Some of my favorite records to work with are land records! I love figuring out the Rectangular Survey System or the Metes and Bounds and then working with plat records. They really are a lot of fun! Plus, mapping out an ancestor’s property on a plat map, can show you their neighbors over the years. This is especially helpful when you hit a brick wall and want to see who their associates could be!
Many of you may already know at least one ancestor in recent history that owned land. How do you find out more information about that land? Was part of it sold over time? Was it bigger or smaller than it is now?
For all that information, you’ll usually go to your County Recorder. What you’ll find there will also vary from county to county, so call and be sure that the office will have land records available for researchers.
Sometimes these can be digitized in the office. My current county has that done, which is wonderful! The older records aren’t word searchable but everything is on their computer and they have a station set up for researchers. This isn’t always the case! My hometown’s information is in a small room, which I was allowed in and they showed me the indexes for the records for me to search through. Once I found the record I wanted, I could then look up the book.
There are also some counties that have their land records searchable online. That is a wonderful thing and I’ve noticed more and more are doing that. So be sure to do a web search to see if you are in one of those lucky counties!
Also, check the Family History Library microfilm to see if the land records were microfilmed. This is useful if you can’t physically go to the county.
First, search the indexes. These can be arranged by the grantor (the seller of the property) or by the grantee (the buyer of the property). The index will tell you where to find the record – the volume, page number, file number, etc. Normally you’d find the deed which describes who bought what from whom and where a property description.
There are other types of land records you can find too: mortgage deeds, warranty deeds, quitclaim deeds, deed of gift, dower release, etc. Once you find the deed you are looking for, make a copy of it if you can or transcribe it and then you can research the type of deed for more information on it if you wish.
The genealogical information that can be found can be:
- The grantor(s) -the seller(s) of the property
- The grantee(s) – the buyer(s) of the property
- Location and description of the land
- Cost of the land
Sometimes the record will also give the information on who the seller bought the land from and who that person bought the land from, etc.
The Description of the Land
Here’s where it gets fun!
There are two ways of measurements for land records. In the thirteen original states they normally used something called Metes and Bounds. A typical description has a starting point, then follows with directions and measurements to plot out the land. The measurements can include physical features (like some sort of waterway) as well. FamilySearch has a wonderful example of this on their wiki: Metes and Bounds.
The other way of measuring is how the rest of the country measures lands called the Rectangular Survey System. The description goes from the smallest to largest part of the map. You’ll find something like this:
It reads: “… North half of the North East Quarter, and the North half of the North West Quarter of Section No. 12, in Township no. 16. North of Range No. One West containing one hundred and sixty acres.” 
To explain this, I’ll go from largest section to smaller.
- Meridian: The meridian runs north to south and the base is from east to west. In the above case, that is on the Michigan-Toledo strip. This isn’t necessary to know in most cases but can help map it out if you need it. The FamilySearch wiki on Rectangular Surveys has a map you can view for more information.
- Range and Township numbers: The range is the east to west line on the meridian and the township is the north to south on the baseline. Think of the X Y axis you learned in math class – same principle here. The numbers will then pinpoint an area on the map where that land resides. The townships are divided into 36 sections which each contain one square mile.
- Sections: The sections themselves hold 640 acres of land and can be divided. It can be divided into halves (the north and south halves), quarters, (the north east/west and the south east/west quarters), and even smaller. As the above example shows, my ancestor received the North half of the North East Quarter and the North half of the North West quarter.
You can map this out on graph paper to create a visual to help you. I always do this!
This information is very useful with plat maps. I take the description information to the local library or wherever I know the plat maps are kept, and then use it to find more information on the area surrounding my ancestor and to see who his neighbors were as well. This can lead to clues when researching an ancestor.
So what about earlier records? Say when someone bought the land from the state?
Federal Land Records are for the areas outside of the thirteen original states. To find those records, like the example I showed above, you can go to the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records website (I call it the glorecords website). Here you can search for your ancestors, find an image of the certificate, and even look at plat maps. You can also find ordering information if you wish to order the file from the National Archives.
If you’re looking for records from the original states, those are colonial land grants. These can be found in the state’s archives or even still in the state land office. You’ll want to contact the state archives to find out where you can find your particular record and if they still exist as not every record has made it through the years.
Chime in on the comment section if you’ve found some wonderful things through land records! Or, if you feel I left something out, please let me know!
 Sylvester Erway (Midland County) cash entry file, certificate no. 7199, Genesee, Michigan, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908;Records of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives, Washington D.C