Land development is an important component in the settlement of North Dakota. The State Historical Society of North Dakota's collections contain important information for the genealogist or historical researcher. Examining the progression of frontier settlements, locating ancestors and embarking on land title searches are several approaches for researchers to locate information needed to understand family history, biography, and settlement patterns.
Use of the collections
These documentary collections are accessible only in the Reading Room of the State Archives and Historical Research Library with the exception of the microfilmed atlases and county plat books which are available through interlibrary loan.
[Maps and Other resources ]
Resources found in the State Archives and Historical Research Library
Tract books were originally maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and its predecessor, the General Land Office. Beginning in 1800, these ledgers were used to record entries, leases, withdrawals and other actions affecting the disposition of the public domain. This information allowed federal land officials to determine the status of lands and minerals. In the 1950's the Bureau of Land Management abandoned tract books in favor of a new system. This evolved because of changing duties and responsibilities in public land and resource management. Tract books continue to be a valuable historical reference and the microfilmed collection are those maintained in the local district land offices of the General Land Office, later the Bureau of Land Management. Another set of tract books are found in the National Archives.
Understanding the organization of a tract book page is necessary to be able to comprehend the entries made by federal land officials. The records include:
- Description of tract: legal land description
- Type of transaction: homestead, desert, forest entries
- Content column: exact acreage of an entry
Rate per acre: if the land was sold, the price per acre
Name of purchasers: if a purchase, settlement or other action
Number, receipt and certificate of purchase: number identifies the case file kept on the entry in question
To whom patented: Prior to July 1, 1908, the number and date referred to the final certificate, not the patent. The final certificate was the document issued by the land office indicating that the individual had met all requirements and was entitled to a patent. After July 1, 1908, the number and date referred to the patent. If an entry did not go on to patent, there is reference to the date of cancellation or relinquishment. An explanation is seldom given for this action.
The Tract books are not indexed and the researcher needs the legal description of the land being searched to find the citation. The index to the tract volume required is found on a map at the Reference Desk.
Atlases and County Plat Books
Atlases and county plat books provide area maps and show land ownership by township. Block plats of projected towns in each county also can be found. A subscribers' index is usually at the end of the volume with general information on the owner and location of land holdings in the county listed by township and range. A few early photographs are also included. The following is an inventory of the collection with * indicating those microfilmed.
Dakota Territory: 1884*
North Dakota: 1891*, 1916?*, 1961, 1984
Adams: 1917*, 1964, 1971, 1980
Barnes: 1910*, 1928*, 1952, 1958, 1963, 1977, 1982, 1996
Benson: 1910*, 1929*, 1959, 1979, 1983, 1997
Billings: 1966, 1975, 1984
Bottineau: 1910*, 1929*, 1959, 1964, 1980, 1983, 1992, 1994
Bowman: 1917*, 1964, 1974, 1983, 1994
Burke: 1914*, 1954, 1963, 1973, 1982, 1992
Burleigh: 1912*, 1933, 1962, 1966, 1971, 1981, 1992
Cass: 1893*, 1906*, 1932, 1951, 1957, 1963, 1966, 1980, 1991, 1993, 1996
Cavalier: 1912*, 1929*, 1954, 1959, 1964, 1979, 1983, 1996
Dickey: 1909*, 1958, 1964, 1977, 1982, 1993
Divide: 1915*, 1975, 1983, 1993
Dunn: 1916*, 1965, 1975, 1982, 1990, 1997
Eddy: 1910*, 1929*, 1959, 1965, 1970, 1981, 1989
Emmons: 1916*, 1962, 1974, 1981, 1993
Foster: 1883, 1904, 1929*, 1959, 1965, 1970, 1981, 1989
Golden Valley: 1919*, 1965, 1976, 1984
Grand Forks: 1893*, 1927*, 1957, 1963, 1980, 1984, 1993
Grant: 1918*, 1971, 1980, 1989
Griggs: 1910*, 1953, 1959, 1977, 1982, 1993
Hettinger: 1917*, 1963, 1971, 1976, 1984
Kidder: 1910, 1912*, 1961, 1966, 1981, 1993
LaMoure: 1882/1883*, 1910, 1913*, 1936, 1958, 1963, 1977, 1982, 1993
Logan: 1916*, 1960, 1976, 1982, 1993
McHenry: 1910*, 1956, 1974, 1980, 1993
McIntosh: 1911*, 1960, 1964, 1976, 1981, 1993
McKenzie: 1916*, 1966, 1975, 1982, 1991, 1997
McLean: 1914*, 1937*, 1950, 1962, 1980, 1984
Mercer: 1918*, 1963, 1970, 1979
Morton: 1917*, 1962, 1971, 1979, 1988
Mountrail: 1917*, 1937, 1954, 1972, 1980, 1993
Nelson: 1928*, 1953, 1963, 1981, 1993
Oliver: 1934*, 1964, 1970, 1978, 1986
Pembina: 1867-1882*, 1893*, 1909, 1928*, 1958, 1963, 1981, 1991
Pierce: 1910*, 1960, 1965, 1981, 1985, 1990
Ramsey: 1909*, 1928*, 1959, 1964, 1977, 1982, 1997
Ransom: 1910*, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1982, 1994
Renville: 1914*, 1960, 1965, 1974, 1982, 1993
Richland: 1897*, 1910*, 1950, 1960, 1965, 1978, 1991, 1996
Rolette: 1910*, 1928*, 1959, 1980, 1983, 1991
Sargent: 1909*, 1930, 1958, 1963, 1979, 1994
Sheridan: 1909*, 1914*, 1962, 1976, 1981, 1990
Sioux: 1967, 1989
Slope: 1966, 1976, 1983
Stark: 1914*, 1963, 1970, 1977, 1985
Steele: 1892*, 1911*, 1928*, 1953, 1960, 1965, 1977, 1982, 1993
Stutsman: 1911*, 1930*, 1953, 1958, 1963, 1981, 1984
Towner: 1909*, 1928*, 1959, 1964, 1979, 1983, 1997
Traill: 1892*, 1927*, 1976, 1981, 1984
Walsh: 1893*, 1910*, 1928*, 1951, 1957, 1981, 1984
Ward: 1913, 1914, 1915*, 1938*, 1952, 1962, 1979, 1982, 1993
Wells: 1911*, 1929*, 1956*, 1960, 1965, 1982, 1994
Williams: 1914*, 1937*, 1965, 1973, 1981, 1990
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show location and type of buildings found in major towns across the State. They were originally used by insurance companies as a guide in their business. An inventory is available.
Coal Mine Maps
Coal mine maps document the location of some of the old as well as recent coal mines in the State. An inventory is available.
Homestead files can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration. To request homestead file information, ask for NATF-Form 84, National Archives Order for Copies of Land Entry Files. The address to write to is: Textual Reference Branch -- Land (NWDT1), National Archives and Records Administration, 7th and Pennsylvania AV NW, Washington DC 20408. The telephone number is 202-501-5395. For additional information on genealogical research materials available through the National Archives, visit the National Archives genealogy web page.
Other archival materials relating to land development include:
- Records of several land companies doing business in North Dakota, including M. Sigbert Awes Company, Sidney Ballou, William H. Brown Land Company, and H. J. Johnson Land and Cattle Company.
- Records of the Board of University and School Lands.
Selected county assessment records. Records are available from only a few counties.
- Land survey maps, 1870-1905.
- Promotional pamphlets produced by various land companies, speculators and the railroads.
- Photographs, including early bird's-eye views of certain cities.
Resources found in the Museum collection
The permanent exhibits in the Heritage Center feature early survey equipment (Dike Collection) and help shed light on the dispersal of public lands in North Dakota. All collections are available for research use. Please contact the Museum Division staff for information concerning museum artifacts.
- Artifacts in the collection which help document homesteading include:
- Surveyor's transit used in the first survey of North Dakota, Pembina region, 1858 (SHSND 86.128.1)
- Surveyor's transit, chains, etc. used by George K. Dike, early Dakota Territory (SHSND 12608)
- Compass used by Pierre Bottineau, guide on Steven's expedition (SHSND 13342)
- Boundary post, U.S. and Canada, from Pembina (SHSND 2)
- Boundary marker, Fort Buford Military Reservation (SHSND 87.38)
- Survey peg, Indian allotment, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, from Like-A-Fishhook Village (SHSND 12638)
Although there were areas of European-American settlement prior to the advent of the railroad, most occurred after the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed the Red River in 1871. North Dakota had two "boom" periods of rapid settlement: the first occurring from 1878 to 1890, and the second from 1898 to approximately 1915. While the Homestead Act made it possible for settlers to obtain free land, approximately one-fourth of the state was granted to the railroad for building through the territory. Other land was eventually granted to the state for public purposes. Therefore, settlers might have obtained land through homesteading or purchase.
Surveys and surveying
The first settlers in America measured out their lands for individual or public holdings on the basis of "metes and bounds," the shape of a tract being determined by natural features.
The present rectangular survey was adopted under the Land Ordinance of 1785 , which provided for the survey of all public land into townships six miles square. Townships run from base lines and principal meridians . Each township has a range number which identifies the number of rows either east or west of the principal meridian and a township number which identifies the number of rows north or south of the baseline. Every description of land should show the section, township and range in which it is located.
A township is divided into thirty-six sections, each a mile square. The sections are numbered beginning from the northeastern corner, and moving west, then east along the second row, then west again along the third row, and so forth until finally ending at number thirty-six in the southeast corner. Sections 16 and 36 were usually set aside as school lands. Under this survey system it is possible to provide the legal description of a tract using terms such as N 1/2 (north half), SE 1/4 (southeast quarter), etc. Thus it is relatively easy to determine the precise location of a tract of land from a description if it is read from largest to smallest unit of land measure. If your land description reads: SW1/4, Sec 8, R77 W, T151n, your land is township 151 north, range 77 west, the southwest quarter of section 8.
The County Register of Deeds Offices in North Dakota create and maintain a tract index and should be able to provide the correct legal description for the land you are searching. They will also be able to supply the Homestead Application Number and the Final Certificate Number which the National Archives will need to provide copies of paperwork generated in securing a Homestead. To obtain copies of these records, write to: Office of the National Archives, Land Records Division, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC 20408.
Under the Pre-emption Act 1841, settlers could claim the right to purchase up to 160 acres of public land at an established minimum price per acre, usually $1.25. A settler complying with the terms of this act could pre-empt any subsequent claims. The act remained in effect until 1891.
The Free Soil Party declared in favor of free land to actual settlers in 1848 contending that "the public lands of the United States belong to the people and should not be sold to individuals nor granted to corporations, but should be held as a sacred trust for the benefit of the people, and should be granted in limited quantities, free of cost, to landless settlers."
The Homestead Law was a series of enactments beginning with the Act of May 20, 1862 which provided for the disposition of the public lands to settlers without requiring any compensation except the acts of residence, cultivation and improvement. A person who was the head of a family or who had reached the age of 21 and was a citizen of the United States or had declared his intention to become a citizen and was not the owner of more than 160 acres of land in the United States, could apply for up to 160 acres and upon residing thereon, cultivating and improving it for five years in compliance with the law, obtain a patent. Under the Homestead Law, the applicant was limited to 160 acres and had to reside upon the land and make it his home to the exclusion of any other residence for five years. At the end of this time he had to make final proof of his residence and of the cultivation and improvement of the land. If this was satisfactory he received a patent from the United States which conveyed full title and unrestricted ownership. If a homesteader died without filing an application for entry or if having entered he had not submitted final proof, his rights passed to his widow or, if there be none, to his heirs. Only one homestead entry was allowed but where the original homestead entry was less than 160 acres an additional entry bringing the total up to 160 acres was allowed. Beginning with an Act on Feb 19, 1909 several laws were passed to provide for larger homesteads, up to 320 acres, in states where 160 acres was not thought adequate to support a family, North Dakota among them.
Land scrip and land warrants formed a type of land-office money acceptable for entry on public lands. Between 1820 and 1890 there were forty-nine statutes that authorized issues of script. They were used primarily to reward veterans, to give allotments to mixed blood Indians, to make possible exchanges of private land for public land, to indemnify people who had lost valid claims through errors of the General Land Office and to subsidize agricultural colleges. A major scrip issue was the Soldiers' and Sailor's Additional Homestead Act of 1872, which allowed veterans of the Civil War to count their military service toward the five years required to gain titles to a free homestead and authorized those who had homesteaded on less than 160 acres to make an additional entry to bring their total acreage to 160 acres. Assignable scrip was issued for the additional acreage allowed. Other measures were enacted to indemnify holders of public-land claims that were confirmed long after the land had been taken up and patented to settlers; the claimants were provided with scrip equivalent to the loss they had sustained.
Speculators and land companies role in westward expansion
Speculators bought western lands in large quantities and land companies organized and entered great tracts embracing entire townships. At the same time, land grants given the railroad companies to encourage the building of transcontinental lines attracted a great deal of speculative purchase. The Northern Pacific line, which was granted 10,700,000 acres along its route in North Dakota, and the Great Northern Railroad were responsible for the placement and settlement of many towns along their lines in the states they traversed. They created station sites every 10 to 15 miles along their routes and offered a number of advantages to persons and institutions for locating in the vicinity. Their transportation services not only enticed and moved the settler but sustained their commercial endeavors as well. The recent demise of many railroad lines as well as towns and surrounding communities attests to their mutual dependance.
The Homestead Act of 1862 did not end land speculation. The speculators, railroads and land companies were important factors in the development of the West. Their efforts to attract settlers to their lands through the distribution of pamphlets and other advertising literature describing the western country lured thousands from their homes in the eastern states, from developed sections of the West, and from Europe. The SHSND collections hold many examples of these pamphlets.
Significant events in homestead legislation:
- 1862 (May 20)--Homestead Act initially passed.
- 1862 (July 1)--First Pacific Railway Act authorized the transcontinental railroad and granting government aid in the form of land grants. Enlarged in 1864.
- 1862 (July 2)--Morrill or Land Grant Act authorized grants of public lands to help establish and support designated state colleges teaching agriculture and mechanical arts.
- 1870--First district land office opened in North Dakota at Pembina.
- 1873--Timber Culture Act granted tracts of public lands to settlers who planted and cared for trees on the plains. This was the first legislation intended to encourage reforestation as a means of conservation. Repealed in 1891.
- 1877--Desert Land Act authorized disposition of 640-acre tracts of arid public lands at $1.25 per acre to homesteaders upon proof of reclamation of lands by irrigation. Limited to 320 acres in 1891.
- 1916--Stock-raising Homestead Act increased acreage limitation for homesteading when public lands were suitable only for grazing livestock. Cultivation was not required, but some range improvements were necessary. Repealed in 1934.
Land Certificates carry the name of the President of the United States, but these are not presidential signatures. Prior to 1878, a secretary was designated to sign these documents. After that time the executive clerk of the land office signed the certificate.
Copyright ©1999 State Historical Society of North Dakota. You are free to use information from these pages for any non-commercial purpose. Any use of this information should credit the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Photographs shown on the State Historical Society of North Dakota's web site are taken from the collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and may not be included in any publication, printed or online, without the written permission of the Society.
(Information last revised 7-12-06)