Land Records Overview
The Commonwealth Land Office And Its Records
Land Records Order Form (PDF)
With the exception of the Revolutionary War years, the Land Office of the Commonwealth has operated continuously since William Penn arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682 and began to administer and sell land. In 1981, the land records and the functions of the office were transferred to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Commonwealth land records only document transactions between the Penns or the post-revolutionary Commonwealth and the first purchaser(s) of each tract of land. Deeds transferring land titles between private citizens, either after or during the patenting process, are maintained at the office of the Recorder of Deeds for the appropriate county.
The State Archives search room provides microfilm copies of some county deeds for the convenience of visitors, but State Archives staff cannot conduct searches in this microfilm (we only search records for which we hold original copies). Researchers who wish to search federal land grants (including military grants made by the United States government) should find them deposited with the National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, D.C. 20408). It should be noted, however, that no such grants were issued in Pennsylvania.
In order to successfully conduct research with the State land records the researcher must first identify the full name of the land purchaser, the applicant, the warrantee, or patentee; the county in which the land was owned; and the approximate date of the transaction. It may be necessary to know the county and municipality that the land tract was a part of at the time a Land Office document was written. Information about which counties and municipalities were created from which earlier ones can be found on the Genealogical Map of the Counties (PDF) and in Incorporation Dates for Pennsylvania Municipalities. You may purchase a copy of the Genealogical Map of the Counties at ShopPAHeritage.com.
In addition, the Pennsylvania Political Subdivisions (PDF) map depicts all the various townships, boroughs, cities, and counties in the Commonwealth, and can be a useful tool to identify specific municipal units. As a general rule, the State land records are not going to provide extensive genealogical information about the purchasers of land, for example, personal data such as the person's nativity, age, marital status, or occupation. They can be used, however, to document the presence of a particular settler in a specific place at a given time, a good starting point to begin or continue a family history.
Five Basic Documents Created In The Land Process
- 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 or the Commonwealth, which conveys clear title and all rights to the private owner.
For a thorough understanding of both the history of the Commonwealth Land Office and the potential research use and contents of its records, researchers should consult the Record Group 17 finding aids and also Donna Bingham Munger's book Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research (1991).
How To Request A Land Records Search By Archives Staff
You can use our records to do searches on your own, or you can pay for an archivist to do a search for you and send you the results. Print out and mail our Land Records Order Form (PDF) with the specified payment to request that a land records search be done for you. Whether filling out the form or beginning your research on your own, you will need to provide three basic pieces of information as described in the next section below.
What You Need To Know Before A Property Or Landowner Search Can Be Done
- Full NAME of the purchaser (applicant, warrantee, patentee)
- COUNTY in which land was located at the time of purchase
- Approximate DATE of purchase (application, warrant, patent)
To Conduct Your Own Land Records Research Begin With These Indexes
If land was purchased before 1733
If land was purchased after 1733
- Warrant Registers - grouped by county, then arranged by surname of warrantee.
- Patent Indexes grouped chronologically, then arranged by surname of patentee
- Tract Name Indexes - arranged by name of patent tract
- East Side Applications - land purchased east of the Susquehanna River, 1765-1769
- West Side Applications - land purchased west of the Susquehanna River, 1765-1769
- New Purchase Applications - land purchased in western and central Pennsylvania, 1769
- Last Purchase - land purchased in northwestern Pennsylvania, 1786-1817
- Donation and Depreciation Lands - land given to Revolutionary War veterans in northwestern Pennsylvania
Canal Commissioners Map Books
Map books prepared by engineers at the request of the Commissioners for the purpose of illustrating routes for the various divisions of the canal system or to illustrate the final layout after construction. Few of these show routes as they were finally laid out and operated and are primarily preliminary plans. In addition to providing overall layouts for how the finished canals were intended to look, they also contain numerous drawings of dams, raft chutes, feeders, reservoirs, locks, lock gates, lock houses, aqueducts, towing path bridges, and waste weirs illustrating how the system was intended to work.
Based upon actual county surveys, the Melish-Whiteside maps were the first official set of county maps produced for the Commonwealth (from 1816-1821), and include information such as township lines, municipality names, geographic features, and roads and distances. Additional data on some of the maps includes post offices, factories, mills, mines, furnaces, forges, houses, churches, academies, and taverns. The names of property owners for certain taverns, dwellings, furnaces, and mills are also present on a number of the maps. These maps DO NOT include warrant or patent tract information.
Tract Maps (from series #17.522, the Land Office Map Collection)
A variety of maps and plots that might be helpful to a researcher who knows where a tract of land lies, but not necessarily who owned it at the time of the warrant or patent. These maps may also be of value to researchers who have followed the paper trail, found the warrant, survey and patent documents, and wish to attempt to determine the current location of the land. Normally, these maps do NOT show current ownership lines, political boundaries, roads or other such features, (although rivers, runs and springs are often depicted).
- Warrantee Township Maps: A group of warrant tracts lying contiguous to each other and encompassing an entire township or townships. Please note, warrantee maps were not made for all townships. Digital scans of all maps can be ordered by contacting the Archives at 717.783.9877. Scanned images of all warrantee township maps are available online.
- Connected Draft Maps: Similar to warrantee township maps, but for select geographical areas within one township, or crossing the borders of two or more townships. A database index to connected draft maps is available in the Archives Search Room, but only specifies vague locations, NOT landowner names. Scanned images of selected connected draft maps are available online.
- Land Office Maps and Folio Worksheets: A variety of map types, grouped by county, that were kept and used by the Land Office for reference. Included are pencil drafts of unfinished connected draft maps and warrantee township maps, surveys, blueprints, drafts, plats, published maps of geological features, and related written materials. A database index to these materials is available online, but only specifies vague locations, NOT landowner names. The worksheet folios usually include internal indexes listing the names appearing on items within the folders.
Additional Land Records
For more Land Office Records please see Record Group 17 (Records of the Land Office)