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Volume 3, Number 18 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 November 10, 2011
This article focus on Public Land Records. Some of the land records will give detailed information, while others only list how much was paid for a particular parcel of land. Hopefully, the land records will provide you with another piece of your missing genealogy puzzle.
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James L. Douthat
Public Land Records
Following the American Revolutionary War, the colonies found themselves with vast expanses of lands and virtually no money. In fact, the cost of the War and the government at the time were financed by a large number of the wealthy citizens of the country. Many of these were the signers of the Declaration of Independence and they had pledged their lives and fortunes in the pursuit of freedom, which it cost them dearly.
When England left the colonies, we found ourselves with huge debts but vast riches in land. The Land Act of 1785 was brought about by the need for money and land was the only thing that America had in abundance. The government took over the entire nation’s land holdings except those lands in the original 13 colonies. Land was the medium of exchange for the soldier who fought in the War. Each man was to be paid with so much land. These land warrants became cash for many of the poorest of the soldiers. This was something that could be sold, traded or bartered on the open market. For example, one Robert Douthat purchased five warrants of 20,000 acres each and then bought two thousand acres on his own to file for a tract west of the Shenandoah Valley of 102,000 acres just after the signing of The Land Act of 1785. The claim was filed, approved and then he sold it to “Lighthorse” Harry Lee a couple of days later. Neither Douthat nor Lee bothered to survey the land and double check the title. As it turned out, there were prior claims to a vast majority of the land. The State of Virginia had to step in between the Lees and the claimants, thus in 1910, the title was finally settled. A five thousand acre tract was claimed by the state and made into the first state park in Virginia - Douthat State Park.
More land was added to the coffers of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase and treaties with the Native Americans as well as conquests of other lands from Spain. Public Domain Lands are now located in every state except the original 13 colonies and Texas. With the original thirteen, you have Kentucky and West Virginia which were then part of Virginia and Tennessee which was part of North Carolina. All other states, except Alaska, became a part of the ownership of the Federal Government at the time of their accession.
Over the years, the Federal Government has sold or given away over one billion acres of land and granted more than five million land patents. In the meantime, Thomas Jefferson devised a new survey system for these lands known as the “grid” system. This means that the area in question was divided into six mile squares which were then divided again into thirty-six smaller sections and these can be divided even smaller. Each six mile square is called a “Section” of 640 acres. In the west and mid-west the land is still held in section lots for many of the open lands. Survey markers were set at the corners of each section and even down to today, these section lines divide communities, set boundaries for school districts or voting districts.
In Tennessee, which was created on June 1, 1796 after the Land Act of 1785, some of the area was surveyed in “mets and bounds” and other sections in the “grid” system. Two of the grid systems in the East Tennessee area were acquisitions from Indian Lands known as the Hiwassee Purchase and the Ocoee Purchase. The Hiwassee Purchase follows the rule of the grid system with straight north/south lines and east/west lines. The Ocoee Purchase does not follow the strict rules of the grid system since the north/south lines are angled at 33 degrees off center to follow the slope of the Tennessee River. There is also a section called the Jackson Purchase in West Tennessee that is on the grid system. The rest of the state is surveyed from a tree to a rock or the headwaters of a creek or river.
In one instance, Stockley Donelson surveyed two tracts in southeast Tennessee in the late 1700s one of which ran “from the headwaters of Richland Creek to the Tennessee River, thence down River to the mouth of North Chickamauga Creek, thence up the North Chickamauga Creek to the headwaters on Walden’s Ridge and back to the beginning, containing 19,000 acres more or less.” When measurements are added to this survey, from the headwaters on Walden’s Ridge to the River is about ten miles. Down the River from Richland Creek to North Chickamauga is about 30 miles and then ten miles back up the mountain and thence on to the beginning. This makes about 300 square miles of land and with 640 acres to the mile thus 192,000 acres. One man, Richard Green Waterhouse, purchased both of Donelson’s tracts and spent the rest of his life selling them off.
Each state archives has the records of the early land records with some held in the state and some in the national archives. Some of these records give good details about the land and purchaser and some are just receipts for the cash paid for them. If you are interested in trying to locate the land records of your ancestor, the following website by Linda Haas Davenport gives information on each state. Patent Locations
Hopefully, the land records will give you more information about your ancestors. Happy Hunting!
Land Record Books
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