Land Office History
The need to provide for the orderly settlement of public land was recognized early on in American history. In 1785 the Congress of the Confederation enacted a Land Ordinance for the public lands northwest of the Ohio River. The law provided for the survey of public lands into townships 36 square miles in size. The Ordinance set forth the use of the Cadastral Survey Plat, a system for recording land patents and related case records essential to the chain of title in the public domain states. The rectangular survey system and, in 1800, the tract book system for permanent title recordation became the standard for the transfer of public lands into private ownership as western migration progressed beyond the original 13 colonies.
In 1789 Congress established the Treasury Department and gave it the responsibility of overseeing the sale of public lands, and on April 25, 1812 the General Land Office (GLO) was created within the Treasury Department. Headed by a commissioner, the new bureau was responsible for the survey and sale of public lands. Field offices of the GLO were established, served the needs of the local settlers, and were closed as patterns of migration and settlement dictated.
American traders, trappers, and settlers were drawn to the Pacific Northwest while the Oregon Territory was still claimed by the British Crown. The first large wagon train along the Oregon trail arrived in 1843. Fortunately for these early settlers, the Oregon Compromise with Great Britain was reached in 1846. This agreement added the area covering the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana to the public domain and made possible the legalization and patenting of the settlers land claims under U.S. land claim and homesteading laws.
The General Land Office was transferred to the new Department of the Interior in 1849 and continued to establish field offices in the western territories and states. Oregon and Washington Land Offices began with the Oregon City Land Office (1855 to 1905) and were established in many towns including Olympia, Seattle, Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane in Washington and Burns, Lakeview, Roseburg, The Dalles, and Vale in Oregon. The local land offices in Oregon and Washington were closed by 1948-1949 and all of the survey and homestead records were consolidated in the Portland office.
In 1946 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was created by the merger of the General Land Office and the Grazing Service. State offices serving one or more adjoining states were established as well as a system of district offices to manage the remaining public lands. In 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) defined the BLM's mission as a multiple use land management agency and terminated the disposal of public lands in the lower 48 states under the existing homesteading laws.
Federal survey and record-keeping duties did not end with the homestead laws in 1976. BLM cadastral surveyors are required to perform and review surveys of all federal lands being transferred by sale, donation, acquisition, or exchange. The land records had begun to track the growing use of the public lands as opportunity for homesteading decreased and by the 1950s the township tract books were becoming cluttered with handwritten notations for mining and mineral leases and many kinds of road and utility rights-of-way. In 1955 the Land Status Records System was authorized to include microfilm copies of all of the patents, withdrawals, proclamations, orders, and other related documents that affect federal land status and a new, more easily read, format for the graphic representation of current status by township, Master Title Plat, and for the tabular representation of the abstracted historical actions by township, Historical Index Pages.
The Master Title Plats, Use Plats, Supplemental Plats, Historical Indices, and Cadastral Survey Plats are now all maintained in digital formats. If you wish to purchase a paper or digital copy on CD, specify the township and range (section, if known) and type of plat. See our Products and Services page for available document formats and costs.