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Review of the Family History Seminar, “Land Research Workshop”

September 17, 2009
From left to right, Elaine Milam Vetter, DRT Library Committee Chairman; Donald Raney; Leslie Stapleton, DRT Library Director.

From left to right, Elaine Milam Vetter, DRT Library Committee Chairman; Donald Raney; Leslie Stapleton, DRT Library Director.

On Saturday, September 5, the DRT Library held its ninth family history seminar. This year’s speaker was Donald Raney, a sixth-generation Texan who has been an active genealogist for more than thirty years. He teaches genealogy courses at Richland College in Dallas and has presented sessions at many genealogical conferences throughout his career. His recently published book, Martin Varner, Texas Pioneer, 1785-1844, is about his great-great-great-grandfather.

Even though land records can be difficult to locate, navigate, use, and interpret, Mr. Raney began the seminar by arguing that they remain a highly valuable resource for genealogists for several reasons.

  • Before 1850, over 90% of American males owned land. This means that, if you had ancestors in the United States prior to 1850, chances are that you can find information about them in land records. This is important, asserted Mr. Raney, considering that many landowners were ordinary farmers who may have left a limited trail of records besides land documents.
  • Land records can assist in differentiating between individuals with the same name living in the same area at the same time.
  • Land records were among the first documents reconstructed after fires at county courthouses. These recreated records were based on landowners’ copies of deeds. Thus, while fires, wars, and natural disasters have destroyed other types of documents that might be helpful for genealogists, land records are usually still extant.

While Mr. Raney also talked about Texas land records and historic routes of migration in the United States, his primary focus was how to conduct genealogical research in state land states and federal land states.

Map showing federal land states in blue and state land states in cream. Image courtesy of www.nationatlas.gov.

Map showing federal land states in blue and state land states in cream. This image is used courtesy of http://www.nationalatlas.gov and does not belong to the DRT Library.

State land states are those states that retained the right to dispose of land within their borders. Lands in these states were never part of the public domain. The twenty state land states include the original thirteen colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) plus Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, and Hawaii.

The remaining thirty states are federal land states. When the United States was established, the state land states retained title to all public land within their boundaries. However, all of their land claims outside their boundaries were ceded to the United States government. As new territories were purchased or ceded to the federal government, title to all vacant lands in these territories was vested in it. These new territories became the public domain, and the federal government controlled the distribution of these lands.

Donald Raney speaking at the Family History Seminar.

Donald Raney speaking at the Family History Seminar.

Mr. Raney explained that genealogists need to be aware of the significant differences that exist between state land states and federal land states, which include:

  • How land was organized and measured: In state land states, land was described using metes and bounds, a method of surveying property which made use of natural physical and topographic features (e.g. trees, creeks, rivers, and swamps) in conjunction with measurements and artificially designated objects or places. By comparison, land in federal land states was divided using the public land survey system, which created grids of townships and ranges that were then subdivided into smaller sections.
The survey field notes (first page only shown here) taken for land David Crockett received in Bexar County is typical of the metes and bounds method. The surveyor used trees, roads, creeks, and rivers as markers along the property's boundaries.

The survey field notes (first page only shown here) taken for land David Crockett received in Bexar County are typical of the metes and bounds method.

Diagram showing how land in federal land states was divided into grids. Image courtesy of www.nationatlas.gov.

Diagram showing how land in federal land states was divided into grids. This image is used courtesy of http://www.nationalatlas.gov and does not belong to the DRT Library.

  • Where land records can be found: In state land states, records documenting original landowners (i.e. individuals who acquired property from the government) can be found in the appropriate state archives. In federal land states, these documents can be found in agencies of the federal government such as the National Archives and the Bureau of Land Management. In both types of states, subsequent landowners can be found in deed indexes and books, which are located in county records.

Throughout his four lectures, Mr. Raney discussed land records within the broader context of history and provided specific, practical information about how to access such documents. He talked about the history of how land has been distributed and acquired throughout American history as well as how governments have recorded those processes and transactions, arguing that using land records requires an understanding of these topics. Additionally, Mr. Raney described numerous places – including archives, libraries, and websites – where land records can be accessed and provided tips and methods for effectively using land documents for genealogical research.

Seminar attendees came away with much useful information from Mr. Raney.

Seminar attendees came away with much useful information from Mr. Raney.

Armed with protractors, participants practiced mapping land boundaries and drawing plats using the metes and bounds method of land measurement and description.

Armed with protractors, participants practiced mapping land boundaries and drawing plats using the metes and bounds method of land measurement and description.

Many thanks to Mr. Raney for providing such thought-provoking information and to the participants who attended this year’s Family History Seminar.

Click here for a full citation of the documents and images included in this entry.

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