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History of Land Records in the United States

Overview of early land records in the United States.


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A charter was a grant of land, usually made by a king, to the church or sometimes lay people. The earliest land records were formed when Britain granted charters to land companies. These land companies were largely comprised of wealthy English land speculators. The land companies were empowered with the authority to issue land grants to individuals loyal to the British Crown. Major land companies were the London Company, Plymouth Company, and Massachusetts Bay Company among others.

Records from this early period may be called crown grants or proprietor records. A proprietor was a person or group of persons enlisted by the charter to grant or disperse the lands. These land disbursements were laid out much the same as later deeds and offered a land description with identifying landmarks. These records may be found in various agencies, often on microfilm. Check with the Latter Day Saints Family History Library to enquire about microfilm rental.

Head right grants will be of interest to the genealogist searching Florida land records. A head right granted a certain amount of land, in this case 100 acres, to the head of a household. An additional 50 acres was given to each additional member of the family. The head right grants consisted of a 5-step process. First, the application was made, then the survey warrant was issued. A survey warrant was simply a document that issued instructions to the surveyor. From the survey the plat record was formed, testimony from supporting witnesses was gathered and the patent issued. Records for the Florida head right system are available from the National Archives in Washington, DC. One thing to note, other states also had head right systems of land grants and the terms of the land grants varied from state to state, so be sure and research the terms of the head right grant for the particular state in question.

Another form of the land grant process occurred in the form of Loyalist claims. During the Revolutionary War, the United States confiscated lands belonging to persons who were felt to be loyal to the British government. The British government set up the American Claims Commission to compensate these persons for their loses. Records of these types of claims can be found in the Public Records office in Surrey, England. Microfilm indexes of these claims are housed in the Library of Congress.

In order to work with these early types of land systems you must start with the current landholder and work backwards in time. Bear in mind that as you proceed backwards in time the landholdings will become larger and the resources to consult will be much more extensive.

Spain, which was the first foreign nation to have land ownership in the United States, granted small numbers of land grants. These grants were primarily given to soldiers. The records that are the most valuable to genealogists occurred after 1763. The Spanish Land Grant Files can be found at the Florida State Archives, the LDS Family History Center, and the National Archives.

French land records as they apply to the current territory of the United States may be frequently found intermingled with Spanish land records as the two frequently overlapped. The primary source for information on the French land grant process is found in the Superior Council Records, which are housed at the Family History Center and Tulane University.

Many different sources of land grant records exist and it is helpful to the genealogist to study and familiarize themselves with the many different types of records available. The records may seem like a maze at first, but knowledge is built like a foundation, one piece at a time.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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