Land Warrants / Land Surveys


  The land warrant is one of the most misunderstood of public records. Researchers often find a land warrant which states that on such and such of a date, their ancestor warranted so many acres of land located at such and such of a place; and immediately they make an entry in their genealogical story to the effect that that ancestor resided at the place mentioned and at the date listed in the land warrant.

  The problem with this scenario is that the land warrant simply noted the intention of the person to settle on a piece of land in the vicinity of the location noted in the land warrant. The person who took out the land warrant might never have settled on the indicated tract of land that he intended to. The date listed on the land warrant, likewise, indicated the date that the land warrant was taken out and not the date that the person actually started to reside on the piece of property.

  The following information comes from the book, 150th Anniversary History Of Blair County, Pennsylvania, by Larry D. Smith.

  The way that England asserted her priority over the colonial lands was by encouraging families to emigrate from her shores to take up homes in the new world. In the same way, each of the provincial governments asserted their ownership over lands in the frontier by encouraging settlers to homestead there. The first step in the process was to warrant a tract of land. The word warrant comes from the Teutonic word, wehren which meant ‘to secure, maintain, assure or promise.’ Obtaining a warrant for a tract of land meant that the warrantee was promised the tract, or rather, the warrantee had the promise of first rights to develop and settle the tract. Once a warrant for a tract of land was obtained, a survey needed to be made to specify the exact location and extent of the boundaries of the tract. The warrant would often speak in vague and only semi-descriptive terms, such as: ‘one hundred acres lying in Morrisons Cove on Clover Creek.’ As such, the warrant did not specify the exact location of the tract of land. The survey would be made, and often the tract surveyed would not consist of the same amount of acreage as noted in the warrant. It was not uncommon for a warrant to be obtained for one hundred acres and when surveyed, the tract would come out to three hundred acres. The reason for this was that the survey would be based on the boundaries of lands already surveyed and settled. In order to make tracts conform to the already established boundaries, the surveyor would add or subtract acreage as needed. There were a number of warrant laws dating from the time of the Proprietaries, and any sort of detailed study of them all would require more space than we have here, but a point to be made is that many of the warrant laws required that the warrantee have the land surveyed and settled within a certain length of time. Since the primary objective of the Province, and later the State, of Pennsylvania was to have the lands she laid claim to settled (in order to confirm her possession of those lands). The objective was to ensure that those lands were claimed, cleared of trees and settled. Only by having the land settled could any province or state make a solid, valid claim to them.

  The patent, on the other hand, was a deed from the provincial authority, whether that be the Proprietaries or a land office of the state. The word patent comes from the Latin word, patens which meant ‘lying open.’ Although the literal meaning of this makes little sense to us today, it implied some instrument of licence, sealed with the seal of the King, and conferring some exclusive right or privelege. In reference to the legal transaction of lands between the province or state and an individual, the patent was the actual deed by which an actual tract of property, the true bounds of which were described. The application for and the subsequent granting by the authority of a patent for a tract of land was indicative of actual settlement thereon. It is, of course, possible that individuals might have settled on a certain piece of land first and then applied for a patent, but a researcher should not assume that that was a common practice. Even in the frontier of the 1760s to 80s there was a certain amount of morality; the majority of settlers would have respected others’ rights.

  An excellent book on the early land laws is: The Land Laws Of Pennsylvania, by Thomas Sergeant, 1838 (reprinted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Genealogical Services in 1992.)

  The researcher may find original land warrants in the archives of the county court houses, or they might be maintained in a local historical society. In the case of present-day Bedford County, the land warrants at one time were stored in unarranged piles in the Vault #1 in the court house basement. They have recently been moved to the custody of the Pioneer Historical Society, and are now arranged in easily accessible alphabetical order. Transcripts of, and in some cases, photocopies of land warrants, patents and surveys may be obtained from the Division of Land Records at the following address: Historical And Museum Commission, Archives and History, Division of Land Records, PO. Box 1026, Harrisburg, PA 17108-1026.

  In any case, the information contained on the land warrant should be viewed as evidence of the intention to settle; on the patent as evidence of actual purchase of a tract of land; and on the survey as the actual geographical boundaries of the patented tract of land.

Bedford County Pennsylvania Archives, Volume 1
edited by James B. Whisker, 1985 (available from Closson Press)

Bedford County Pennsylvania Archives, Volume 4
edited by James B. Whisker, 1988 (available from Closson Press)

Land Warrants, Bedford County
(photocopies of originals), (unpublished, maintained by The Pioneer Historical Society Of Bedford County)