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A federal land primer — for free

The Legal Genealogist‘s Tuesday post highlighted the importance of reading and understanding the law behind any federal land transaction. The post was motivated in part by the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Homestead Act. Following up on that, reader Kathy Nitsch offers her own take on a nifty little booklet available free that all genealogists should have in their digital bookshelves — and it commemmorates an earlier but equally important 150th (now 200th) anniversary: the creation in 1812 of the General Land Office.

Guest post by Kathy Nitsch*

Public Land booklet

In 1962, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management celebrated the 150th anniversary of the creation of the first organized system of public land management. To commemorate this milestone, it put together a tremendously helpful (at least to me) publication titled Historical Highlights of Public Land Management.1 Yes, the title sounds like a snooze-fest, but if you have ancestors who bought (or homesteaded) federal lands you need this booklet.

This 104-page annotated timeline has information on almost every piece of significant legislation affecting U.S. public lands — including something called the Helium Act(!)2 — plus fascinating historical details about how the land sales were handled at various times.

Had you assumed (like I had) that your ancestors just walked into a land office, pointed out the parcel they wanted on a map, and handed over their money? Wrong! For many years the first offering of newly opened federal land was handled by auction. The only parcels available for sale “over the counter” were those that failed to sell during the initial public auction that lasted about two weeks.3 The auction sale price for some land parcels could (and did) rise above the minimum price set by Congress, which was $1.25 in 1820.4

Although this booklet won’t replace a thorough reading of the land laws themselves, it certainly will help a researcher identify the relevant legislation. Look under “Legislation” in the index and you’ll find a page and a half of laws listed. The individual acts are also indexed under subject headings like “minerals,” “range management,” “railroads,” or “forestry,” etc.5

Many of the timeline entries go beyond simply identifying the main subject addressed by a piece of legislation. They often describe the historical context and the reasons why the legislation was enacted:

     • Did any of your ancestors’ GLO patents have a handwritten notation of “Graduation”6 or “Pre-emption”7 in the upper left hand corner? You can find out what those notes mean.

     • Wonder when the GLO discontinued credit sales8 or where the first land office in a state was located?9 This is your go-to resource.

     • Did you know that free public land was offered to some settlers who weren’t military veterans well before the Homestead Act of 1862? There were “donation lands” offered in East Florida,10 Oregon,11 and New Mexico12 as early as 1842.

     • Betcha never thought about how the U.S. military found enough land at the beginning of World War II for aerial bombing and artillery ranges, combat training, air navigation training sites and flight schools, etc. Thirteen million acres of public land were withdrawn by the GLO and transferred for military and defense purposes in the first two years of WWII.13

I’ve saved the best news for last. A digitized version of this publication can be downloaded — free — from the Internet Archives here in a number of formats, including PDF, plain text and EPUB and Kindle for personal readers. Personally, I prefer the PDF format because its contents are searchable. Even though the search function isn’t perfect, at least you won’t have to worry about the sometimes unreliable OCR translations that often garble the text in other formats.

Judy’s original post14 highlighted how a clear understanding of the federal land legislation could help identify GLO records on your ancestor which might hold valuable genealogical information. But even if your ancestor’s cash sale entry file contains nothing more than a patent and a receipt, you still can benefit from reading about federal land legislation and the historical context surrounding the process of acquiring land from the GLO.

As I learned more about how public land was transferred into private ownership, I discovered information that could take a simple cash sale land patent and help me breathe life into the story behind that purchase. Given that some of my ancestors spent time in the early days of a south Alabama county where there were FIVE courthouse fires in the years after they’d moved further west, you can see why I need all the help I can find.

*Kathy Nitsch is a Sarasota, Florida, genealogist who reports that some of her more elusive ancestors “have been gracious enough to teach … a few lessons about the rewards of being curious and looking in unusual places to uncover their stories.”


  1. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Historical Highlights of Public Land Management: Issued on the sesquicentennial of the founding of the first organized system of public land management (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1962); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 30 May 2012).
  2. Ibid., 49.
  3. Ibid., 15.
  4. Ibid., 18.
  5. Ibid., 82-84.
  6. Ibid., 26, 28.
  7. Ibid., 13, 22, 37, 38.
  8. Ibid., 18.
  9. Ibid., 82, see index entry for “land offices.”
  10. Ibid., 22.
  11. Ibid., 25.
  12. Ibid., 26.
  13. Ibid., 60.
  14. Homesteading a cash sale, posted 29 May 2012, The Legal Genealogist ( : accessed 30 May 2012).
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