Mayflower Plymouth Village North Bridge at Concord

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor

Plymouth Village

North Bridge at Concord

Land and Homestead Records

Land, what does it mean for us the Family History researcher? Our ancestors, from the first landing at Plymouth to the present time have sought and acquired land. The first division of land at Plymouth in 1623 gave us a list of men who received the land as well as the number of acres and where it was located. The names recorded were the first comers, those that were on the Mayflower, as well as those that arrived later in the ship Fortune. The remainder of the land was divided with those that came in the ship Anne. The division of land generated a record that not only gave us the name of the family head of household; it also gave a description of the land and its location. The land description gives us an idea of how it was surveyed. The plots were laid out by its location to a reference land mark. This type of surveying is called Metes and Bounds and will be described later in the text.
All of Colonial America was surveyed with Metes and Bounds. After the Revolutionary War, it was realized that a different system of land surveying had to be used. The westward movement led to the Rectangular Land system that is in use today. With the close of the Rev War, the government acquired large swaths of land. Some of the land was set aside as War Bounty to give to Rev War soldiers; other land was to be sold through the different land acts that were legislated. The original surveys and the later transfers of land generated records. These records can be used to trace our ancestors and place them in a location at a given time.
So far all we have talked about is the first transfer of land from a governing body to the first land owner. These records are fairly easy to access from an online source. As time progresses the original owner either sells the land or it is passed down to an Heir. With the transfer of land, records will be generated showing the transfer from the grantor to the grantee. The grantee, or the person receiving the land, may or may not be a relative of the grantor or the person selling the land. If you suspect an ancestor lived in a given locality and owned land, the first place to search would be the deed records and Grantor, Grantee index. The index will give the names and the location of the land.
If a land owner dies the land will become a part of his estate. If he has a will the land will probably be left to the heirs of the estate, which more than likely are relatives. If he doesn’t have a will the administrator of the estate will determine the heirs to the estate and either divide the land or sell it to distribute to the heirs. In either case the land record will become a part of the probate record to settle the estate. This will name the heirs to the estate and will give the relationships to the deceased person. As you can see the transfer of land generates records. These records can help us find where an ancestor lived as well as who his relatives are.

Metes and Bounds

In 1620 EIder William Brewster brought several books to America with him on the Mayflower. Among them was a work on surveying. Although there is no record of which book it was, Aaron Rathbone's "The Surveyor," which had been published in London in 1616, was well thought of at the time, and could possibly have been the book Brewster brought to the New World.
Metes and Bounds is a method of laying out a parcel of land. Basically it uses land marks as a point to start and return to a place of beginning through measured lines and compass points to establish an area of land. The problem with this is land marks change and compass points aren’t always the same. As a result, boundary disputes would arise causing a lot of litigation in the courts. The following states used Metes and Bounds: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, and the six New England States.

River of the West

With the influx of new families coming into Plymouth, more land was needed. As a result, the Plymouth colony expanded into the present day Barnstable County (Cape Cod), Bristol County, Plymouth County, and portions of present day Newport County, Rhode Island. Just after King Philips War in the 1670’s a Plymouth resident, Edward Gray purchased and started subdividing Tiverton, RI. He died in 1681 before completing the survey. However his wife was able to complete the survey and the land plots were sold. Many explorers and sea faring men are descended from Edward Gray. One such explorer was Robert Gray of Tiverton. His discovery of the Columbia River at present day Astoria, OR, led to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Robert Gray was also the first American Captain to circumnavigate the globe.
Gray Lewis and Clark
As early as 10 years prior to the Revolutionary War, Major Robert Rogers, commander of an upper Mississippi Valley English post, requested permission from King George Ill to send an exploration party to the Pacific Ocean by way of a river "called by the Indians Ouragon." No such party was ever sent. The river called "Oregon" remained a legend, the mysterious "River of the West", until an American, Captain Robert Gray, sailed into its mouth on May 11, 1792. Although the journal kept by Captain Gray has been lost, the one kept by John Boit, his fifth officer, has been preserved. It tells of the discovery of the river and that it was named "Columbia" in honor of Gray's ship. When Lewis and Clark reached the mouth of the Columbia River on a bleak November day in 1805, they proved that travel overland from the East was possible. They spent the winter about 6 miles southwest of the point where John Astor's party later set up a fur trading post in 1811. As a result of the War of 1812, the British took command of Astor's Post (Astoria) and held it until 1818, when it was returned to the United States. However, it remained under the domination of the British Hudson's Bay Company, whose headquarters was moved up river to Fort Vancouver (Washington) in 1824.
The Lewis and Clark expedition established a route to Oregon and led to the expansion across our country. As expansion progressed, more land was needed. This led to the westward acquisition of land. Because of the large amount of land, the realization came that a better method of surveying was needed. This led to the Rectangular Land Survey System.
US Land Territory


The U.S. rectangular system of surveys is a marvel of simplicity. Because of the system and the cadastral surveyors who transferred it from a plan on paper to regular lines upon the land, the swift and orderly settlement of a vast public domain became a reality. Separate large pieces of the Public Domain are, in themselves, huge survey areas. There are 31 principal meridians and base lines in the contiguous United States and 5 in Alaska. At the intersection of these two lines is the initial point of each of the survey areas. Some of the principal meridians are numbered and the rest have proper names. The numbered ones go only to the Sixth Principal Meridian. Most of the other (named) meridians give a clue as to the area they govern. For example: the Boise Meridian, the New Mexico Principal Meridian, and the Humboldt Meridian. Townships are numbered north or south of the base line. A line or column of townships is called a range, and they are numbered east or west of the principal meridian.
Meridians and base lines

Township and Range

The Township identifies a major subdivision of the public lands under the rectangular system of surveys. Most Townships measure approximately 6 miles on each side and contain approximately 23,040 acres. A Township is identified by its relationship to a base line and a principal meridian. For example, "Township 5 South, Range 12 West, 5th Principal Meridian" identifies a particular township that is 5 tiers south from the base line of the 5th Principal Meridian. The Range is used in conjunction with the Township data field identifies a row or tier of townships lying east or west of the principal meridian and numbered successively to the east or west from the principal meridian. In the example "Township 5 South, Range 12 West," the number 12 represents the Range Number that is used to identify the township that is 12 tiers to the west of the principal meridian. The Section Number identifies a tract of land, usually 1 mile square, within a township. Most townships contain 36 sections. Standard sections contain 640 acres. A section number identifies each section within a township.
Rectangular land
Using the rectangular system of survey, lands were divided into Townships containing 36 square miles. Each square mile is called a section containing approximately 640 acres. Each Section was further subdivided into halves and quarters, repeatedly, until the parcel of land was accurately described. Without the use of Fractional Sections, Blocks, or Lots (in the case of uneven parcels of land), Aliquot Parts were used to represent the exact subdivision of the section of land. Halves of a Section (or subdivision thereof) are represented as N, S, E, and W (such as "the north half of section 5"). Quarters of a Section (or subdivision thereof) are represented as NW, SW, NE, and SE (such as "the northwest quarter of section 5"). Sometimes, several Aliquot Parts are required to accurately describe a parcel of land. For example, "ESW" denotes the east half of the southwest quarter containing 80 acres and "SWNENE" denotes the southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of the northeast quarter containing 10 acres. It is important to remember that the Aliquots shown in the data base (e.g., "SWNENE") usually translates into words found on the land document.

Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management, the General Land Office Records web site provides, us the records from the public land states. This gives us the image access of over five million Federal Land title records dating between 1788 and the present. The three records you will see the most in Southwest Nebraska are from the Land Act of 1820, The Timber claim land act, and the Homestead Land Act. The Homestead records found on BLM will be the proved up Homesteads. You will not find a record of a Homestead that was applied for but not proved up on.

Land Act of 1820

The Land Act of 1820, enacted April 24, 1820, is the United States federal law that ended the ability to purchase the United States' public domain lands on a credit or installment system over four years, as previously established. The new law became effective July 1, 1820 and required full payment at the time of purchase and registration. But to encourage more sales and make them more affordable, Congress also reduced both the minimum price (from $2.00 to $1.25 per acre) and the minimum size of a standard tract (from 160 to 80 acres). The minimum full payment now amounted to $100, rather than $320. At the time, these lands were located on the frontier within the Congress Lands of Ohio and elsewhere in the Northwest Territory and Missouri Territory, in what was then "The West".

Homestead Act

The Homestead Act gave a person a chance to own his own land for a small filing fee and a lot of hard work. The first Homestead filed was near Beatrice, Nebraska. The Homestead records found on BLM will be for proved up claims. To prove up a claim the person had to live on and improve the claim for five years. The final papers are on BLM but the actual record set contains a lot of documents that would be of interest to the genealogist. For those of us that live in Nebraska the record set is available on Fold 3. The Nebraska records have been scanned and indexed for our use. What can be found in the Homestead record set, the following list will give you an idea.
  1. The date filed and where filed for a Homestead.
  2. Location of the land, section, township and range.
  3. If an immigrant, filing Intent to become a citizen.
  4. Citizenship papers.
  5. If a soldier, Unit and State he served with.
  6. Improvements done to the land, buildings, tree claims, fences, etc.
  7. Statements from neighbors attesting to improvements.
  8. Final papers for the homestead.

Fold 3

This web site leads to an introductory page with a search box. The search results list all records meeting the search criteria. Clicking on a record will redirect to a free account application. You must have at least a free basic account to view records on Fold3. The free account requires an e-mail address and a password. No credit card is required. The state of Nebraska Homestead records are for the most part complete and online at Fold3.