Public Lands

By Edwin C. Dunn

When the first Europeans arrived in America, they claimed, by right of conquest and without regard to the native inhabitants, all the land which they discovered for their respective sovereigns back in Europe. Through treaties, many of these originally claimed lands were transferred between European powers, or to the United States government after the Revolutionary War. The transfer of these governmentally claimed lands to private citizens was by a variety of processes.

Land grants during the colonial period, which were made by the respective sovereigns, or their representatives, are found in the original colony (state) archives. Many have been published. Later sales of state lands, such as the Georgia land lotteries, or the headright or homestead grants to Texas settlers, are also in the state archives.

During the 1780s the original states ceded their western lands to the national government, and Congress passed the Ordinance of 1785 to provide for the distribution and sale of this public domain. In New England there had been a system of presurveyed townships; in the southern colonies there had been a system of irregular surveys and tracts. In the public land states a regular system of surveying and selling the land was established.

Of course, there had to be given consideration for private grants of land made by the prior governments of Britain, France, and Spain in the western territories. Claims based on these grants may be found in the published American State Papers, in court records, and in the Texas General Land Office.

The vast area of the public lands included all territory west of the Mississippi River which later came into the possession of the United States, except Texas and Hawaii. It also included the western lands east of the Mississippi which came under the newly formed United States government in the 1780s following independence. This included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. The press of early settlers, and especially land speculators, into southern Appalachia (Tennessee, Kentucky) resulted in these ceded territories largely developing along private lines prior to enactment of the public domain laws.

The public domain was divided into north-south strips of land, six miles wide, called ranges, and east-west strips of land, six miles wide, called townships. Ranges were numbered east and west of a principle meridian; townships are numbered north and south of a base line. Ranges and township strips intersect to form blocks of land (townships), which are six miles square, or which contain 36 square miles, or 36 sections. Each section, or square mile, contains 640 acres, and can be divided into quarter sections (160 acres), quarter sections into further quarters (40 acres), and so on.

A range might be designated as Range 4 West (R4W), a township as Township 5 N (R5N), a section as S3, S4, etc., a quarter section as SE ¼ , NW ¼, etc., and a quarter of a quarter section as SE ¼ of NW ¼.

A search of these earliest land records of your ancestors may provide clues to their neighbors, possible spouses, and even to their heirs. They may be particularly useful where many later county records are no longer extant, due to courthouse fires, or other destructive events.

The tract books, which contain the records of the first land transfer of a piece of land in the public domain, may be found in the National Archives, state land offices, state archives, or in historical societies. Tract books for the eastern public land states are at the Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States, General Land Office in Springfield, Virginia.

This page was last updated on: February 14, 2017

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