Because it has always been important to know who owned what land, it is of utmost importance for historians and genealogists to master the use of Tennessee land records in their research.
Researchers accustomed to using federal land records are often intimidated and confused with state land states' use of the metes and bounds survey system. Public land states surveyed the land into township and range prior to granting it; state land states surveyed the land only after issuing the entry and warrant for it. The colonies and those states formed from the colonies and Texas are known as state land states, using the metes and bounds survey system. Those states formed by the federal government from federal land, use the township and range survey system.
Early Tennessee land acquisition is probably more complex than any other state because of the different governments and the time involved in processing grants. North Carolina, the United States Territory South of the River Ohio, and Tennessee, successively governed this land. Since the Indians assisted the British in the American Revolution, North Carolina believed they had relinquished their title to the land. The United States government honored Indian ownership and required title by treaty before granting land. In an 1806 compact, North Carolina, the United States, and Tennessee, agreed that Tennessee could issue grants, provided they honored all land warrants already issued by North Carolina, as well as any warrants they were required to issue. This took time.
When North Carolina took control of her lands from the Crown in 1777, she established land entry offices in each of her counties. At that time, all of the occupied land in what is now Tennessee was Washington County, North Carolina. Settlement was primarily confined to northeast Tennessee. For forty shillings per hundred acres, each head of a family could buy six hundred and forty acres for himself and one hundred acres for his wife and each child. Any amount of land above that cost five pounds per one hundred acres. By 1779, the population had increased and an entry takers office was opened in Sullivan County, North Carolina (now Tennessee). These offices closed in 1781.
Richard Henderson, by treaty with the Indians, purchased a large area in middle Tennessee and Kentucky; his land company, including the James Robertson and John Donelson groups, were the first people in Middle Tennessee. When North Carolina selected that area for their military district, they granted Richard Henderson 200,000 acres in Powell's Valley.
North Carolina's promise of land to her soldiers for their service in the Continental Line (the amount determined by rank) delayed the transfer of the right to issue land grants to Tennessee. It was many years before North Carolina could verify that all her soldiers had received a warrant for their service, and that grants had been issued for those warrants. It appears the only grant made by the United States Territory South of the River Ohio was for the town of Pulaski in Giles County.
There were six different types of land grants issued. Purchase grants were obtained by purchasing warrants from county offices and the Hillsboro, North Carolina office, also called the Hillsboro office, for land in particular areas. Military grants were issued to North Carolina soldiers of the Continental Line, based on their rank and length of service. Pre-emption grants were issued to those settlers in Middle Tennessee who settled upon the land when the North Carolina Commissioners surveyed the military district for North Carolina. Pre-emption grants were also issued in other areas to the first legal settler. Surveyor grants, also called service grants, were issued to surveyors and their assistants in compensation for their services in surveying the land. Commissioner grants were issued to those commissioners appointed by the North Carolina legislature to survey or "lay off" the military reservation, later known as District 1. Legislative grants were issued for special service to special individuals, including General Nathanael Greene and David Wilson for their special service, and to Richard Henderson in exchange for his company that settled in Middle Tennessee before it was selected as the military district.
Before the American Revolution, the person desiring the land paid the fees and obtained a warrant and grant from the governor's office. After the Revolution, the fees were paid to the entry taker’s office. The enterer, or someone for him, such as a real estate agent, sometimes called a locator, actually went upon the land desired, marked the trees and wrote a rough description of the land desired, specifying its bounds and describing its monuments. This entry was taken to the entry taker at the local land office. The location of the appropriate land office depended upon the type of grant to be received, i. e., military, purchase, or pre-emption.
The entry taker searched his records, and if he determined no one had previously entered that particular land, he copied the entry into his well-bound book and gave it the next number in sequence, called an entry or location number. The entry taker used his own shorthand. In most entry books, “L” described the location or entry number; the “W” described the warrant number; the “D” described the date; the “A” described the acreage. Sometimes the locator was identified and other information pertaining to that particular entry may be given. Often, the date was specified only by day and it is necessary to search previous pages for the month and year. After three months, if no one else claimed that he had previously entered that land, the entry taker issued a warrant which authorized the surveyor to make the survey.
The surveyor used a thirty-three foot chain carried by two people in measuring the boundaries. Another person, called a marker, marked the land as it was measured. All were sworn "the truth to tell." The surveyor drew, to scale, the boundaries of the tract, giving an accurate description of the land, noting the streams, corner trees, etc. The drawing was called the plat and the boundary description was called the certificate of survey. The certificate of survey included the names of the sworn chain carriers indicated as “SCC.”
The warrant and survey were sent to the North Carolina Secretary of State, who prepared the grant and attested the governor's signature to it. The grant was returned to the entry taker, who notified the recipient via the newspaper that he could pick up his grant from the land office. The process usually took 18 months to 2 years to complete during which time the recipient sat tax-free on his land.
The final step was for the recipient to have his grant recorded in the county where the land lay. There were a few occasions, because of Indian opposition, when the recipient was allowed to record his grant in the North Carolina county where he lived. At another time, recipients who lived out of the state were directed to record their grants in Hawkins County. These were temporary arrangements and only allowed when some cause prevented access to the register of the county where the land lay. The necessity of having the grants recorded in "the county where the land lay" is understandable, for it would be here that persons interested in knowing the ownership of the land would search. Also, the local county has always held jurisdiction over the collection of property taxes, as well as land transfer and the recording fees, and they were insistent upon this technicality.
In 1806, when Tennessee received the right to issue land grants, they discovered they had no records. A large North Carolina land fraud had caused the original records to be subpoenaed to North Carolina. Tennessee agents had to go to North Carolina and copy Tennessee records from the North Carolina books, which included both North Carolina and Tennessee grants. They also had to copy the entry and survey books. These records are in the Tennessee State Library & Archives, called Record Group 50, and are microfilmed.
West Tennessee (the area west of the Tennessee River) was known as the Congressional Reservation District. North Carolina had sold many large land grants in that area, but since an Indian treaty was not signed for it until 1818, the federal government closed the area until that time. In 1806, Middle Tennessee was known as West Tennessee. Tennessee set up two Boards of Commissioners - one for West (Middle) Tennessee and one for East Tennessee. Before Tennessee could issue a grant, it had to be approved by one of these boards. At the same time, Tennessee surveyed the land into districts and appointed land officers for each district. They tried to follow the federal government’s edict that the land be surveyed in township and range, and in a few areas usage of both township and range, as well as metes and bounds were attempted. It did not work very well and eventually became metes and bounds. The record books of these two Boards are included in the microfilmed Record Group 50. The loose papers are not processed or microfilmed at this time.
The North Carolina Military District became District 1; Districts 2 through 8 were East Tennessee and Southern Middle Tennessee. The real West Tennessee, in 1818, was surveyed into Districts 9 through 13.
The record books and loose papers of these boards and districts are in the Tennessee State Library and Archives, but they have not been completely arranged and microfilmed and are not available for use. There are so many documents, in no order, that it has required the life-time work of several archivists. Each new archivist first has to learn the history of the land and the order the records are in before determining how to proceed.
Until these records are processed and made public, other records can be used. Each grant was registered in the county where the land lay and that record can be obtained from the deed books of that county. The records copied from the North Carolina record books have been microfilmed, and these films, known as Record Group 50, are available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, although there are inconsistencies in RG 50 that require careful searching to locate the materials in question. In addition, the Tennessee State Library and Archives has purchased from North Carolina microfilmed copies of the warrants and surveys North Carolina used to issue grants for land in Tennessee. These films are known as Manuscripts Microfilm #1177.
Bamman, Gale Williams. This land is our land! : Tennessee's disputes with North Carolina, ca. 1996. F436.B26
Griffey, Irene M. Earliest Tennessee land records & earliest Tennessee land history, 2000. F436.G72
Griffey, Irene M. The preemptors : Middle Tennessee's first settlers, ca. 1989. E435G786
Pruitt, A.B. Glasgow land fraud papers, 1783-1800 : North Carolina Revolutionary War, bounty land in Tennessee, ca. 1988. F435.P78
Sistler, Barbara, Byron, and Samuel. Tennessee Land Grants, 1998. F435.S585
PLEASE NOTE: Indexes and digital images of the Library and Archives' North Carolina and Early Tennessee Land Records 1753-1931 and North Carolina and Tennessee Revolutionary War Land Warrants 1783-1843 can be found on Ancestry.com's Tennessee State Library and Archives web page. RESIDENTS OF TENNESSEE who are not members of Ancestry.com can view the scanned copies of the records by first going to the Tennessee Electronic Library, clicking on the Genealogy tab, and then clicking on Tennessee Records; the scans of the land records and land warrants can then be viewed after a free log-in on the Ancestry site. The indexes and images are free to Tennessee residents. Individuals outside of Tennessee who subscribe to Ancestry.com can also view the scanned records.
Prepared by Irene M. Griffey, Certified Genealogist SM