Friday, October 2, 2020

Lands records may help solve genealogical problems

By Melissa Nesbitt, archival manager for the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives

Often novice genealogists say, “I don’t want to search through land records. It’s too time consuming and complicated. Can’t I just stick with the Census?” Yes, and no. To a point, genealogists can stick to searching census records for their ancestors, but this will only tell a small part of the story. Land records are vital to genealogical research. Frequently, genealogical problems may be solved through researching land records.

In the United States, one first needs to know the type of land records being searched. Is the land located in a “state-land” state or a “public-land” state, and what’s the difference? State-land states are those in which most of the land was granted to individuals either by the state or, prior to the creation of the United States, the colony. Public-land states are those in which land was granted to individuals by the federal government.

The two sorts of state differ in the nature or style of land descriptions. In the state-land states, descriptions usually begin at a certain point (often a creek, boulder, tree or some other landmark) then progressing to the next point in a line, then to a certain point and so forth until coming back around to the original survey point. This type of description is also known as the metes-and-bounds system.

On the other hand, in the public-land rectangular survey system, land is described by section, township and range starting from a principal meridian, which for Arkansas is the 5th Principal Meridian located in the eastern part of the state. When driving along Baseline Road in Little Rock, one is driving along the baseline which divides the townships between north and south and which intersects with the 5th Principal Meridian. The meridian divides the ranges between east and west. A township is approximately six square miles, and sections within the township are approximately one square mile. Land can further be divided within the sections by quarters, halves, etc. This renders a description of land such as the following for the patent of James Black just outside of Washington, Arkansas: “the southwest quarter, of the southwest quarter, of section twenty-three, in township eleven south, of range twenty-five west.”

Title abstract companies deal in researching the legal documentation of land parcels back to the original landowner. A title abstract, or chain of title, helps potential buyers ensure that there’s a clear title to a property. For genealogical researchers however, abstracts of title are useful for knowing how long an ancestor owned property and when and from whom property was purchased and/or subsequently sold.

Recently, Daniel Bramlett of Hope donated 20 ledgers to SARA. He had obtained them from the Hempstead County Abstract Company. The ledgers record the history of many Hempstead County properties. Because they list the deed books and pages for real estate transactions throughout a property’s history, they can help researchers save time by viewing these prior to scanning through the deed records. If a property’s section, township and range are known, the property’s history can then be easily obtained in the tract books. There are also ledgers containing lists of delinquent lands sold to individuals for non-payment of taxes. All of these types of records can help genealogists and historians further their research and give a clearer picture of an individual’s or family’s history.

SARA is fortunate to have donors like Bramlett who care about Arkansas’s history and want to see it preserved. For more information about this collection or other historical records at the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, call 870-983-2633 or email More information about Arkansas history and genealogical research is available at the Arkansas State Archives at or by calling 501-682-6900.


Suggested resources for further learning:

Patricia Law Hatcher, Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records (Betterway Books, 2003)

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records (