With 2 million free General Land Office patents to mine, the Bureau of Land Management's Web site is an El Dorado for public land records.
On Aug. 5, 1834, the federal government transferred title of 80 acres of public lands to my great-great-great-grandfather, Aaron Hendrickson. Aaron's acres were located in Shelby County, Ind., just southeast of the land owned by his brother, William.
How do I know? I found a record of the transfer at the Bureau of Land Management's land patent site. The free, searchable site is a repository for more than 2 million General Land Office (GLO) title records for public land sales ("patents"). The database contains patents issued between 1820 and 1908 in the eastern United States, and after June 30, 1908, in the West, with more to come.
GLO records are more than an index. They contain the name of the person the land was transferred to (patentee), the legal land description (where it is), the land office that had jurisdiction over the title transfer and the congressional act or treaty under whose authority the land was transferred.
If that's not enough to send you running to your computer, this will: The site also contains scanned images of the original patents.
Searching the database
From the BLM home page, click on Search Land Patents. You'll be asked to enter your zip code for demographic tracking purposes.
At the search screen, select a state, then fill in at least one of the search fields, such as the patentee's first and last name. If you know the county your ancestor lived in, select it from a pull-down list; otherwise, let the system search statewide.
If you don't get the results you expected, read the Search Tips or broaden your search by using wildcards in the name. The wildcards on this site differ from the standard asterisk (*), so check the site's Reference Center. Try alternate spellings, too; the system won't automatically search for Hendricksen if you type in Hendrickson.
Searching for Aaron's records, I went to the Indiana screen, entered Hendrickson and chose Shelby County. Within a few seconds I had a list of 12 Hendrickson land patents.
Once your search returns a patent of interest, click on Details to see the general patent description. The Legal Land Description tab provides specifics about the land, including the township, section, meridian and range (see the glossary below).
Public lands were surveyed using a rectangular system. Unlike the original 13 states, where property lines were often described in terms such as "10 paces from the black oak tree," the rectangular system divided each township into 36 sections of one square mile each.
Sections were then divided into quarters or halves and named by their location within the section (a plot's exact location is denoted by its "aliquot parts"). For example, Aaron's land sat in the east half of the southwest quarter (E 1/2 SW 1/4) of section 35.
The Document Image tab takes you to scanned images of the patent. To print the image, choose a TIFF or Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format. You can also order a certified copy from the BLM (on your choice of plain or parchment paper) for $2.
Exploring the neighborhood
Once you've found your ancestor's land patent, the search is over, right? Wrong. Now the real fun begins.
Remember how you're always told in census research to write down the names of your ancestors' neighbors? Those folks next door will likely show up later as in-laws, witnesses on wills or spouses.
The same principle holds true in land research. If you know who owned land around your ancestor, you'll have more clues about your family. And you can use the search form to discover just who those owners were and where their land was.
Go back to the Legal Land Description screen and write down the aliquot parts (such as "E 1/2 SW 1/4"), the section, township, range and meridian of your ancestor's land. Next, return to the search form and hit the Clear button. Choose the county, but instead of filling in names, go to the bottom of the form and fill in the section, township, range and meridian fields. One click and you'll get the names and land descriptions of everyone who owned land in that section.
Becoming a map maker
It gets even better. Get a blank piece of paper and draw a square, then divide the square into quarters. Label the top right "NE," the top left "NW," the bottom right "SE" and the bottom left "SW." Click on the land description for each person who owned land in that particular section, then divide each of the quarters you drew accordingly. You now have an accurate section map.
When you fill in your section map, be sure to write down the names of all the landowners. It's like those census records—you never know what name is going to turn up in the family tree.
In my search, I found that in addition to Aaron's 80 acres, section 35 contained five other land patents belonging to William Hendrickson and John and Thomas Moore. I knew Aaron's daughter-in-law's maiden name was Moore, so this got my attention. I decided to explore the neighborhood.
I returned to the search form and changed the section number from 35 to 34 (the section immediately west). There were three more patents for Hendricksons and Moores. And in section 27 (just north of 34), every single patent belonged to someone related to Aaron either by blood or marriage.
Two hours after I began my search, I had plotted the ownership of nine sections. In all, I'd found 43 land patents belonging to four different branches of my family. Without plotting the surrounding sections, I would never have realized the number of extended family members living in the area.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the picture that emerged from my simple maps depicted how my family intertwined through both time and space.
Public lands: Land owned by the federal government and sold to individuals to raise money for the treasury. The Congress of the Confederation relinquished claims on land in the 13 colonies, and in turn the colonies gave up land in the "West."
Township: Segment of public land covering 36 square miles.
Section: A one-square-mile segment of a township.
Aliquot parts: Notation for where land is located within a township. The aliquot parts "W 1/2 NW 1/4," for example, describe a piece of land covering the west half of a township's northwest quarter.
Meridian: A line extending north and south from any point. GLO records use "principal" meridians, expressed with numbers (first, second, third) or names (Michigan-Toledo strip, Willamette, 1815 Illinois).
Range: A row of townships east or west of the principal meridian. The range number tells how many rows from a meridian the township you're researching is.
To learn more about the terminology of the land patent system, see the BLM's glossary.