to know if indeed all the land your ancestor purchased and sold equals each other. If it doesn't then you know that some land is still out there pending in some way.

Abstracting the land records is usually the easiest way to do this. You will want to make sure that you get the following information for each land record:

  • Name of grantor (the seller)
  • Name of the grantee (the buyer)
  • Date of the purchase
  • Legal description of the land
  • Signatures of the grantor(s)
  • Names of the witnesses
  • Location of the original deed (volume, page)

In Conclusion

Land records can be a tedious task to work with. However, in the end, even if just one of those records offers you clues, then the entire process has been a benefit. If your ancestor in the Bureau of Land Management database had something other than a cash sale, be sure to visit the National Archives web site and request that they send you copies of the form used for requesting those land case files.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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