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Volume 6, Number 5 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 February 26, 2014
In this article we discuss searching for our ancestors that headed west. Utilizing the various land records is a great way to track their movements as they headed across the county. I sometimes find it helpful to start my searches in the west and trace them back east.
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James L. Douthat
GO WEST YOUNG MAN!!
Many of us while researching our ancestors find that we have to start in the west and move east in our researching. Many of our ancestors did not stay in one place. It seems that many of them had “wanderlust” in their souls. The grass was always greener over the last hill they could see in the distance. They wanted to move in that direction. As some of them would state, “I can see smoke from another cabin in the distance, the neighborhood is getting too crowded, we’re moving farther away.” This meant that many of our more recent families are in the middle of the country or in the far western states. For this reason, it is sometimes easier to start in the west and head east in researching our families.
One of the best resources to begin with is the Federal Land Records. Not all of the Federal lands were in the west. If you have ancestors in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, or Wisconsin you can find Federal Land Records. Even in some small way, land grants from the Federal Government to American Revolutionary soldiers were made in Tennessee with the Government lands in middle Tennessee. However, this was a very small part of those grants.
To start your research, keep in mind that with the Federal Land records, the method of surveying changed. Most of the early surveys, such as the Fincastle lands in Virginia with William Preston and his team of surveyors were all on the meets and bounds method which means from a rock to a tree to whatever was visible in the distance. The surveys were very irregular in size and shape as they followed the contour of the land and surrounding country side. With the Federal Land Surveys, the grid system came into play with entire areas begin surveyed along lines running north and south or east and west. There is only one grid that does not conform to this line of axis, the Ocoee Land District in Tennessee. The north south line in this system was drawn at an angle parallel to the Tennessee River in southeastern Tennessee.
The land offices were established after 1800 which generated Tract Books, Case Files, Field and Survey Notes and Patents. The Tract Books would be arranged by township and range with the land description, acreage, names and date of sale. Most of these books are held in the Bureau of Land Management’s Eastern States records. These records are available on microfilm and many libraries have these records, especially in the states where the lands are located.
In the Case Files, there are various points of great interest. Prior to 1820, most all of the lands were sold on credit and many land speculators were involved with the ownership of the lands and, as you might expect, they did not pay for all of the lands. This would then generate additional transactions with different persons, amounts and titles. After 30 June 1820, all transactions were in cash at a price of not less than $1.25 per acre. When this change came about, the records generated were somewhat less than before.
There were several laws concerning land transactions which were passed and you might some information in these records. The Preemption Act passed by Congress in 1841 gave the “squatter” the right to purchase the land at $1.25 per acre. Many times a pioneer would settle open land, establish a home site and began living on the land, but they did not own it. With this act, the “squatters” were able to become the owner with all rights and privileges. There was later the Homestead Act of 1862 that was similar, but the pioneer had to be 21 years or older and could claim 160 acres with the rights to build a home site and began farming or ranching as they chose. The Union Vets Act of 1872 allowed veterans of the Civil War the chance to use their service in the army to go against the cost of the land. The Oregon Donation Act later granted as much as 320 acres to a single male or 640 acres to a couple for settlement. The files for most of these land transaction are available through various land offices and government agencies today.
One side bar on this study is the Private Land Claims where individuals received claims from foreign sovereigns when such lands were under the control of those governments. These are especially prominent in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in the east under the control of Spain. There were also many up the Mississippi River through the middle of the country all the way to Canada, but smaller numbers total. In the west, we run into Spanish rule in the southwest and into California.
To find some of the records, you might want to consult the American State Paper for individual claims and the National Archives records under various departments. The search will be well worth the effort. Just because your ancestor moved west, he was not “lost” from records.
Louisiana and Missouri:
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