Finding Land Records.

Copyright March 2001 By Robert W. Scott


      How do you find land records? The quick answer to this basic question is that the primary land records, deeds, are kept in the county recorder’s office. That is the place where deeds are officially recorded and where the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) indexes allow researchers to find purchases and sales of land by specific individuals. But life is always a little more complicated because the deed books do not include records for all land that was purchased from the federal government. And since the counties along the Ohio River were settled early, the first buyers acquired their land from the government.

      When land was purchased from the government it was said to have been patented. For our purposes, the patent is the transfer of land to the buyer. Many times, purchasers filed these documents in the county deed books. When they did, you will find that the president of the United States at that date is the person making the sale. But many patents were never entered into the deed books, so if you can’t find a record of your ancestor’s buying land in the deed books, you need to look elsewhere.

      The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management/General Land Office has an excellent Web site ( http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/ ) that enables researchers to search for land purchased from the federal government in most states in which surveys provide a legal land description. Not only is the BLM site easy to use, judging from my experience, the accuracy of the transcriptions is remarkable given all the millions of documents abstracted along with all the numbers, sections, township, ranges, dates of purchase, aliquot parts (the NE1/4 etc. that describe parts of sections). This site has a good set of definitions, including what is a patent, along with a good definition of the legal land descriptions (range, township, etc.) This glossary is written in very simple English.

      But there are two ways land was purchased from the government–cash and credit. The BLM site provides a searchable database, but only for cash purchases. These are purchases made after 1820. And while the database covers the period all the way to 1908, there was very little government land left for sale in Southeastern Indiana by 1850. Before 1820, purchasers could acquire land on credit–with three years to pay–for $1.25 per acre. Since Jefferson and Switzerland County were settled relatively early, a substantial amount of government land was sold on credit and cannot be found through the BLM Web site.

      There are two sets of books that provide transcriptions of the earlier records. These are Jeffersonville Land Entries 1808-1818 edited by Janet Cowan, McDowell Publications, Route 4 Box 314, Uticah, Ky., and the Federal Land Series, edited by Clifford Neal Smith, American Library Association, Chicago, 1972. The latter is a multi-volume book that covers sales both in Ohio and Indiana. I urge caution with these, appears to me that sometimes (but not always) when purchasers made yearly payments, it was dutifully recorded. So if a person made the required three payments, same piece of property is listed three times and you come up with a lot more land than your ancestor really owned.

     These records show the name of the purchaser, the legal land description (section, township, range) and whether the amount purchased was a full section or a fraction of a section (These definitions will be covered in another section on this workshop.) The acreages of land in partial sections are not shown. Often, these records show the residence of the purchaser. So when David Hillis patented his first land in 1809 in Jefferson County in 1809, he is listed as a resident of Bourbon County, Ky. When John Buchanan patented land near modern Florence in 1804 or 1809 (depending on the transcription), he is listed as a resident of Dearborn County, Ind. There are also some page numbers that refer to the original documents.

     One of the handy things about these books is that they lump purchasers together by date of purchase and often (without specifying it) by county in which they purchased. So you may find several men buying land on April 5, 1812, and if you examine their residences, you will find they all bought land in Jefferson County. (This date is made up. Don’t go looking for it.) There are other publications available regarding Indiana land patents, but they don’t cover the Jefferson and Switzerland County area, so I won’t go into them here.

     The Cowan book is in the Madison library and the Smith Book is in a variety of libraries, but using them is nowhere nearly as easy as accessing the BLM Site, which can search each state individually. Legal land descriptions were not used in the original thirteen states, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, Vermont, Texas, and Hawaii. (Kentucky and West Virginia were carved from Virginia, Maine from Massachusetts, Vermont from New York and New Hampshire. Both Texas and Hawaii operated as independent nations, so state land claims were never ceded to the federal government as happened in the Northwestern Territory.) These other states use metes and bounds descriptions to describe land that is sold via deeds (Metes and bounds are those descriptions such as “from a big tree to the rock in the middle of John Smith’s line”...etc.)

     The BLM site currently enables researchers to search patents issued in the other states from 1820 through 1908, except Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The Iowa records are expected to be available in 2004, according to the site. No estimate was provided for the other three states. Not only can you search for patents, but the millions of original images have been scanned, so (for a fee) you can order them.

     The nice thing about the site is you can search by an individual’s name (the patentee is the field you enter the name in) or by surname (It will find all the Wilkins in Indiana, I doubt if it will handle a search for all Smiths.) You can also search by county (Enter Smith and chose Jefferson County and you will get all entries for Smiths in Jefferson County) The search will show the name of the person patenting the land, legal land description, acreage involved in each separate patent, when purchased, and the land office at which the land was sold. You can also search for warrantees, but since these involve only soldiers with land warrants, you’ll find that most purchasers don’t fall into this category.

     If you can get to the court house, another set of books that can be helpful are the entry books. There are different sets, but the oldest records who first purchased a particular tract of land. Now, these are not organized by name--they are organized by legal land description. All the original land purchasers in Twp. 4 Range 12E will be listed together as will all the purchases in Twp. 4N Range 11E and so on. What is useful about this is that you know what property owners had land in the same neighborhood and I suspect when county property maps were drawn, they were developed from these books, not from the deeds.

     Deeds are obviously the most widely available records. Deeds for both Jefferson County and Switzerland County (along with the indexes) have been microfilmed by the LDS and can be ordered through branch libraries. Microfilms of Jefferson County deeds are available at the Madison-Jefferson County library (so you can search when the courthouse is closed). You should check at the Indiana State Library for availability as they also have microfilms of many county records.

     Deeds are available for Jefferson County from its formation in 1811. Switzerland County was carved from Jefferson in 1814. Earlier county records essentially don’t exist. Jefferson was created from Clark County, but few if any of the Clark deeds pertain to this area. Since Jefferson County was not purchased from the Indians until 1805, there were no legal sales of land before that date. Switzerland County was part of Dearborn County starting in1803, but those records were destroyed in 1826. Earlier than 1803, the area was part of Knox County, but records for that period are thin, if they exist at all.

     The earliest patents in Switzerland County, all issued in1801, are primarily along the Ohio River. The two earliest patents in Jefferson County were issued in 1808, with sales getting into higher gear in 1809. Basically, it was not legally possible to have deeds for land before these first patents were issued since settlers could not legally own the land.


Copyright by Robert W. Scott, 2001.

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