America was "new land", seemingly infinite in size, and it presented a new situation as far as land ownership was concerned. In order to get the Colonies to grow, inducements such as personal land ownership were made to settlers. What a concept! Normal people could easily acquire land in return for settling it. It didn't happen overnight, but the arcane feudal land systems were gradually dropped in favor of direct grants to individuals.
Who controlled the granting of all this land? The answer is a sequence of royal, colonial, state, and federal laws. In earliest times, the English, Dutch, and French crowns controlled the granting of land, normally through each colony's government, but sometimes through agents, proprietors, companies, or partnerships. Basically, the King claimed ownership of the colonial land, and distributed it according to a variety of laws subject to his approval. No matter that the land was already occupied by native tribes. What land could not be purchased could be taken by treaty or by force.
After the Revolution the new states continued to grant land, but there were problems because the boundaries of the old colonies extended westward towards the Mississippi. Thus, some land in present day Ohio was considered by Connecticut to belong to Connecticut, and other parts were governed by Virginia. (The University of Texas has some nice online maps that show the evolution of state territories.) Situations like this were a problem for the fledgling U.S. Government which was trying to gain control of the western lands. Over time, however, the states ceded their claims to the federal government and the present day state boundaries took hold.
The normal process that land acquisition took in the original thirteen English colonies, (plus Kentucky, Tennessee, and some other states) began with the State (or Colony) that held the right to grant land. Someone interested in gaining ownership of new land generally went through a four step process:
Entry was the formal act of marking the proposed boundaries of the land, notifying the appropriate government agency of the desire to acquire the land, and the reason for acquiring it. Claim is another term for entry. Generally, an entry fee was paid.
A warrant was then issued which entitled the holder to have so many acres of land surveyed. In later years, the government issued numerous bounty land warrants for service in the armed forces and so on. These entitled holders to acquire unclaimed acreage in certain states and territories.
The survey (or plat) was a precise descriptive drawing of the boundaries of the land. The surveyor was a government employee, and it was his responsibility to fix the boundaries of the tract as accurately as possible. As may be expected, having the land surveyed cost money. In Tennessee at least, having the land surveyed was the point at which the claimholder also became liable for property tax.
In some states, a warrant was locally issued at this point to instruct the State to issue a grant.
Finally, the grant was made by the government and a deed issued. Patent is another term that is used for grant. In some cases patent is used to imply a grant made by a Colony, with the term grant being reserved for use by States.
Note that not all steps were uniformly used in all Colonies.
Thirty of the states were settled as Public Domain States where the Federal Government acted through a Land Office as the means of granting land. A similar process of claim, survey, etc. was used, with an additional residence requirement in place prior to grant issuance. Tennessee was unusual in that it was part metes and bounds and part Public Lands.
It was quite common for people to fail to execute all the steps to properly acquire land. Claims were often sold or abandoned. Of course, many others never bothered with this process at all, and simply took possession of land as squatters. In other cases, newer states required a re-entry of land that had been legally acquired via a grant from an older state (e.g. Tennessee from N.C.). In states with large numbers of squatters or 'old owners', pains were taken to regularize the situation by offering inducements so that they could obtain preferential right to the land they had been using.
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