A Comprehensive Index to the Disposition of US Public Domain Land

By | About.com

Photo Credit: FamilySearch

Photo Credit: FamilySearch

Tract books are ledgers used by the U.S. federal government from 1800 until the 1950s to record land entries and other actions related to the disposition of public domain land. They can serve as a useful resource for family historians who want to locate the property of ancestors and their neighbors who lived in the 30 public land states. Especially valuable, tract books serve not only as an index to patented land, but also to land transactions that were never completed but may still contain useful information for researchers.

You can even use them to find neighbors who didn’t stick around long enough to leave any other record!

Federal tract books were originally maintained by the U.S. government through the Bureau of Land Management and its predecessor, the General Land Office. They serve as a global index to the status and related transactions for each parcel of surveyed land that passed from Federal to non-Federal ownership—a total of over 1 billion acres. This includes not only patented claims, but also claims that were relinquished or cancelled. Nearly 2 million applicants applied for federal land but never finished the process for one reason or another; however information on these individuals is available in the tract books and corresponding land entry files.

Tract books are not indexed by name—instead they are organized by state, and then by the legal land description (numbered range, township and section). Several different styles of tract books have been in use over the years, but in general each bound volume holds the records of about 20 townships (not the named townships we are used to today).

Each township (23,040 acres) is documented over 12 pages, with 3 sections (640 acres per section) on each page, and 16 lines allotted to each section. Each land entry is recorded across two pages.

In most federal tract books you can expect to find:

  • name of the purchaser or “entryman”
  • acreage and price
  • where the land is located (numbered range, township and section)
  • date of application and/or patenting
  • the type of transaction (e.g. cash entry, credit entry, homestead, patent, timberland rights, mineral rights, military bounty land warrants, railroad grants)
  • name of the individual who patented the land (sometimes different than the entryman)
  • the final certificate, serial patent or warrant number

With the information obtained from the tract book, you can then request the land entry case file from the National Archives.

How to Access Federal Tract Books 1820–1908

Tract books remained in use from about 1800 well into the 20th century, but beginning 1 July 1908 the federal government implemented a new serial registration system for entering applications for public domain land. All general land entries were recorded by the General Land Office (GLO) in one large series by serial patent number, regardless of state or type. Name indices that provide the patent number of all post-­July 1908 land entries are available at the National Archives.

For land entries prior to 1 July 1908, tract books serve as the primary index to NARA’s land entry case files.

Federal Tract Books 1820-1908

There are 3,907 United States federal tract books containing the official record of each parcel of public land until it was transferred from federal to private ownership in 28 of the 30 federal land states between the years 1820 and 1908. The federal tract books for Alaska and Missouri have been lost. The Eastern State Office of the Bureau of Land Management holds the tract books for the “eastern” public land states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Wisconsin. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. holds the tract books for the remaining “western” federal land states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The federal tract books from 1820–1908 have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library.

They have also all been digitized and can be accessed for free on the FamilySearch website. Read on to learn how to navigate the collection to find a particular tract book entry.

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One of the many wonderful collections of digitized records available for free online at FamilySearch is the Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, United States, Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908. Unless you are already familiar with how to use tract books, trying to use them online can be a bit confusing at first, but a great resource in the free FamilySearch Research Wiki makes the task much easier.

Beginning with the BLM General Land Office’s free patent search, we can locate a homestead patent for Charles P. Ingalls in De Smet, South Dakota (then Dakota Territory). The patent description (the patent image is not available online) indicates that the 160 acres was located in Section 3 of Township 110, Range 56.

Once we have the Township, Range, and Section information from the BLM General Land Office database, the next step is the FamilySearch Research Wiki where a time-saving Tract Books Coverage Table greatly simplifies the process of identifying which volume to search for a particular piece of land. Without this handy tool (thank you to whoever created it!) you would have to open volumes one by one to identify which one covers your area of interest.

Scrolling down the list to Dakota Territory, we can see that Township 110, Range 56 should appear in Vol. 21-23 of Dakota Territory. Based on the coverage of these three volumes, Volume 22 seems the most likely possibility. While tract books from different land offices and different time periods might be formatted differently, they are arranged with records appearing in order by the legal description of the land: by township, range, section, etc.

In some cases this might mean that all records of one township appear in order by range, and in other cases they might be arranged in a particular volume (containing two or more townships), by range first and then township.

T110, R56 begins on page 109 (image 114) of Dakota Territory Tract Books, Vol. 22. Section 3 appears near the bottom of the page, where we learn that Charles P. Ingalls was able to successfully complete a homestead claim of 160 acres, paying a total of $10.00 in filing fees for the free land. The sale occurred on 27 February 1880, and the final certificate was issued on 11 May 1886.

While tract books are interesting for learning a few additional details beyond the patent entries on the BLM website as in the above example, where they are most helpful is for locating land sales that were cancelled or relinquished prior to the patent being issued, such as failed homestead claims. To search for these entries, use census, tax, and other records to determine the township in which your ancestor lived, and then browse the tract books for the entries from that township. For example, a cancelled homestead for Charles P. Ingalls in Section 4, Township 109, Range 38 appears in the Minnesota Tract Books, pointing to the locust devastation which led the Ingalls family to leave Walnut Grove for Dakota Territory before proving up on the homestead.

Once you have the legal land description of your ancestor’s land, whether from the BLM GLO database, or the Tract Books, don’t overlook ordering the actual Land Entry Case File! To see what one looks like, view the case file for the DeSmet, S.D. homestead claim of Charles P. Ingalls on the National Archives website.