Federal and State Government Records

Land Records

Introduction and Links to Resources on Land Entry Case Files and Related Records

The land records that are generally of most interest to genealogists are the land entry case files. These are records that document the transfer of public lands from the U.S. Government to private ownership.

There are over ten million such individual land transactions in the custody of the National Archives. These case files cover land entries in all 30 public land states.

Cash Land Entry 23785, Springfield, Missouri Land Office, of Benjamin Wingo, 1857. This material is held by NARA’s Old Military & Civil Records (Washington DC).

The case files were filed as either military bounty land warrants, pre-1908 general land entry files, or as post-1908 land entry files. The information required to access and order copies of the records will differ depending on which of these 3 categories the transaction falls into. Read more.

For land records in the remaining 20 states that were never part of the original public domain, check the State Archives for that particular state. This includes the original 13 colonies, plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Related Land Records

Tract Books:
There are also tract books available relating to the land entry case files. These are arranged by the legal description of the land: by township, range, section, etc. Tract books are divided into two geographical areas, Eastern States and Western States

For the Western States, the tract books are located in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. This includes the states of: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

For the Eastern States, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the tract books and patents. This includes the states of: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

For these Eastern State tract books, contact:

Eastern States Office, Bureau of Land Management
Department of the Interior

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History of Wetlands in the Conterminous
United States

At the time of European settlement in the early 1600’s, the area that was to become the conterminous United States had approximately 221 million acres of wetlands. About 103 million acres remained as of the mid-1980’s (Dahl and Johnson, 1991). Six States lost 85 percent or more of their original wetland acreage–twenty-two lost 50 percent or more (Dahl, 1990) (fig. 2). Even today, all of the effects of these losses might not be fully realized.

Figure 2.(Click on image for a larger version, 83K GIF)

Figure 2. States with notable wetland loss, 1780’s to mid-1980’s. Source: Modified from Dahl, 1990.)
Historical events, technological innovations, and values of society sometimes had destructive effects on wetlands. By examining the historical backdrop of why things happened, when they happened, and the consequences of what happened, society can better appreciate the importance of wetlands in water-resource issues. Society’s views about wetlands have changed considerably–especially in the last half century. Interest in the preservation of wetlands has increased as the value of wetlands to society has become more fully understood. From a cultural standpoint, it is interesting to understand how changes in opinions and values came about, and what effects these changes had on wetland resources. From an ecological perspective, it is important to understand how the loss of wetlands affects fish, wildlife, and the environment as a whole.

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Early 1600’s to 1800–Colonial Settlement

Wetland drainage began with permanent settlement of Colonial America. Throughout the 1600’s and 1700’s, colonization was encouraged by European monarchs to establish footholds in North America. The effects of this colonization on the landscape became obvious in the early to mid-1700’s.Much of our knowledge of early wetlands comes from maps and other documents that survived over time. The origins of settlers influenced both where people settled and how they mapped and used natural resources. Few records exist because the original English, French, and Spanish settlements were established before the land was surveyed. Settlements in the North tended to be clustered, whereas communities in the South were more widely scattered because of the predominance of agriculture. Many different land surveying systems resulted in an incomplete patchwork of ownership that ultimately caused many legal problems due to boundary errors and overlapping claims (Garrett, 1988). It was not until 1785 that the Land Ordinance Act established the United States Public Land Survey, which required surveying and partitioning of land prior to settlement. Although not established to provide information on natural resources, surveys do provide some information about the distribution and location of wetlands. During the 1700’s, wetlands were regarded as swampy lands that bred diseases, restricted overland travel, impeded the production of food and fiber, and generally were not useful for frontier survival. Settlers, commercial interests, and governments agreed that wetlands presented obstacles to development, and that wetlands should be eliminated and the land reclaimed for other purposes. Most pioneers viewed natural resources from wetlands as things to be used without limit (Tebeau, 1980). The most productive tracts of land in fertile river valleys in parts of Virginia had been claimed and occupied before 1700. The resulting shortage of choice land stimulated colonists to move south to the rich bottom lands along the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound of North Carolina on the flat Atlantic coastal plain. Initially, settlements consisted primarily of shelters and subsistence farms on small tracts of land. To extend the productive value of available land, wetlands on these small tracts were drained by small hand-dug ditches. During the mid- to late 1700’s, as the population grew, land clearing and farming for profit began to affect larger tracts of land; many coastal plain wetlands were converted to farmland (fig. 3). Once drained, these areas provided productive agricultural lands for growing cash crops. [read more]