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Copyright (C) 2000 Jean Suplick Matuson.

Throughout most of the history of Pennsylvania, its population was made up of land owners. Since 1682 there has been a land office selling lands of the Commonwealth to private citizens.

There are four types of land records in Pennsylvania, all of which are important to genealogical research in Washington County:

Government to Individuals Government transfers to private groups or individuals.
Government to Veterans Government transfers as military grants to Revolutionary War veterans.
Others to Individual Lands warranted or patented to private individuals or groups by Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, New York and Connecticut.
Individual to Individual Private land transferred to another individual or group.

Click here for some additional resources.

Government Transfers to Individuals
Maps of lands patented by Pennsylvania to settlers are available from several sources, and such maps exist for Washington County. But before you use these maps, you will need to understand exactly how lands were obtained from the government. Also, refer to the section on early history to understand how the government of Pennsylvania, the Ohio Company of Virginia, and the French and Indian Wars played a role in the settling of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The process of acquiring land from the provincial government in the early days of Pennsylvania is known as the application process. The application process consisted of four steps:

  1. If you wanted to buy a piece of land you first had to make an application to the land office, specifying how many acres you wanted and providing a rough description of where the land was located.
  2. Next, a warrant was issued by the land office. The warrant authorized you, or a provincial officer, to survey the tract.
  3. Once the survey was conducted, the results were returned to the land office. The survey included a precise description of the tract and an equally precise map of its boundaries. It also included the names of your neighbors who owned the adjoining tracts.
  4. The last step in the process happened six months after the survey, when you finally paid for the land. At this time you were issued a patent which officially gave you clear title to the land.
Despite there being such a well-defined method for acquiring land, the application process was not rigidly followed by everyone. For one thing, the time at which the land was to be paid for was apt to change. As a result, many settlers never paid for their land.

Another problem was that some settlers took the first two or three steps in the process, but would never complete the transaction by acquiring the patent. In these cases, however, just the fact that they had settled there first protected the settler against claims from later buyers.

The third problem with the application process was that the land office simply did not have the personnel to administer the process.

Where to find these records

The originals of these records are in the possession of the Pennsylvania Division of Land Records and in the Pennsylvania State Archives.

On-line transcriptions of those maps at this site:

Government Grants to Veterans
Grants to veterans followed a similar process as for sales to individuals (see previous section), except that the lands were surveyed before the applications were made. This meant that the patent could be applied for at the time the application was made.
Patents and Warrants from Other States
Pioneers began settling areas that are now within the Pennsylvania borders before those borders were well-established. For instance, Virginia claimed most of southwestern Pennsylvania at one point and issued patents.

Many pioneers purchased their land in the Washington County area from the colony of Virginia. In 1786, the land claimed by Virginia was finally ceded to Pennsylvania. As part of the deal, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania honored the claims of those holding land under Virginia Certificates. The lands were resurveyed so that patents could be issued to the owners. Very often, because of the length of time between when the Virginia Certificate was issued and when Pennsylvania issued the patent, two different people may appear on the records.

The Washington County land warrant maps make note, for each tract, if the warrant was under a Virginia Certificate. Original records for the many Virginia Certificates can be found at the West Virginia Historical Archives in Morgnatown, WV.

Transfers Among Individuals
These records are kept at the county level by the Recorder of Deeds. They are indexed, and the indexes and deeds are kept at the Washington County courthouse. In addition, the indexes have been microfilmed by the LDS church and the films may be rented through the LDS Family History Centers.

Remember, you may not find deeds for land transfers that occurred as a bequest in a will.

Additional Resources
US Federal Land Patent Database - For the Eastern states. This database contains information on the initial transfer of land titles from the federal government to individuals. Pennsylvania (that is, all of the 13 original colonies) are not on the list. However, Ohio is.