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Contributed: 06 Nov 2005
Updated: 14 Sep 2008

Public Land Purchases

Contributed by Ken Tessendorff

The information in this article concerns several different record groups containing documents that were filed relating to Public Land purchased from the federal government.

Several years ago, I completed a search of federal land records that produced some very interesting results. Perhaps this information might benefit other members. It involves land patents, tractbooks, township survey plats and land entry papers. All of these sources may contain a wealth of information that is not available in any other records.

One of my ancestors settled in Calaveras County in 1857 and purchased a farm in the Jenny Lind area in 1859. He purchased it from another owner and a deed was recorded at the county seat in San Andraes. The deed used a metes and bounds land description, because the federal land surveyors had not yet surveyed this land and provided a legal description using the township and range method. Although many parcels were being bought and sold in this area and deeds were being recorded in the county recorder’s office, this was public land owned by the federal government and subject to sale by the government after it had been surveyed. At a later date, General Land Offices were opened to handle the sales and any documents relating to these sales were filed in these offices. The Land Office files are known as entry files. Each transaction had it’s own file. The Land Office that handled the sales in Calaveras County was located in Stockton, San Joaquin County.

To help the reader understand the process involved, I have included the following information from the GUIDE TO GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH IN THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, published by The National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1983.

“Much of the present-day United States was once a part of the public domain, that is, land owned by the federal government and subject to sale or other transfer of ownership under laws passed by Congress. The states that were formed from the public domain are called public land states . . .The records of transactions whereby the government transferred land to individuals, either by sale or by grant, are land entry papers, and the document that guarantees title to such land is a patent. Some early settlers in the public domain exercised the right of preemption, by which without permission they built a house and made other improvements on public land and were allowed to purchase the land later at a minimum price when surrounding land was put up for public sale.”

Copies of these documents should be obtained in the same order that I have listed them below. The reason being that each step of the process will provide information that will be necessary to obtain the next document in the series.


The patent contains the legal description to the property, an entry file number, and the name of the land office where the property was purchased. Since this information will be required to find the other documents, it is necessary to first obtain a copy of the appropriate patent.  The information you will need to find a patent is available at the Bureau of Land Management web site at:

Search this site using the name of your ancestor until you find the patent number (shown as Document Nr. on the site).   Also copy the legal land description shown.

Once you have obtained the necessary information from the BLM web site, you can get a copy of the patent from :

Bureau of Land Management
2800 Cottage Way, Suite w-1834
Sacramento, CA 95825
phone: 916-978-4400
Only one patent was issued for each parcel sold. All subsequent transfers of the same parcels were by deeds, which were recorded at the appropriate county office.


Once you have obtained the patent and the information it contains, you will be ready to send for copies of the tractbook page(s) and township survey plats. These are available from the National Archives-San Bruno, CA. They have been filmed and may also be available on film at other locations around California, but the original books are at San Bruno. These books are filed by legal description, so it will be necessary to include the description with any correspondence sent to the San Bruno branch. They can be contacted by phone, regular mail or email. Or you can go to San Bruno and do your own research. The latter option is preferable as you will then be able to look at other pages in the books and possibly find other members of your family that you did not expect to find in the same area where your ancestors lived.

A typical tractbook entry includes the following information:

PAGE 202
Description of Tract  S1/2 of SW1/4 Sec. 28 T3N R10E 
Contents  80 Acres 
Rate per acre  $1.25 
Purchase money  $100 
Name of purchaser  Hance Murdock 
Date of Sale  April 6,1874 
Final proof 
Number of receipt & Certificate of purchase  5516 
By whom patented  Hance Murdock 
Date of Patent  Oct. 15, 1875 
Where Recorded  11-399 

During the process of surveying and selling the land, the government prepared very detailed township survey plats. In the case of my ancestor, Hance Murdock, the township survey plat shows the exact location of Murdock’s House and Murdock’s Barn. Also shown are fields, orchards, mines and other features. You may or may not find similar information for your ancestor, but these maps are works of art and make very interesting additions to your collection of records. They could also be helpful if you ever want to visit the property and look for cemeteries and/or other improvements that could provide clues to your family history.

The address for the National Archives, San Bruno is:

National Archives-Pacific Region
1000 Commodore Drive
San Bruno, CA 94066
phone: 415-876-9018

The land entry files are stored at the National Archives in Washington DC. Currently, copies of the land entry file(s) can be obtained using Form NATF 84: Order for Copies of Land Entry Files. There is currently a charge for using this form. There will also be a charge for a large number of copies if the file contains many pages of documents.

Form NATF 84 can probably be obtained from a local branch of the National Archives or you can contact the Washington office at the address below.

Textual Reference Branch-Land (NNRI)
National Archives
Room 13E
7th and Pennsylvania Ave
Washington DC 20408
It is also available online at:
It is not unusual for the land entry file to contain ONLY a receipt for the purchase of the land. The receipt will usually have little more than the name of the purchaser, the cost of the land, and the date of purchase. I searched several hundred of these files on a trip to Washington DC in 1998 and found only a few that contained more than the receipt. I was very fortunate to find one file for Hance Murdock that contained more. His file had 160 pages of documentation. Included were these documents:
  • A certified copy of Hance Murdock’s Certificate of Citizenship, which I have never found at any other place.
  • One hundred forty pages of testimony concerning a dispute to his claim. Much of this was given by Hance Murdock and provides insight into his method of oral communication and information about the type of activities that he was involved in while he lived in Calaveras County. It also provides interesting information about the opinions of the residents regarding the farming and mining activity in the area.
  • Also included were several other documents, which described the process of acquiring public land during that time period.
I understand that homestead entry files may have a lot more personal information than cash land entry files. All the information in this article pertains only to cash land entry files.  I have never done any research on homesteads.