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Land Records of Colonial America

Where they Settled:

Ethnicity & religion played a large role.  Of the earliest migrations some generalizations can be made [but remember that is all these are!]

most in New England were British – often from Northern and Eastern England and most were Congregationalists later giving way to Methodism and other Protestant denominations

the middle colonies of PA, NJ, DE, MD were much more mixed in ethnicity – English, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, German, Dutch, Swedes – also much more mixed in religion - Quaker, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Baptist etc.

most in
Virginia were English  - often from the southern part of England until the Shenandoah Valley began to open up in the mid 1700s when people of all ethnic types began to come down the valley to the Carolinas from the middle colonies.  Before that time the colony was firmly Anglican; set up with parishes and governed by the church to some degree

Leaving out the Puritan Migration of 1630-1649 one HALF of all immigrants to the colonies came as indentured servants, redemptioners or convincts – the highest rate of servitude was in Pennsylvania and Maryland and South Carolina.

FEW PEOPLE CAME TO EARLY AMERICA ALONE - you needed your family or friends:
being transported
being indentured
coming to meet other family
occasionally for business reasons

ONCE THEY WERE IN AMERICA they either came with their cluster or they became part of a new one by who they married; who their children married; their closest neighbors. They will intermarry again and again and they will travel and migrate and take up lands together. If they did not travel together they often followed family and neighbors later to the next destination.


The earlier your ancestor arrived the more important water routes are in a world with no roads.

Land Grants

When all the land was new and nobody had owned it previously it was distributed using Land Grants.  Some of the rules differed depending on where you settled but the following usually held true - it took 4 steps:

1.  THE PETITION - a request for the land.  The man might go to the colony’s council or the land office clerk and present a satisfactory REASON for  getting the land such as:

                                    1)  he could pay the price

                                    2)  military service

                                    3)  bringing an immigrant to the colony; headright  [Virginia]

                                    4)  he had lived on the land and improved it
                                         [planted a crop; built a cabin]

                                    5)  met qualifications of some special act ie in Kentucky
                                         patents were given for people who had settled between
                                         certain years and did not have the funds
                                         to pay for the land.

2) WARRANT - certified the right to SPECIFIC acreage an authorized an official surveyor to survey it. The PLAT,  sometimes called the SURVEY is the surveyors drawing.  Most colonies had a warrant register that was a kind of index to warrants that had been issued

3)  PATENT/GRANT - government’s or Proprietor’s passing of title to the  Patentee or Grantee upon PAYMENT or other proof.  In many places patent maps were kept

4)  ENTRY INTO RECORDS - Government or Proprietor usually entered a copy of the transaction into a permanent bound,  offical record.  PLATS were sometimes recorded in volumes as well as sometimes the surveyor’s loose copy.

preemption rights or a preemption warrant indicate the settler first settled/squatted on the land and had first rights to obtain warrant for that land.

Early New England Settlement
The first grants went to a group of men called the town proprietors [when doing early New England research grants might be in either land records or the proprietor's minutes.

New England towns were geographical unit extending beyond the village to some agreed boundary with the neighboring towns.  Early New England townships had strange shapes

Later they were uniformly made 6 miles X  6 miles and later when the U. S. Government began to dispose of land (1803)  they adapted the New England system for their township & range system.

Early Middle Colony Settlement
Some large grants which were then subdivided but mostly grants for farmable sizes

Early Virginia Settlement


Each man was given as headright a tract of land - usually 50 acres.

In order to encourage emigration, each individual who paid the  transportation costs of an emigrant received 50 acres of land...The term  "headright" applies both to the claim and to the individual who was imported. 

Headright claims could be, and often were, transferred or  assigned and they could be held for an unspecified length of time before  claim was made. 

The name of an emigrant as headright in the record book does not necessarily mean they got to Virginia the year the patent was issued or that they were a resident where the land was located.  It does not mean they had any connection to the patentee or even knew them.  They only prove they had been in Virginia when the patent was issued.

Headrights of indentured servants may have been claimed more  than once.  Sometimes the ship captain claimed them and sometimes a merchant who dealt in indentured labor claimed it or sometimes the master claimed them.  

sometimes a headright was granted for simply coming into the colony - leaving and coming back.  Some sea captains claimed another headright every time they returned!

To get the patent through the headright system:

1. the patentee petitioned the county court for a "certificate of importation" - these MAY be recorded in the court orders but some courts were better than others about bothering with them.   Headrights were also traded and sold so that certificates may include "assignees" to someone else but these were sometimes recorded and sometimes not.

2. The patentee took the certificate of importation to the Secretary of the Colony who then wrote out the right of 50 acres per headright.

3. The patentee then took the headright to the county surveyor who surveyed his chosen land  and created a plat, a map or plan of the tract of land giving linear and  angular measurements. 

4. The patentee returned these papers to the  Secretary, and if no discrepancies existed, a patent was issued.  The  Secretary made two copies of the patent.  One was given to the patentee,  and the other copy was kept in the Secretary's office. --

5. Each patent given was conditioned on two factors: one, the annual payment  to the crown of one shilling for each fifty acres owned, or a quitrent  fee; and two, either the building of a house and keeping of stock or the cultivation of an acre of ground within three years.  The terms seating  and planting were applied to these requirements. --

Orphans had three years after becoming of age to seat and plant the land, while widows could get extensions of three years by petitioning the  county court.  Sometimes the grantee hired someone to seat and plant for  him.  The county court often appointed commissioners to view and value  these improvements.

If a grantee failed to meet the requirements of seating and planting, or  if a grantee died and had no heirs, his land was "escheated" or reverted  back to the control of the land office.  It was allotted to the next  individual who applied for it.  Records of escheated land include an  eight-part series of articles on "Inquisitions on Escheated Land,  1665-1676", published in the "Virginia Genealogist" starting with volume 9, [number] 2."

The headright system was full of abuses.
  claims were sometimes suspect and there were sneaky ways to get them
  poor record keeping often had more than one person claiming the same land
  land speculation along with the claim abuses made big money

Purchase of the headright formed on major basis for the plantation system of the American South.  These large farms were planted for big money products to export and labor was based on slave and indentured labor.  The south was filled with small farms as well but the plantation system dominated the characteristics of the American South and its perception of itself.

Tomahawk Grants

Along with headrights were more traditional land patents - often known as Tomahawk Grants

1. frontiersmen made cuts,  marking boundries  

2 .Then went to the land office - He entered his petition or claim

3. Received a Warrent to have the tract surveyed to produce a legal

            description or Plat so the government could grant...

4. First Title Deed - usually called a Grant or Patent

unlike land in New England which was surveyed using grids and townships southern lands were done in metes and bounds "from the great oak to the mouth of Deep River" with measurements in Poles, Rods or Perches (all about 16 1/2 feet)

Some very large Grants were made to men like Lord Fairfax (northern VA) and William Beverly.  They, in turn, divided these lands and warranted them to others.

 Amazingly  while many court houses during the Civil War were burned in the south LAND OFFICES survived Most of these records  have been made part of state archives today.