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Evolution of Land Ownership in America: The Search for Space

When studying a family history, you are essentially studying individuals who effect the environment around them in definite and predictable patterns.


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When studying a family history, you are essentially studying individuals who effect the environment around them in definite and predictable patterns. The phenomena of having or not having space, whether it be land, a house, an apartment, or even the space immediately surrounding oneself, is deeply rooted in human behavior. America was an answer to the scarcity of space in Europe, as well as the restrictions to an individual's use of space by suppressive governments. It thus comes as no surprise that the first colonists had definite ideas about the freedom to look for new space, and not being restricted in the use of it.

It also reflects greatly in the way the ideals of the United States were formed and voiced in early documents.

Sometimes just the location and form of property boundaries can tell you something about the owner or owners of a piece of land. Settlers proceeded to acquire land as their parents had. Ethnic orientation and education, as well as personal experiences are all mixed into the way they forged out an existence in a portion of space known as property. In the past, our ancestors made their mark in this world with the plow and axe. Such impacts remain observable today. Our forefathers also set into action a series of causes which elicited the U. S. government to respond with new laws and Acts which made further changes to how land was managed.

Having land of ones's own, whether a sod house on a prairie, a log cabin in the northwest, or buying one's first home today, such an accomplishment boosted the owner's pride and self-reliance, and fed everyone's drive to freedom from living under the roof and rules of others. It is also of vital importance to the genealogist today, as the procurement of land caused the need for documentation of ownership and the change of ownership. The process of pulling up stakes, whether leaving the East and pressing westward, moving to the suburbs or seeking another state, the constant motivation for finding new space has remained the same and, fortunately, for genealogists it is a human activity often recorded in documents.

Early History of American Space

In the beginning of the occupation of America, only angry Native American tribes being pushed further and further from their hunting grounds, contested the early settlers right to occupy the land. Crowns of European countries, given authority -- in their minds -- by divine right, regarded such vast "unsettled" areas as theirs by the act of driving a flag into the shoreline. They carved up the land mass by arranging agreements with other nations as to what portion of land was owned by which nation.

Spain was the first to state such a claim on parts of the southern portion of North America by the late 1600s. The French held a large chunk along the Mississippi River, which would be later known as the Louisiana Purchase. Nearly a hundred years after Christopher Columbus ventured across the Atlantic hoping to find the Orient, Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1585, explored the New World under the British Crown. In the nearly two hundred years that followed this expedition, the Crown granted charters to large companies and wealthy land speculators who resided in England. A similar method, using different terms, was also employed by the French and Spanish seats of power. The Crown remained in control of all the land while land companies were considered their agents. Some of the more famous companies were the London, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Virginia companies. During this early period, proprietor records of the Crown were the only documents concerning ownership. A proprietorship granted lands from the charter under the Crown's name to other parties. Such land was described in much the same method as later deeds with the use of landmarks. Land patents were used as evidence of right, title, and or interest to a tract of land. They were usually granted by a central, federal or state government to an individual or company.

Land Warrants were certificates from a land office authorizing a person to assume ownership and Bounty Land Warrants were issued to veterans in return for military service, from the time of the Revolutionary War through to 1855. A land survey determined the exact boundaries, position and or extent of a track of land or section of a county.

Some historical events were also milestones in the management of property and property rights. In 1783, after the Revolutionary War, the British established the American Claims Commission to pay loyalists who lost land to the newly founded country of the United States. By 1763 Spain kept records of claims and land transactions concerning America and sent copies to the archives in Seville. Spain, which had laid claim to the southwestern region of present day United States, including pieces of Texas, New Mexico, California and Florida. Spain lost most of it's reign to Mexico by 1821. Mexico used a system known as "Ranchos" which was over 1,000 acres. They also used a form of a headright system in some areas. Some references to empressario grants were handed out to land speculators to create towns.

The French held a collection of records known as the "Superior Council Records" which contain valuable information of early ownership of America.

The next article in this series will cover the United State's government acts as the influx of people spread out from east to west, filling up all that space.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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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