Our Record Keeping History

The history of public lands in the eastern United States can be traced through the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Eastern States land records, dating back to the beginning of westward expansion. Since then, Federal land records have been accumulating. Most of them—field notes, survey plats, patent records, and tract books—are used daily at BLM's eastern field operations headquarters in Springfield, Virginia.

The Eastern States maintains the records of some 7.5 million land transactions, involving more than a billion acres of land. Each year, the office—often called the "biggest land title office in the world"—furnishes more than 50,000 copies of specific records to private citizens, surveyors, title attorneys, abstract companies, industry representatives, agencies of Federal, State, and local governments, and historical researchers.

The Beginning - 1785

To explain how BLM acquired these records, it's first necessary to go back to the end of the Revolutionary War. The U.S. had acquired the Public Domain lands lying west of the Ohio River from the States that had laid claim to them. Also, the U.S. Government found itself faced with a huge debt. That's when the Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance Act of May 20, 1785, authorizing the Treasury Department to survey and sell Public Domain land as a source of revenue. The Public Domain is all the land originally acquired by the United States for purposes of National expansion. (The original Public Domain States were: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.)

The Act also established the policy of "survey before settlement"—a policy continuing today. After heated debates in Congress about the best methods of survey to be used, the rectangular survey system was adopted so lands could be identified with certainty by a legal description. The survey of the public lands was the first step in the public land disposal system, and the surveyor's field notes became the first written public land records.

Public Domain States

Today, the BLM Eastern States maintains Secretary of Interiors copy of the field notes and township plats. The field notes are filed by State in 5,500 bound volumes, and more than 133,000 plats are filed by State, Principal Meridian, township, and range.

In 1787, after the first surveys were completed in Ohio, the first Public Domain lands were sold from a one-room office of the Board of Treasury in the Federal Building located in lower New York City. That office moved to Philadelphia in 1790.

As events rushed our young Republic toward the War of 1812, settlers continued to pour into the frontier in search of land. Ohio lands, ceded by the Indians in the Treaty of Greenville, were soon filled with settlers. Fingers of settlement probed north from the Ohio River along river valleys in the Territories of Indiana and, later, Illinois.

Settlement proceeded at an equal pace south of the Ohio River. Between 1800 and 1812 Congress created 18 land districts and the Treasury Department sold more than 4 million acres of public land for settlement.

When the public lands were sold, land "patents" were issued. Here, patents are deeds transferring land ownership from a sovereign (the U.S. Government) to a buyer. Patents are the first records in a chain of title to a piece of the Public Domain. Therefore, they are extremely important in establishing private ownership of land. Before March 2, 1833, all original patents were actually signed by the President of the United States; after that, designated officials signed in his behalf. BLM's Eastern States records include the official copy of the earliest patent signed by a President. It is dated at Philadelphia, March 4, 1792, signed by President George Washington and countersigned by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

Sale of the Public Lands

Today, BLM's Eastern States houses 9,386 bound volumes, containing more than 5 million patent documents. Some patents issued before 1908 are filed by State and name of the land office where the certificate originated. Others are filed according to the act of Congress under which they were issued, despite geographical location. Since 1908, all patents have been assigned consecutive numbers and filed numerically. All of these are scribes copies kept for the Secretary of the Interior.

The Continental Congress set its land disposal policies when it adopted the Land Ordinance of 1785. The deficiencies of that policy, including the requirement that all public lands be paid for in cash, brought wide spread demands for a reform of public land laws. Congress responded. On May 10, 1800, President John Adams signed a new public land law meeting most of the demands of the settlers.

The new Act provided for credit sales of public land, reduced the minimum size of individual tracts that could be sold to 320 acres, and set a $2 per acre minimum price for public lands. It retained the provision that all public lands were to be sold at public auctions.

Under the credit system, a person buying a tract of land had to pay one-twentieth of the agreed price at the time of the sale and one-fourth 40 days later. A second quarter was due at the end of the second year and the rest during the third and fourth years. The Government charged 6 percent interest on the unpaid balance, but offered an 8 percent discount for payments made before the due date. Land not fully paid for after the fifth year was forfeited and resold at an auction.

With that solid accomplishment, Adams soon relinquished his office to the newly elected Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson appointed Albert Gallatin to be his Secretary of the Treasury. Gallatin was to be responsible for the administration of the public land for the next 12 years. (Through the first term of James Madison.)

Gallatin was a resident of western Pennsylvania and understood the problems of the frontier. He believed public lands should be sold in small tracts to the individual settler. He had a keen interest in the Public Domain.

During his tenure, the sale of public land spurred by credit sales, was greatly expanded. The credit system, a blessing to the settler, was a bane to the accountants. Gallatin insisted on absolute accuracy and instructed his receivers that they must accept any payment offered by a settler on his account, no matter how small. The calculations involved in figuring interest and discounts on a payment of a few dollars complicated the work for all.

Many things combined to increase the workload. In 1803, President Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, adding more than 500 million acres of public lands west of the Mississippi River. From 1800 to 1812, Congress created 14 new land districts besides those established in 1800. For each new district a land office had to be set up and two new officials appointed to run the district, a Register and a Receiver.

Many were the causes for delay in getting ready for a land sale. One was the requirement that all public land be surveyed before it was sold. The survey might be delayed because the absence of a supervisor, or by the mania of some surveyors for pinpoint accuracy. Surveyors never had enough clerical help. The new administration practiced frugality as a matter of principle, but the practice was frequently carried to the point of parsimony.

With an ever-increasing workload, the Treasury Department office moved from Philadelphia to the new Federal city of Washington in 1800. There, six clerks kept land records and issued patents from a two-story wooden building on 15th Street, near Pennsylvania Avenue.

The tract book system of recording land transactions was established about that time. The tract books began simply as listings of all the transactions involving surveyed public lands—by State or territory, meridian, township, range, section, and subdivisions. The number of entries increased rapidly as land offices from throughout the country forwarded certificates to the headquarters office, where official patents were issued. Today, the original tract books are used as the basic index for public land title research in the eastern States.

The General Land Office

Today, there are 1,582 original General Land Office tract books at Eastern States, showing how, when, and to whom title to Public Domain lands passed from the United States—in the States of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin. An additional 2,325 tract books covering the western Public Domain states are also filed at the office on microfilm. For day-to-day management, the western BLM offices use the Master Title Plat system instead of tract books.

As the number of sales increased, Gallatin found himself more and more embroiled in the details of public land administration. As a result, other duties were neglected. As the Nation headed toward war with England it was obvious his time was needed for more important matters. At last Congress heeded his plea for relief.

On April 25, 1812, by an Act of Congress the General Land Office was created within the Treasury Department. It was the first Bureau to be created within a department.

In creating the General Land Office, Congress combined the functions previously scattered among three Federal agencies—Treasury, War, and State. The Secretary of the Treasury had directed the survey and sale of public lands. Treasury also maintained records and accounts. The Secretary of War administered military bounties and bounty lands. Patents were issued by the Secretary of State.

Two years after its creation, the General Land Office was destroyed by British troops invading Washington. It took 2 years to rebuild a similar structure at the same site. Fire again destroyed the 2-story wooden building in 1833, but all records were rescued and carried to the safety of nearby private houses. For 6 years, the General Land Office occupied a row of 5 private houses on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 14th and 15th Streets.

During the same period, 179 land offices were eventually established within the 13 Eastern Public Domain States, generating more and more record files.

In 1839, the headquarters moved into the new Treasury building at 15th and Pennsylvania Avenues, where there was enough space for the increasing volume of files—and it was fireproof.

The General Land Office was transferred to the newly created Interior Department in 1849, and, after three more moves, the records were moved to the present-day Interior building in 1937. In 1946, after a major reorganization, the General Land Office became a part of the new Bureau of Land Management within the Interior Department.

After 1950, reorganization—and more moves for the public land records—became commonplace. In 1954, the Bureau abolished regional offices in favor of State offices. Old Region VI became the Eastern States Office. Eastern States Office later merged with the Washington Office of Field Services and became a Division of Field Services within the BLM headquarters. In 1964, another Bureau reorganization changed the Division back to the Eastern States Office, which in the process inherited the remaining General Land Office non-decentralized lands activities formerly retained in the BLM Director's Office.

In still another reorganization in 1967, the Eastern States Land Office, by then at Silver Spring, Maryland, was created. Finally, in 1973, the Eastern States Land Office again became the Eastern States Office. In 1979, the office moved to Virginia and in 1992 it moved to its present location in Springfield, Virginia. There all the records are protected in fireproof, and temperature and humidity controlled vaults. The Eastern States' functions have grown—from those limited to a land office to those of a more widely-based multiple-use resource management office.

Due to the age and wear from frequent use, the records are slowly and continuously losing their readability. Today, the land records consist of 9,386 volumes of patents and other conveyances of title in land, 1,582 volumes of the GLO Tract Books, 133,000 Cadastral Plats, and 5,500 volumes of accompanying field notes.