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Land Records

History of Land Records in Indiana | Land Records at the Indiana State Archives | Federal Land Offices | Land Office Indexes | State Lands including Indianapolis Donation | GLO Plat Maps | Native American Land Records | Tippecanoe Battle Ground Plat Map | Hoosier Homestead Awards

History of Land Records in Indiana

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.


Land Records at the Indiana State Archives

The State Archives contains a wide variety of land records. As Indiana was a public domain state, virtually every acre was surveyed and then sold or otherwise granted by the federal government before settlement. The only exceptions are the lands around Vincennes settled by the French and George Rogers Clark's Grant around Clarksville.

For all of Indiana, these land records exist:

  1. field notes - the surveyor's written description;
  2. plat maps - the surveyor's graphic description; and
  3. land office tract book entries - the accounts of individual purchases.

All of these are available for examination at the State Archives. The compiled land survey notes have also been digitized and are available online from the National Archives

Federal Land Offices

Sales of public land by the United States Government in Indiana began in 1801. In that year the Cincinnati, Ohio, Land Office began selling land in a wedge of government land in southeastern Indiana known as the “Gore.” It comprised all or part of the present day counties of Dearborn, Fayette, Franklin, Jay, Ohio, Randolph, Switzerland, Union and Wayne. Sales were discontinued in 1840.

The first land office in Indiana opened in 1807 at Vincennes. It sold lands in all or part of the present day counties of Clay, Crawford, Dubois, Daviess, Gibson, Greene, Harrison, Knox, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, Parke, Perry, Pike, Posey, Putnam, Spencer, Sullivan, Vanderburgh, Vermillion, Vigo and Warrick. Sales were discontinued in 1861; unsold lands were attached to the Indianapolis Land Office.

Sales at the Jeffersonville Land Office began in 1808. This district embraced all or part of the present day Indiana counties of Bartholomew, Brown, Clark, Crawford, Decatur, Floyd, Harrison, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Lawrence, Monroe, Orange, Ripley, Scott, Switzerland, and Washington. Sales were discontinued in 1855; unsold lands were attached to the Indianapolis Land Office.

Land sales in central Indiana began in September 1820 at two land offices. The office at Brookville (moved to Indianapolis in 1825) sold lands in all or part of the present day counties of Bartholomew, Boone, Brown, Clinton, Decatur, Delaware, Fayette, Franklin, Hamilton, Hancock, Hendricks, Henry, Johnson, Madison, Marion, Morgan, Randolph, Ripley, Rush, Shelby, Union, and Wayne. The Brookville-Indianapolis Land Office made its final sale in 1876.

The land office at Terre Haute (moved to Crawfordsville in 1823) handled land sales in west central Indiana. The district comprised all or part of the present day counties of Benton, Boone, Carroll, Clay, Clinton, Fountain, Hendricks, Monroe, Montgomery, Morgan, Owen, Parke, Putnam, Tippecanoe, Vermillion, Warren and White. The Terre Haute-Crawfordsville Land Office closed in 1853; unsold lands were attached to the Indianapolis Land Office.

As the tide of settlement moved north, a new land office opened at Fort Wayne in 1823. It sold lands in all or part of the present day counties of Adams, Allen, Blackford, Cass, Clinton, DeKalb, Delaware, Grant, Howard, Huntington, Jay, Kosciusko, Lagrange, Madison, Miami, Noble, Randolph, Steuben, Tipton, Wabash, Wells, and Whitley. The final sales were in 1852; all lands remaining unsold were attached to the Indianapolis Land Office.

The land office at LaPorte (moved to Winamac in 1839) opened for business in 1833. The land district embraced all or part of the present day counties of Benton, Carroll, Cass, Elkhart, Fulton, Howard, Jasper, Kosciusko, Lake, LaPorte, Marshall, Miami, Newton, Porter, Pulaski, St. Joseph, Starke, Wabash and White. Prior to the creation of this district a significant portion of its lands had been offered for sale in the Fort Wayne and Crawfordsville offices. Sales at LaPorte-Winamac ended in 1855; unsold lands were attached to the Indianapolis Land Office.

With the closure of the Indianapolis Land Office in 1876, all the federal land records were transferred first to the Indiana Auditor of State and then to the Indiana State Archives. The collection comprises over 400 cubic feet of records. Search "Land Records" in the Record Series and Collections search page of the Research Indiana Catalog to see the records available at the State Archives.

Land Office Indexes

Volunteers at the Indiana State Archives have presently indexed the records of four Indiana land offices--Vincennes, Brookville-Indianapolis, Terre Haute-Crawfordsville, Ft. Wayne--using either the tract books (purchases recorded by survey tract) or the registers of receipts (purchases recorded by date). Information entered in the database includes the name of the land office, the name of the purchaser, the date of the purchase at the land office, the legal description of the tract purchased (survey township, survey range, survey section, subdivision of the section (usually labeled lot or aliquot), the amount of land purchased (acres), and the number of the certificate of purchase (receipt). Many tract books and receipt books contained a column labeled “residence.” Government clerks sometimes listed the purchaser’s previous residence (Van Wert County, Ohio); other clerks entered the county in Indiana the tract was located in. Indexers used a notes field for miscellaneous information.

Of the six federal land offices in Indiana, the tract book records for Fort WayneLaPorte-Winamac, and Vincennes are available on the Indiana Digital Archives and contain the complete land description. These early land records enhance the Bureau of Land Management's Land Patent database by providing the date of purchase rather than the date the land patent was issued. This invaluable tool will often place early settlers on their land earlier than the patent date.

To give an idea of what these databases can provide, the Archives' staff produced a subset of all entries, those labeled "Indian Reserves," from the LaPorte-Winamac database; this is, in a sense, a census of Indian lands in northwestern Indiana. 

State Lands

In addition to selling land directly through the land offices, the federal government gave significant amounts of public land to the state of Indiana. Indiana sold or rented the land to finance internal improvements such as canals, to support education, and for other purposes. For a listing of records of the Board of Internal Improvements, search "Internal Improvements" at the Research Indiana Catalog. The contracts given for canal structures have been indexed.

The state lands include the Indianapolis Donation, Michigan Road Lands, Saline Lands, Seminary Lands, Swamp Lands, University Lands and Wabash and Erie Canal Lands. At this time, purchasers of state lands are not indexed in the Indiana Public Lands database. 

The records of the Indianapolis Donation have been indexed in a searchable database. This contains information on the original purchasers of the land given by the federal government to Indiana for the site of the new state capital.

GLO Plat Maps

The Archaeological Resources Management Service, Department of Anthropology, Ball State University, working on a grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, went over the plat maps produced by the surveyors of the US General Land Office and recorded all references to human habitations in a database. From this, the Archives' staff produced a list detailing the traces of Native American and pioneer settlement in General Land Office Database.

Note: Archives' records detail only initial surveys and sales from the public domain. All subsequent transactions and plat maps are held by the recorders in the individual counties of Indiana. Patrons interested in any transactions other than the first purchase from the public domain must contact the recorder of the county where the sale took place.

Native American Land Records

Land records for the First People in Indiana can be found in the Auditor of State Land Records Collections. Native American names are frequently found among the correspondence, Registers of Receipt Books for the various land offices, and Treaty Maps. They are sometimes the subject under consideration in both the Territorial and Supreme Court records.

Due to the many attempts of early settlers to phonetically adapt the names of the First People, there are often many variations in spelling. A partial list of early land records found in the LaPorte-Winamac Land Office database illustrates this perfectly.

Below is a cropped section of a Treaty Map. After each treaty was written, typically including land cessions by the Native American tribes, new survey maps were drawn representing the Reserves belonging to the Native American families who remained in Indiana. This map illustrates the Reserves of Francis Godfroy and John B. Richardville.Treaty Map

Tippecanoe Battle Ground Plat Map

After the Treaty of St. Mary's in 1818, the federal government had all the Indian reserves in northern Indiana surveyed and mapped. The plat map for one of the reserves included the site of General William Henry Harrison's battle with Tecumseh at Tippecanoe. The map, available at the State Archives, is the earliest we can trace of the battlefield; it was probably surveyed in late 1819 or early 1820 by Deputy Surveyor Joseph S. Allen.

Hoosier Homestead Awards 

The Hoosier Homestead Award recognizes farms that have been owned by the same family for one hundred years or more and stresses the contributions these family farms have made to the economic, cultural and social advancement of Indiana. The Indiana State Archives holds information about each award winner dating between 1976 and 2017. The records are organized by county and award date. To locate that information, utilize the Hoosier Homestead Database (1976 to 1994) or the Indiana State Department of Agriculture website. This information can be used to locate the file in the Archives' collection.