How was land ownership tracked in colonial days?


I apologize if this sounds stupid, but when I think about the past it seems like things shouldn’t have worked the way they did, but they still did anyways.

They didn’t have computers or cloud networks to record who owned what. So, how was it all tracked? Was it possible for someone just walk out west, stake a claim on a piece of land, build a house and live there for 30 years while everyone just kind of accepted it?

In: 8

There were land deeds and other forms of contract in writing. They documents were signed by the proper authorities and parties involved, and copies of these documents were stored in appropriate archives.

Let’s say that Johnny moved west and decided to squat on a piece of private land in the desert of Nevada. The land owner might have someone hired to survey and watch over the land. This warden sees Johnny there. He goes to Johnny and asks him what he is doing there. Johnny says that Bob sold him the land, and that he now owns it. The warden, not knowing for sure, could write a letter to Bob, who lives in New York.

> Hello Bob, this guy called Johnny built a house on plot 321 in Nevada. Does he own this land?

A couple of weeks later, the warden receives a reply from Bob saying that he never sold the land. At that point, the warden either gets rid of Johnny himself, or gets the local government to evict Johnny.

Once land was settled, there would have been a deed, just as there is now. Public records have always been a big part of what governments do, often stored at the county level.

The process of settling land as people went west got interesting, and the question of how land should be legally divvied up once the U.S. government had laid claim to it was a source of ongoing controversy. A settler certainly could try to go far west and squat on some land, but going far past the frontier meant the native inhabitants might have their own ideas about that.

In some cases, especially early on, my impression is it was basically a surge of people trying to claim what they could and hope people would respect it. Later, especially in the big Great Plains states, it was more of a “divide it into lots and sell it off, first come, first served.”

In addition to titles and deeds being issued for land ownership, it also was (is) common to have your land surveyed and have your property boundaries marked. In New England, it’s not uncommon to see seemingly random stone walls 6-12 inches high in the woods that were used to designate property lines.

If you live on the east coast, these deeds and licenses dating back to colonial times are often just hanging out at your county courthouse. Typically, a decades worth of records are bound together in a huge leather book. They are still legal records and can come into play if there’s a title discrepancy for example. You can go see them anytime you want.

Paper records. If for some reason you were challenged over your claim to a certain piece of land you would show your deed to the court. Of course sometimes these things were unclear. Multiple people might have been sold the same land, there could be confusion about the demarcations of different plots, and courts handled these thing. These issues still come up today.