If you have ancestors that went west in search of cheap land, you might want to try to find them in the Federal Land Records. From 1800 until 1908 these land records are found for all the states except the original thirteen colonies, Vermont, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Texas and Hawaii. These latter states were never part of the Federal public domain. This leaves about 30 present states as part of these Federal Public domain records. Thus you have a lot of latitude in locating your ancestors. If you are back to the boat with your ancestors, then you will notice this would be about the third of fourth generation from the boat that they migrated into the western portion of the United States. The first and possibly second generation remained in the eastern portion of the country while the third and fourth may have migrated into the area of public domain territory.
You will find most of these records in the National Archives collection under Record Group 49 or the Bureau of Land Managements. The Bureau of Land Management has patented [original owners] from 1820-1908 in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin. One point to be well aware of is that these records will ONLY record the first time the land is sold. All other sales are recorded in the county or state where they occurred. If you know that your ancestor went west in a second or third wave of migration, then you will have to search in the local records. When you request these records from the National Archives, you have to use Form 84 which can be obtained on-line.
Before you file for a record remember that you have to understand a few points about the records themselves. In the year 1800-1908 they are arranged by state, land office, type of land entry [i.e. cash, homestead, timber, mineral, etc] as well as the land entry file number. After 1908, they are recorded differently and there are indices available on CD-ROMs available from the National Archives. You have to remember also that Congress through the years passed over 40 bills pertaining to these records and each time this happened, there would be differences in the information these records will contain. Although they will include the name of the person and the location of the land itself, some of the later laws passed would require proof of citizenship, military service or improvements.
These records are normally most valuable when used in conjunction with some of the other records that are readily available such as census, court records, military service records or pension records. These all suppose that you have a working knowledge of the ancestors. It also helps in locating most of these or any other record to know where the ancestor lived for most of their life. This latter is where personal letters, diaries and other tidbits of information might help us. You never know where these items will come from. Case in point, I just received a package of personal letters, photographs, etc. from someone I do not know who lives in Sweden. The records were all for a local person of great importance. You just never know where your little tidbits will come from in your research.
When you request information from the National Archives, you send your request for a certain file. They will then respond with information on the file and a request for a fee to be paid, normally $10.00 - $15.00 per file. Once they have the money, you will receive the copy of the file in due time. These requests are like all other requests from the Archives, it takes time. In many cases, the research on the files is done by volunteers and they are not under any pressure to fill the request. It has taken me sometimes several months to receive a response to a request. It is my understanding that when a request is sent, they are prioritized, the file found in the system, it is copied and held until the payment is sent. When the fee is received, then the copies of the file are returned to you. The pay-off is worth the wait, if you have a strong case for the information on the ancestor.