When I first started researching in PA, I thought there was a shortage of land records available; boy was I wrong! There are millions of records on line; the problem is finding them in a semi-organized fashion.
There are 3 sites available to help you with this and that breaks down to several pages per site. I have included these links in my All Sources page at the top of this blog for future reference. I’ve also explained them in more detail at the bottom of this sketch. It might be helpful to scroll down and read them first – your choice. Am also linking them as we go.
How you search is dependent on the information you have; no one search method or database is inclusive. I’ll break it down by category but as you get more and more information, you will probably want to go back and search an entirely different way to see what else is available. For example, if you start with a name, you are likely to discover the county so you’ll want to search by that; then you may discover a town so you can search a map, and on it goes…
Finally, if you need to review the definitions of various records (warrant, grant, patent, etc), scroll to the bottom where I’ve listed them – not terribly important right now.
Land Records by Maps
This is the least efficient way to begin a search as you need to know the county and town where you ancestor lived – you may need to know who owned the land prior, but it’s a good way to demonstrate finding additional information and the method here will be used throughout this page. So for our purposes, it’s a good place to start.
Here’s the link to all the maps but you will find them broken out at the end.
This a snippit of a map showing land owned by a John Campbell in Londonderry, Dauphin Co:
You will notice several sets of letters/numbers. Right now I am interested in: C-220-250. This set refers to the location of the original survey. In this case: Book C, Vol 220, page 250. Now we want to go to: COPIED SURVEYS, 1681-1912 – Bookmark it – We’ll be using it often.
Under the “C” section, we click the link C-220, then click page 250, and we get this:
Not what I was expecting as I don’t see John Campbell’s name however, if I look closer, I see the shape of the property is the same so it is the right record. I see the survey is dtd 27 May 1761 so I know John Campbell acquired the land sometime between that date and the date he patented the land (from the town map) 27 Nov 1771. I also know he may have purchased the land from a Walker (probably James or his estate).
Look at all the numbers outside of the survey on neighboring properties (e.g. C97-133). Those numbers will lead you to other surveys which may give you information on other owners. Many times you can build a fairly complete picture if you keep drilling down on neighbors.
- NOTE: How did I know which number to look for and which number to ignore (C-220-250 vs AA-11-532) – Trial and error; I think the survey location is usually referenced first on these maps. Also, there is no Survey Book/Vol No. AA11 and yes, I’ve looked at surveys which were clearly not what I was looking for so I just noted the number and moved on.
Land by County
If you know the county where your ancestor lived, you will want to go here: WARRANT REGISTERS, 1733-1957 Scroll down and choose your county, keeping in mind boundary changes. You may have to search a couple of different counties. From here you will have to search page by page depending on the surname. I’m looking for Campbells. On the first page listed under the Lancaster Co, “C” section I find this:
From this record I can see that John Campbell surveyed 200 acres, SW of Pequea Creek on 21 Mar 1736. By 19 Feb 1823, this land was part of a larger tract containing 377+ acres owned by John and Henry Brien and the above information can be found here:
Once again, we are going to ignore the “Where Recorded” set of numbers – and look at “Where Survey is Copied”, B9-109. Go to the page, I had you bookmark in the Maps section above, find Volume B-9, page 109 and you will see the survey:
There is enough information on this survey to keep anyone busy drilling down to see what more can be learned about John in 1736. Keep looking up all the surveys listed for surrounding properties as they were most likely done at a later date and you can get a good feel for how long John (or his family) owned this property. Then go back to the register (pictured above), and see what more info you can find, e.g SW of Pequea Creek – locate on a map.
Land Records by Date
If you are looking for people within a certain time frame and you don’t have anything more specific than that, you will want to search here: PATENT INDEXES, 1684-(ca. 1957) Again, I am searching for early Campbells so I go to 1684-1781, then start searching page by page under Surnames beginning with “C”. Five pages into it I find:
From this I see that on 7 Oct 1741, James Campbell patented 279 acres. He had warranted the land 2 Mar 1737, and the land was located in Lancaster Co., A little above that, I find this notation:
And matching this up with the page number next to James’ name I get: Book A, Vol 9, page 463. I go to my bookmark page of surveys (see Map section) and I see there is no page 463 in Bk A Vol 9, so the above reference wasn’t indicating a survey – again, I ignore it for now. However, I can go back to the county section and see if I can find out more information there.
Land Records by Name in Lancaster Co
If you are lucky enough to be searching in Lancaster Co, you will want to search the Lancaster Land Grantor Index Series 1, 1729-1893 to see if your ancestor bought land from someone else, when or if the land passed to heirs, or if the heirs sold the land and to whom. Keep in mind, Lancaster was quite large in the early days so some of the neighboring counties may be represented.
Go to the above linked page, scroll down to find where you need to go from there (self-explanatory) then start searching for a specific name or page by page for all the names. On the first page under Given Names Starting with “J” I find the following:
From the above I see that John Campbell sold land to Richard Peters et al on 1 Dec 1742, and the deed was recorded 1 May 1743 (not shown). Sometimes there is a township listed (not shown) but for this particular record it was left blank.
Note the “Where Recorded” column in the above pic. It says Book B, Page 71. For once, I’m not going to ignore this.
Go to Recorder of Deeds, Lancaster Co. You need to sign in but you can do so as a guest and accept the disclaimer. Then you need to back up your browser a page or 2 (you may need to refresh along the way) to get back to the page from where you started.
Now look right above the physical address in the middle of your screen and click the small link to search records from 1729-1981. It will open a new page/tab named IQS Film Reader.
- NOTE: At some point in this process you may be required to install a Java plug-in.
At the top of the page you see an input box labeled FILM ROLL – click the drop down Box button and select the appropriate Book & Volume No. In our case, we don’t have a Vol No. so we are just looking for Book B – it may take some searching – and some good eyes. For Book B, we click on 000B – If we were looking for Book B, Vol 20, we would click B20. Also note that the name of the drop down box changes. No big deal.
I like to look at pages 1 at a time so I can read them as I go. If you look to the far right, you will notice an Image Layout Box, change that to 1×1. Now look to the far left, and you see an Input Box for Image numbers.
I want to see the record on Page 71 of Book B. Page numbers do not equal image numbers but they get you close. I enter 71 in the box, it pulls up page 62, I enter 80 in the Image number box, and it gets me to page 71 where I find the actual deed.
- NOTE: Once you have searched by Grantor, you need to check out the Grantees. While incomplete now, there are quite a few names listed. Find the link on the above listed page or just go here: Partial List of the Grantee Index
Land Records by Tract Name
This is an odd and tedious way to search and the only reason I mention it here is that when I was researching East New Jersey, it would have (would still) come in handy. It gives the name that was given to the land when it was patented.
Go to PATENT TRACT NAME INDEX and pick your time frame. For me it is 1684-1781. You will have to search every page listed unless you know what your ancestor named their land. I am looking for Campbells so “C” is a reasonable place to start:. On the 1st page under “C” I find:
From that I see John Campbell patented 95+ acres in Chester County 12 May 1767. The land was warranted 30 Aug 1765 by John and named “Campbell’s Addition”. We also see another reference to a Book, Vol, and Page No (AA-8-282) that we will have to ignore for now.
Old Land Records
Finally, I’m not going to discuss these here but if you are looking for very old records, try this:
The entries are fairly self-explanatory
References I’ve Ignored
The reason why I am ignoring some references is that I don’t know where to look for them (on-line). If I find out, I’ll be sure to update. More than likely, I could contact the various courthouses give them the pertinent information (Grant, Warrant, Patent: Book, Vol, Page No) but that doesn’t appeal to my need of instant gratification.
For now, I am making note of them and if I ever get within striking distance of a large genealogy library (Salt Lake or PA), I will definitely look them up.
Hopefully these tips will help you organize your search. For every name and family, I am matching up all the available records detailed above. It’s time consuming, tedious and far more rewarding than endless Google searches and sorting through random drops of information – lol. I fully expect to go through a ream of paper, a few ink cartridges and a jumbo sized binder by the time I’m done.
I’m so happy!!
Sources and Misc Information
Land Record Definitions
The five basic documents created in the land process are*:
- Application: A request for a warrant to have a survey made; usually a slip of paper that does NOT bear applicant’s signature.
- Warrant: Certificate authorizing a survey of a tract of land; initiates title of a property and provides the basis for legal settlement, but does not convey all rights to the property.
- Survey: Sketch of boundaries of tract of land with exact determination of total acreage.
- Return: Verbal description of property boundaries; function is similar to that of a patent; internal document sent from Surveyor General to Secretary of the Land Office
- Patent: Final, official deed from the Penns (e.g. William Penn) or the Commonwealth, which conveys clear title and all rights to the private owner.
* The above info was taken from the The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) page.
Grantor/Grantee: This is how I think of it. Someone (or Gov) is passing their interest in land to someone else for some consideration (e.g. $$ or service). Grantor = current owner, Grantee = future owner. For example, I grant my interest in my land for $$. Government grants land in consideration of military service, or settling the area. Headrights would be another example.
Acknowledgements and Links
It is absolutely AMAZING the amount of time, financial support and volunteerism that made these pages happen and I couldn’t be more grateful. I could go on and on about the value of each of these sites – be sure to look through or you will miss something.
I have listed these and several other excellent sources on my All Sources page at the top of this blog. You can check it out here
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC – Home page linked) These folks maintain the bulk of records available in conjunction with the PA State Archives.
- All Land Records: My advice is to read this page in full to get familiar with what they have. I’ve only covered the bit I found most useful. Your results may vary.
- Copied Surveys, 1681-1912
- Warrant Registers, 1733-1957
- Patent Indexes 1684-(ca. 1957)
- Patent Tract Name Index
- Old Records: Old Rights Index For Bucks And Chester Counties, 1682-1740
- Old Records: Original Purchases Register 1682-1762
- Link to more Digital collections here: Rev War, Civil War, etc
Maps: <—- Use this link to read about this section or go directly using the links below. Courtesy of PHMC.
The Southern Lancaster County Historical Society (hosted by Rootsweb) This group is responsible for digitizing the Indexes for Lancaster Co. Without these on-line indexes, the Deeds located at the Recorders Office would be worthless to most researchers unless they had access to the print version (which I don’t) – Thank you SLCHS!
- Grantor Index
- Grantee Index (Partial list so check back)
- Home page: Not kidding – check out this page for a ton of records. Too many to list here
Recorder of Deeds, Lancaster Co: Digitized Lancaster Co. Deeds from 1729 forward. Original Deeds if the land was sold by an individual (a few are transcribed in full)