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Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory ceded to the United States by Great Britain at the end of the Revolution. As such, the national government originally held title to all land in the state and regulated its sale and settlement.
Opening the Territory was a complicated process. The British had prohibited colonists from crossing the Appalachians, which left the lands beyond them in the hands of the native Indians and of the few French colonists in Vincennes, Kaskaskia, Cahokia and Detroit. All other residents, technically, were squatters without any title to the land. That situation remained in force during the first years of independence; with the exception of a grant made to George Rogers Clark and his men at the end of the War, no land could be legally transferred at this time.
The newly, and tenuously, confederated states moved cautiously to alter that. After debate, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 were passed, establishing the conditions under which westward expansion took place. These statutes established a system of surveying and settlement based roughly on the New England model and generally known as the rectangular system.
Its advantages were that it was simple, comprehensive and systematic; all land was included and described, in a manner which facilitated its orderly sale. In particular, it offered a great clarity in establishing title. From an arbitrarily fixed meridian running north and south, and a base line bisecting it east and west, a given territory was ruled off in townships along the meridian and ranges along the base. Each of the consequent rectangles in the grid formed a township of six miles square; these were further divided into 36 sections of 640 acres each.
As a result, the location of an individual tract of land can be described in a form that is both unique and easily related to the whole. For example, the original grant of land that formed Indianapolis consists of the whole of Sections 1 and 12, Township 15 North, Range 3 East, along with fractions of Sections 2, 3 and 11. Finding this on a map is a simple matter of counting first to 15, north along the meridian, and then to 3, east along the axis of the base line.
In contrast, the alternatives to the rectangular system promoted confusion. The lack of one single, comprehensive method made Ohio into a sort of surveyor's museum; nineteen different and conflicting systems patched up the state. In the southern states, the fragmentation proceeded even further. Land was first claimed, then, at the behest and expense of the claimant, surveyed in reference to metes and bounds - irregular topographical features such as creeks, hills, rocks or notable trees, all liable to change and and the vagaries of interpretation. Further, unclaimed land was left unsurveyed, so exact boundaries were extremely difficult to establish.
Congress preferred a more comprehensive and reliable approach, seeking at all stages in the process to establish unimpeachable titles to the land. This was partially the result of the enlightened, scientific bent of leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, but also of the government's need for revenue. The public domain was the primary financial resource of a republic heavily burdened with debt and anxious to lighten the load. Responsibility for the lands, then, became the province of the Treasury, and the catalyst for their sale was the need for income. At the same time, the government certainly wished to foster expansion and promote settlement, but it planned these goals from a perspective which focused on their economic aspect.
Surveying was the first step towards distributing the land. The government appointed a surveyor general who contracted the responsibility for surveying specific territories. These deputy surveyors took their instruments into the wilderness and, under miserable conditions, compiled their field notes: the complete description of the border lines of each section and the monuments marking the corners of the rectangular grid. These notes often included cursory evaluations of the land itself, its agricultural potential, access to water or timber and so on. From these, the surveyors compiled plats - or maps - graphic representations of the field notes for every township, with each section delineated, and roads, trails, rivers and streams marked.
The completion of the plats marked that the lands had been surveyed and were ready for sale. The exact details of the next step in the process changed over the years, as Congress tinkered with matters such as price and the availability of credit, but the basic institutional structure of the land sales remained constant after 1796. In districts where the land had been surveyed, the government established an office which offered tracts for purchase, first through public auction and then through private sales. In 1801, the first of the Indiana Territory came onto the market, a strip of the southeastern part of the state offered through the land office in Cincinnati. Subsequently, offices were established in Indiana proper: Vincennes (1804), Jeffersonville (1807), Brookville (1819 - transferred to Indianapolis in 1825), Terre Haute (1819 - transferred to Crawfordsville in 1828), Fort Wayne (1822) and LaPorte (1833 - transferred to Winamac in 1839). Each office was staffed by a Register, responsible for recording the status of individual tract of land, and a Receiver, responsible for recording the payments for the land.
Within this framework, a would-be purchaser examined a plat book to determine the location of a tract, and then entered his name with the Register, indicating his choice in a tract book. The tract or entry book was arranged by township; every entry, accordingly, was listed by its location. Beyond that information, the Register noted only the name of the purchaser and the date of the transaction.
Once the land had been registered, the purchaser had to make a payment. The Receiver entered such transactions in a chronological order, recording the date, the receipt number, the name and, most often, the residence of the purchaser.
Depending on the laws then in effect, the purchaser had either to make full payment at this point or to arrange a payment schedule. If full payment was made, then the purchaser received a patent giving him full title to the tract, and the land ceased to hold any import for the federal government. From then on, all land transfers and records were the responsibility of the county. If credit was available, then a number of possibilities could ensue. The purchaser could make timely payments, in which case he could receive a patent after the final payment was made. The result of not making payments were, again, determined by the laws in effect. At times, relinquishment was possible; the purchaser would return a portion of his land to the government and make payments on the remainder. The relinquished land would then be available for resale through the land office. The more drastic alternative to relinquishment was forfeiture; the entire parcel of land then returned to federal control, and the sales process began anew. Specific records of relinquishments and forfeitures were kept.
All these transactions took place against the backdrop of a tremendous growth in population; from an estimated 150,000 in 1795, the trans-Appalachian territory reached a level of 1,000,000 inhabitants by the census of 1810. As the vast majority of these immigrants were farmers, their desire for land generated a significant business at the district offices. That traffic was further fueled by a constant and widespread speculation in land, a habit which seemed second nature to most Americans of the time. All this activity highlights the importance of the land records. For the most part, the establishment of government preceded settlement in Indiana; one of the prime instruments of government was the land office.
Parallel to the federal system of land sales was that of the state. From the beginning, large portions of the public domain had been set aside and reserved for public purposes; these became the responsibility of the state government. In each township, for example, one section was reserved for the support of schools. Larger areas were granted en bloc to the state to sell or otherwise distribute. Indiana received title to swamp and saline lands, as well as to lands earmarked for education or road building. A notable grant was made to finance the Wabash and Erie Canal. Methods of distributing such lands and arranging the consequent records were modeled on the federal example, but controlled by state officials.
For researchers, the records of land sales constitute an invaluable resource, though one of forbidding aspect. The important point to remember is that, from the government's - the recordkeeper's - perspective, the important data were the location of the tract and the date of purchase, as these were the predicates of the price and the schedule of payments. The identity of the purchaser was a consideration secondary to his ability to pay for the land, while his residence at the time of purchase was not always deemed significant. Access to the records, then, is a function of knowing the surveyor's coordinates and the date of or the receipt number of the purchase. Any one of those, in turn, will lead to the name and, in some cases, the residence of the purchaser. For some groups of records, though, indexes of the names of purchasers have been compiled and it is possible to reverse the process.