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Fall 2004
A Publication of the St. Louis Public Library

Vol. 4  No. 3


gfhfile.gif (5536 bytes)Land Entry Records

NARA holds the land entry records for all 30 public land states. It does not have land entry files for the original 13 colonies, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, West Virginia, Texas, and Hawaii.

Land entry records consist of the original land patents, which are held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), successor to the General Land Office, and land entry case files, which are held by the National Archives. It is possible to find detailed descriptions of the property, improvements made, lists of residing family members, information on military service or naturalization of the claimant, and sometimes a record of death of the claimant if the claim was being pursued by his widow or other heirs.

The 20 states that NARA doesn't hold land entry records for are called state land states. They differ from public land states in that most of the land within their borders was claimed before they became states or territories. Patents (initial deeds) in state land states would therefore have been issued by colonial governments or by the foreign power in control of the land. The federal government, specifically the General Land Office, issued patents in public land states.

One of the first jobs for a state was to validate the land patents issued by colonial, territorial, or foreign governments. The General Land Office in the new state would conduct ownership claims hearings before it began giving out patents to public domain land. These hearings could take some time to complete: Missouri's General Land Office worked for more than 10 years to sort out land entries made prior to statehood.

State land and public land states differ in how land parcels are legally described. Before land can be settled, it needs to be surveyed and legally described so that one land parcel can be easily differentiated from another in the same area. In many of the state land states, the system used is called the metes-and-bounds system. In this system, surveyors use natural features of the land such as trees, large rocks, and streams, plus boundaries with adjoining property owners, to establish the location and legal description of a land parcel. This works initially, but because of changes in natural features, construction by adjacent landowners, as well as the passage of time, land descriptions generated in this way can lead to identification difficulties.

The land in public land states, however, is measured using a grid system that divides land into rectangular parcels that measure six miles per side and are known as townships. Each rectangular parcel is divided into 36 smaller rectangular parcels called sections, each of which is 640 acres in size and measures one mile per side. Dividing a section into four equal parcels creates four quarter-sections, each 160 acres in size. Most bounty land grants for military service entitled a veteran to a quarter-section. Many others who purchased public lands also bought a quarter-section.

The last military bounty lands were awarded to veterans of the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848. The next public land legislation was the Homestead Act of 1862.

Homestead Act of 1862

President Lincoln signed The Homestead Act of 1862 on January 1, 1863. It was repealed in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, although a 10-year extension of the Act was valid only in Alaska. During the Homestead Act's 124-year existence, more than 2 million people applied for parcels of public domain land. Only 783,000 of these people filed successful claims. Persons filing homestead land claims settled 10 percent of the total area of the United States.

Homestead lands were free, although settlement did involve an $18 filing fee. In order to receive a patent (initial deed) to the land, a settler had to live on the parcel for five years, build a home, and either farm or make other qualifying improvements to the land. Union Army and Navy veterans could substitute one year of service during the Civil War for one year of residency on the claimed homestead. As a result, many Civil War veterans show up in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory in the years following the Civil War. Confederate veterans could also claim homestead lands but had to satisfy the entire residency requirement.

Persons claiming homestead land filed their intent to settle at the local General Land Office. A clerk checked to see that a claim hadn't already been filed on the land, then forwarded the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington, D.C., which double-checked the claim against a separate set of records kept at that location. The prospective settler paid a filing fee of $10, and a fee of $2 to the local land agent.

After building a home, improving the land, and living on the claim for the required length of time, the settler had two witnesses to sign a "proof" form, paid a $6 fee to the local land office, then received a patent (initial deed) for the land signed by the President of the United States. The typical homesteader received 160 acres in return for the $18 fee.

Numerous famous Americans lived on homestead land at some point including George Washington Carver, Willa Cather, Virgil Earp, Lawrence Welk, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and singer/songwriter Jewel (she is the granddaughter of Alaskan homesteaders).

Westward Movement

gfhlandscape.gif (24436 bytes)Immigration to the United States has followed relatively straightforward patterns. Most early immigrants came to North America from northwestern Europe. Much of the earliest immigration was from Great Britain, but sizable numbers of Germans and Dutch immigrated as well. The slave trade also brought many Africans to the Caribbean and both North and South America. Importation of slaves into the United States was banned after 1808.

Immigration slowed between 1760-1815 because of nearly constant warfare in North America and/or Europe. Immigration then began again in earnest and grew in numbers with each passing decade until World War I began in 1914. Immigration during the early 19th century was still mainly from countries in Northwestern Europe. After the American Civil War, more and more immigrants to the United States came from countries in Southern and Eastern Europe. By 1900, nearly fourth-fifths of new immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Some people came to the United States for adventure and some for religious freedom, but most immigrated because of economic opportunity. The opportunity initially offered was to settle on free or cheap land and follow agricultural pursuits. This land always lay to the west since most settlement in this country began on the East Coast and moved westward until reaching the Pacific Ocean. Westward expansion was sometimes slightly diverted by harsh climate or fearsome topography, but even then the general direction was still westward. As land became more thoroughly settled and more expensive, economic opportunity came to represent the chance to work in a factory in one of America's major urban centers.

Even today, the general pattern of movement in this country is to the west (and, to a lesser degree, the south) because perceived economic opportunity lies in these directions.

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