Those of us who have farmer ancestors find a wealth of information tied to land records. If your ancestor homesteaded, you can request the homestead packet records from the national archives. In addition to researching homestead records, you can tease out some interesting facts from the Land Tract Records. Let’s look.
The Land Tract Records were created to track the land patents for each 160 acres as part of the homestead act as well as any sales from the United States to first owner. You probably wondering why you would care about these if you’ve already researched the homestead records. I’ll give you some examples a bit later.
The Tract books are managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management and they have copies via manuscript and on film. The good news is that you can view these records online on FamilySearch.
The FamilySearch site does a great job summarizing information about the Tract Books which I will include in part:
“These tract books contain official records of the land status and all transactions involving surveyed public lands. They are arranged by state and within the state by township and range. These books indicate who obtained the land and include a physical description of the tract and where the land is located. The type of transaction is also recorded such as cash entry, credit entry, homesteads, patents (deeds) granted by the Federal Government, and other conveyances of title such as Indian allotments, internal improvement grants (to states), military bounty land warrants, private land claims, railroad grants, school grants, and swamp grants. Additional items of information included in the tract books are as follows: number of acres, date of sale, purchase price, land office, entry number, final Certificate of Purchase number, and notes on relinquishments and conversions.
Not all states were part of the Federal public domain so before you start your research, read the full description of the Land Tract Records on FamilySearch. If you live in the Red River Valley, you’re in luck because North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota as well as Iowa and Wisconsin are among those states with records. Remember that the Federal land records focus only on the first transfer of the title to another party from the United States. Look to your county records for any documentation regarding land records after that initial transaction.
You could choose “click here” but that brings up all the land records captured in the land tract records across the states. Instead I would recommend using “control F” to bring up the ‘find on this page’ option in windows. Then search for your state to get to the right area of a very long list of states and volumes. The records are grouped together by volumes. Within the volumes are records for RANGE and TOWNSHIP. You need to know the range and township of your ancestor’s land in order to search effectively. Instead of searching through records for the entire state, you can start to narrow your search by finding the right volume to search. You will still need to crawl through the documents in that volume in order to find the Range and Township you are looking for…unfortunately the listings within a volume are not always in a specific order.
Within a specific volume, look for your range or township number within a pattern. Sometimes it will have Range 47 with Township 156-158 then skip to Range 52 and Township 156-158 and the Range you are looking for Range 48 will be in a totally different section of the book for Township 156-158. Don’t give up! With a little patience and perseverance, you can find the record. When I have no idea where a record is within a volume, I start at the beginning and then go up by 50 or 100 pages at a time to get a sense on how the book might be organized. It helps you divide and conquer without paging through all 1000 pages.
Once you have found your Range and Township, the records indicate the section numbers and the land descriptions. What can you find once you’ve located your ancestor’s name? The date they filed and the certificate number and any cash deposit. Did they fail to meet the requirements and cancel? Perhaps they chose to pay for the balance due as a cash sale? The certificate number will be noted and the date. While you may have this information in the homestead packet, I’ve found interesting tidbits that I need to further research.
For example, I found that a great uncle’s homesteaded near his father’s homestead. I was unaware that he had filed a homestead claim because he wasn’t in any index or plat map. The 1885 census records had his location in that general area but no indication of the section or land location. I thought perhaps he was working for someone else. Because he failed to complete the claim so there was no homestead packet. However, I do have two different documents that I can request copies of from the local courthouse to help me piece together what happened. I have the homestead packet of another ancestor and knew all about his process for staking a claim. The land tract records show that he also had applied for another piece of land but did not complete that listing. Another record to request to learn more about my ancestor’s experience.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has information available that you can research too. Since we’ve talked about this in past blogs, I’ll mention in passing. The Tract Books are not online through BLM, but they do have images now of many patent records.
Early ancestors are often tied to land records which can help you establish dates and locations where your ancestor lived and worked. Depending on the records, you can learn about neighbors and the local history. If you’re looking to fill in some blanks in your ancestor’s land history, give the Land Tract Books a try. Just remember it takes a little patience and creative searching! Good luck!
“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”
― John James Audubon
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.