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Land and Property Records

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Owning a home has long been the American Dream. People have owned homes in America ever since the first settlers and Pilgrims built their cabins in St. Augustine, Floridoa and Plymouth, Massachusetts and Jamestown, Virginia.

The easiest records to trace are those written after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Prior to that date, you would have to consult the Colonial Property Records, and find out if they were kept in America or in the foreign country.


Ever since the Revolutionary War, soldiers have been given grants of lands for payment for service in the Army and possibly service in the Navy as well. America was land rich and cash poor, so it was easier to pay servicemen with land. It also helped settle the American west, which in the early days was only a few hundred miles west of the Altantic Ocean. Most of these records would be kept by the state that the land was located in at the time the land was given to the soldier. Since the political map of the United States changed frequently in the early days, you will have to know the date in order to find the correct state in which to research. The Atlantic coast states often included much territory of the states immediately west of them before they were separated into additional states. The jurisdictional history is also important for locating the correct county, as many counties were also formed from larger parent counties.

Land Grants

Land Grants were often given by states for colleges and universitites. They were also given by the government to major settlers. William Penn got Pennsylvania from the King of England. This may be a tradition held over from the feudal system days in Europe.

Title Searches

A title search may be necessary to determine the exact history of a piece of land, as it may have passed through many hands before being sold to the farmer or home builder that settled there. A title search should tell you who owned the land, for how long, and the exact surveyed dimensions. Usually you need to contact a title company for this, but some of the older information may be available from your local historical society or museum.

Sanborn Maps

Later generations, especially in cities, build densely grouped homes and businesses, forming Main Streets and downtowns as the area grew. Fire was always a hazard in those days of wood burning stoves, fireplaces. Fire codes were not as prevalent as today. People wanted to insure their property against loss, and eventually maps were drawn up by a company named Sanborn that showed each piece of property, the size and shape of the buildings thereon and were color coded to show construction materials. Yellow is wood construction, red is brick and gray is stone. The fire departments used these maps as well to help them know what kind of a fire they would have to fight in each building if necessary.

Many of these old Sanborn maps are now becoming available in the collections of local historical societies, public library special collections, and local history museums. Some Sanborn maps are even available online. If you know the address, you can often find your ancestral properties. Maps from different years can show the differences in building sizes as well.

City Maps

As cities grew, the city governments would have maps published of their city. Many were very detailed, even showing buildings, or ward boundaries. The best ones show names of property owners for the year the map was created. They were helpful for city elections and city planning. Some are becoming available online, but more may be available from the libraries, museums and historical societies in each locale.

Online Maps

To find out what the land your ancestor owned looks like today, you can consult online mapping programs like Google Maps, Live.com and MapQuest. Online maps often include not only road maps, but satelite photographs of the area, and sometimes topigraphical information as well (labeled Terrain). Google now has Street View available for some areas, where you can click on a scrollable photo of the buildings and landscape of the street you are researching. This is great for finding buildings ancestors may have lived in if the building is still there.

Topigraphical Maps

It is interesting to find out if your ancestors lived on flat land or up on the hills. Topigraphical maps may help you find the local cemeteries as well, because people tend to bury their dead where the land doesn't flood.The United States Geological Survey prints these maps and houses them in the Federal Deposit Libraries found in most larger communities. Universities and state libraries have these collections as well.

Rural and Township Maps

Maps of rural areas, with names of farmers are sometimes available from the state or county governments. As the west was being settled, often land was divided into "townships" or "towns" of a certain large acreage. People bought "sections of land". Certain sections of each township was set aside for building a school and maybe for other uses as well. The county seat always had land for a courthouse, and federal government often had some land for post offices and federal buildings in communities of the appropriate size. Check with your state and national bureaus of land management for maps of large areas of land within each state.

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