Years ago I was researching an ancestor who moved from New York to Iowa in 1838. I was looking at the county courthouse records for a document revealing his first purchase of the bare Iowa land. The land he settled had not been previously owned by a private party. I couldn’t find the record. I later discovered I couldn’t find it because that document would have been kept by the federal government, not the county.
Knowing how land was first transferred from the government is critical to finding the record.
Generally, the first time a parcel was transferred, the land was distributed one of two ways:
1. The State Land States: These states transferred title directly from the state to the individual or company without any steps from the federal government. The State Land States were the 13 original colonies plus a few extras, namely: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia. These records are usually found at the state archives or on microfilm through the Family History Library.
2. Public (Federal) Land States: Beginning in 1785, the federal government owned the land and could disperse it at will. The Public Land States include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Under the Public Land system, the Federal government used many different methods for distributing the land, such as the Military Bounty Lands, the Oregon Donation Lands, Homesteads, Oklahoma Land Rush, etc. These records are usually found at the federal level. I’ll write more about those in later posts.
The distinction between these two is critical to know or you’ll spend a lot of time searching for a record in a place it won’t exist.
Once the parcel changed hands from the government (state or federal) the records of subsequent transfers were usually kept at the county. Bear in mind, in frontier areas where the county courthouse was far away, the party may not have recorded the document for many years, maybe not even do it until long after the owner died! Thus, when you are searching land records, you should search all the years records were kept. You should also search the nearby counties in case the document had been recorded there instead.
Related posts: Land Records 101: Why Land?