How to Map Your Ancestor’s Neighborhood

Farm fields, green and brownSurveying Public Land

Let me start first with an overview of Public Land.  [ctt template=”8″ link=”wcKCh” via=”yes” ]I’ll show you how to create land maps on your own.[/ctt]

The Public Land Survey  (which does not include the original 13 colonies or state-land states),  measured land in sections. A section is one mile square, containing 640 acres. The illustration below shows how land was measured and divided. (Image from Wikipedia).


public land sections map

Land could be purchased in small increments with one section containing land owned by several different people. For example, one person could buy the west half of a section, while another bought the east half. Often, though, land was acquired in even small chunks, with ownership descriptions like this: The east 1/4 of the northwest quarter (E1/4NW1/4) of section 5. If that sounds confusing, consider this illustration which will help clarify the bits and pieces of land.

land plat map

Common in land research is what is known as a plat map. This is a map drawn to scale that shows the division of a piece of land. As you can see in the plat  map, some people’s land extended from one section to another; some people owned a whole section, others a quarter section. If you owned a whole section, you owned 640 acres, 320 if a half section, and 160 acres in a quarter section.

Plat map section Van Buren County Iowa

Did Your Ancestor Own Public Land?

The Bureau of Land Management maintains the website of General Land Office Records. The records are of the original transfer of land from the government to an individual. It does not cover subsequent transfers from the original owner to someone else. The site also contains scanned images of the original land patent.

Searching the site is as easy as clicking on the Search link at the top of the page. Fill in at least one of the search fields, like the patentee’s first and last name. If you’re certain of the county your ancestor lived in, select it from a pull-down list, otherwise let the system search state-wide.  In this instance, I just entered Hendrickson and the state of Indiana.

searching public land database

Unfortunately (or fortunately) this search returned four pages of results! When I picked Shelby as the County, I got a management 12 results.

hendrickson land in shelby county indiana

Since I’ve found my primary target (Aaron), I really wanted to see who owned land close to his; as you know, family members and “allied families” often lived next to one another. So, just as you would check the neighbors on a census, let’s check the neighbors on land records.

How to Find The Neighbors on Public Land Records

1. Note the legal land description of your ancestor. Write down the aliquot (that’s the E1/2W type of notation), the Section, Township, Range, and Meridian.

2. Go back to the search form and clean your previous search.

3. This time, choose the county but instead of filling in a name, go to the bottom of the form and fill in the Section, Township, Range and Meridian fields. Click Search and you’ll get the names and land descriptions of everyone who owned land in that same section.

Go back to the Legal Land Description screen and write down the aliquot part (that’s the E½SW notation), the Section, Township, Range and Meridian of your ancestor’s land. Next, return to the search form and hit the Clear button. Choose the county, but instead of filling in names, go to the bottom of the form and fill in the Section, Township, Range and Meridian fields.

Become a Map Maker

Get a blank piece of paper and draw a square, then divide the square into quarters. Label the top right NE, the top left NW, the bottom right SE and the bottom left SW. Click on the land description of each person who owned land in that particular Section, then divide each of the quarters you drew according to the legal land description. You now have an accurate Section map.

When you fill in your Section map, be sure to write down the names of all the land owners. It’s like those census records—you never know what name is going to turn up carved in the family tree.

In my search for Aaron, I found that in Section 35, in addition to Aaron’s 80 acres, there were five other land patents belonging to William Hendrickson, John and Thomas Moore. Since I knew that Aaron’s daughter-in-law’s maiden name was Moore, this got my attention. I decided to explore more of the neighborhood.

I returned to the search form and changed the Section number from 35 to 34 (the section immediately west). Guess what? There were three more patents for Hendricksons and Moores. And in section 27 (the section just north of section 34), every single patent belonged to someone related to Aaron either by blood or marriage.

Two hours after I began my search, I had plotted the ownership of nine sections. In all, there were 43 separate land patents belonging to four different branches of my family. Without plotting the surrounding Sections, I would never have realized the number of extended family members living in the area.

What Are You Waiting For?

If your ancestor owned public land (and were the first recipients of that land) get over to the Bureau of Land Management site and start your map making! And don’t be afraid to extend to adjoining sections – you never know who you’ll find there.

I receive several requests a day for assistance with genealogy research. If you would like to receive research pricing information please contact me using the Contact link at the top of the page. I look forward to working with you.

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  1. First, let me say I’m sorry about your loss. It doesn’t matter how old they were or how old you are… It is not easy to lose a parent.
    Second… This land management search sounds like fun. I can’t wait to get started.
    Third… I realized from your mention of Fort Rosecrans that we are neighbors! I also live in beautiful San Diego… in Clairemont. So… Howdy neighbor.
    Thanks for all the info and tips you share. It’s appreciated.

    1. Thank you Linda. I went to the cemetery this morning. You’re so right – it doesn’t matter how old we are – the loss is still acute.

      And yes, I live in the University Heights neighborhood (between Hillcrest and Normal Heights). Great city!


  2. Thank you for showing us this technique. I haven’t done this as intensively as you have, but I have found some interesting things when I’ve done a version of this. I’ve also used the plat map and combined it with Google Maps to see if I can see what the lay of the land is like now.

    1. I love plat maps too! And, like you, I really enjoy combining with Google Maps (and Google Earth) to see the land as it is now. Thanks for letting me know. Nancy

  3. Wonderful idea. Also, on the result page, click on image of patent (left column) for your person of interest. From there click on “Related Documents” tab which will bring up a list of all patents in that section. (I’m lazy and hate remembering and typing all the letters and numbers!)

    They also map it for you in a very non-specific way. Go to “Patent Details” and the bottom of the page is a US map. Click the “map” in the bar above it.

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