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Tract Books: An Index to the Disposition of Public Domain Land

by | 13 Apr 2021

Tract books are a valuable resource for anyone who suspects that they have an ancestor who first obtained land from the federal government in one of the thirty public land states. Tract books serve as an index that leads to additional federal records (land entry case files) and local land ownership records (deeds) which can help to identify an ancestor’s location and possible family members. Tract books serve not only as an index to patented land but also to applications for land that were never completed but may still contain useful information for researchers. You can even use tract books to find neighbors who didn’t stick around long enough to leave any other record—neighbors who may turn out to be relatives!

Tract Books: An Introduction

Tract books are ledgers that were 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. Originally maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and its predecessor, the General Land Office, tract books 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 one billion acres. This includes not only patented claims but also claims that were relinquished or canceled. Nearly two 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 a typical bound volume holds the records of about twenty townships (not the named townships we are used to today). Each township (23,040 acres) is documented over twelve pages, with three sections (640 acres per section) on each page, and sixteen lines allotted to each section. Each land entry is recorded across two pages.

In most federal tract books you can expect to find:

  • the name of the purchaser or “entryman”
  • the acreage and price
  • where the land is located (numbered range, township and section)
  • the 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)
  • the 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

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.

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 between the years 1820 and 1908. The Eastern State Office of the Bureau of Land Management holds the original tract books for the Eastern public land states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. holds the tract books for the remaining Western public land states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Where to Find Federal Tract Books Online

Most of the federal tract books from 1820–1908 have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library. These microfilm copies have also been digitized and can be accessed online for free on the FamilySearch website. The United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1800 – c.1955 collection includes tract books for all of the federal land states except for Missouri and Alaska. To identify which volume you need to find an ancestor’s land entry, consult the handy Tract Books Coverage Table on the FamilySearch Research Wiki which identifies each volume by the land office and the townships and ranges covered. Tract books for six of Missouri’s land offices are also available online from Familysearch in separate collections—Boonville, Palmyra and St. Louis, Plattsburg, Springfield, St. Louis East, and Fayette. The Bureau of Land Management has also begun digitizing the original tract books in color — Alabama, Iowa, and Louisiana are currently available.

In addition, it is possible to find searchable name indexes to tract books created for a particular land office or state. Search these out for your area of interest as you might find a treasure such as the Nebraska 1860–1954 Tract Books Index Search which allows you to search the 163 federal land tract books available on microfilm from the Nebraska Historical Society by name as well as location.

Where to Find Local Land Office Copies of the Federal Tract Books

Tract books were also created and maintained by registrars in the local land offices. These local copies, if they still exist, are generally found in local or state repositories, especially state archives, or at the state land office for states which have one. They generally contain the same information as the federal copies, but as they were completed locally rather than compiled later from submitted reports and documents, it is possible to find information differences between the two copies.

Examples:

©2021 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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