Land records for genealogical purposes may provide the most important clue a genealogist will ever find that confirms where and when a person lived in America. But first- did you know that you may have a very good chance of locating a file folder with genealogical information about your ancestor, a file folder with perhaps dozens of sheets of papers in it, all specific to that person?
That file folder may have breakthrough genealogical information in it, but most genealogists do not know where that file folder is located, nor do they know how to get copies from it. The “very good chance” comes from the fact that ninety percent of all adult white men in America have owned land. There is a file folder regarding that land sale, and in that file folder may be some hidden treasure. There is no other set of records with such a high percentage of success in locating the name of a person in historical records.
The File Folder
In addition to the plat books and tract books, another set of documents were maintained at the land offices relating to the land sale, copies of receipts, petitions, applications, and any other papers relating to your ancestor’s land purchase. These papers are referred to as “loose files (papers) filed together in a file folder. Today they are called land entry case files-and these are the public land records with the most genealogical information.
Each land transaction was given a case number. The case number also appeared on the plat book, usually written under the name of the entry man, and then entered into the tract book. A plat book entry, a tract book entry, and other papers (in a file folder) were created for every land transaction.
When all of the pages of a tract book or plat book were filled, the Recorder was asked to make a handwritten copy of the full book, and then send the copy to the Surveyor General’s office in Washington, DC. So, there were actually two original copies of the plat and tract books. The “first” book is the one that sits on the counter every day and weathering coffee spills, cigar burns, and daily handling. The “second original” was prepared by the Recorder to be mailed to Washington, and presumably, the copy that would be read by the Recorder’s boss, the Surveyor General of United States. Not surprising, the second original is cleaner and easier to read than the first original. The best copies, are now located in two offices near Washington, DC. Accessing these files and folders is a step every genealogist should take.
Researching from these records shows proof of ownership and is called a “patent.” The Springfield, Virginia BLM (Bureau of Land Management) office now has the original patents, plat books, and tract books for all land offices for 13 eastern states, including Ohio. Until well into the 1860’s, all patents issued by the U.S. Government were signed personally by the sitting President of the United States. (Example on pg. 8) All patents were numbered and filed. Not far away from the BLM, at the National Archives branch in Washington, D.C., the file containing all of the paperwork for a land purchase can be found.
The land entry files are organized today in the same arrangement they were first created. They are filed first by the state, then by the land office, and within each land office group. Although some counties maintained records of original entries of land, they were not required to do so. These books at the courthouse are entitled, “Original Entries of Land.”
Accessing the folder
The plat books and tract books should only be considered tools for locating the name of the General Land Office and the Case File Number. That file folder is located in the National Archives branch in Washington, DC. Now let’s review how to access that elusive file.
All requests for copies of Land Entry Files must be done on a NATF form 84. (This article will only include information on accessing Ohio lands records BEFORE January 1908 and will apply to nine indexed eastern states only.) NOTE - since I first wrote this article, in June of 2003, you may be able to access these records from their website instead of writing. Check first!
Write a letter to:
Bureau of Land Management
Eastern States Branch
7450 Boston Blvd.
Springfield, VA 22153
No form is required. Your letter should provide the following information:
Since 1989, the BLM has been indexing the names of patentees for all of the thirteen eastern public states. The project is called the GLO Automated Records Project. The indexes for Ohio (and other eastern states) are available on one CD-ROM publication. For more information about indexes and special orders, contact the BLM Springfield office at (703) 440-1600.
Computer aids for genealogists can access a web site on the Internet devoted to the GLO Automated Project. All states indexed for Eastern Public land, and each patent can be viewed and printed. Searches are done by state. Just type the name of the person you are looking for and then access the following URL: http://www.glorecords.blm.gov
When you receive a copy of the patent, or you have located a person listed in one of the BLM indexes, you will have all the necessary information to obtain the land entry case files from the National Archives branch in Washington, DC. If you have a copy of the patent, you will find a case file number at the top of the page. In addition, the name of the General Land Office that handled the land transaction will be given. You are ready to write for a copy of NATF form 84 (given on top of page 6).
Old Military & Civil – Land Team
National Archives and Records Administration
Washington, DC 20408
Once you have a copy of the form, fill it out and mail it requesting copies of the land entry files. You may include a copy of the patent you received from the BLM.
The Land Office Business
Surveys began in Ohio and progressed westward
GLO surveyors measured and marked boundaries of the public land based on a 6-mile square township. They kept meticulous notes of their measurements and even recorded the character of the land. Information included from the land office records may include the following terms:
Land Records: Grantors & Grantees
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has filmed the deed books found in countless courthouses across the United States. It may be possible to order these films through a local LDS Family History Center. Check the LDS FHLC at www.familysearch.org for Jefferson County, Ohio deeds. They have been filmed and are available at your local LDS Family History. You can check the LDS website for a library nearest you and patrons hours etc.
Information commonly found
The following is the most commonly found in a simple deed that transfers a parcel of land from one party to another:
The language may vary from county to county, recorder to recorder, and time period to time period, but the basic elements usually remain the same. Each of these pieces of information can broaden the researcher’s knowledge about the family involved. The following is “Extraordinary Deed Book finds:” Refer to pages 8 & 14 for an example of this.
The importance of original research in deed and land records cannot be overstated. Deeds often were one of the first types of records kept in an area and because of that, deed books contain so much more than just land transfers. Although their main purpose is usually the conveyance of a piece of land from one party to another, their usefulness can stretch far beyond that simple act!
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