Land Records: Placing Your Ancestors’ Acreage

Many settlers of early Texas knew they were entitled to receive hundreds, maybe even thousands of acres from the government, just for arriving in Texas at a certain time. Every piece of land in Texas, all 268,820 square miles, has its own individual historical record, forming a chain that dates back to its origin as part of Texas’ public domain.

The Archives of the Texas General Land Office houses millions of documents, maps, sketches, and drawings dating back to 1650. This massive collection details the distribution of the public domain of Texas by the Kingdom of Spain, the Republic of Mexico, and the Republic and state of Texas.

The Archives also serves as a treasure trove of primary source material for genealogists, helping researchers establish a time and place for their ancestors’ arrival in Texas. They can find out what land an ancestor may have owned, as well as its location. Supporting documentation can disclose when the ancestor applied for land, when they came to Texas, and, most importantly, why someone came to Texas.

In almost all cases, land grants in Texas were distributed based on a settler meeting certain conditions, which may have included date of arrival, marital status, military service, or association with some type of colony/colonization movement. Documents relating to the satisfaction, or lack thereof, of these conditions often contain interesting genealogical facts and anecdotes.

Let’s examine some of the most frequently accessed records for genealogical research at the Texas General Land Office to see what type of information can be found.

First Class Headrights — Issued to individuals who came to Texas prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. Married men and male or female heads of families were eligible to receive one league and one labor of land (4605.5 acres) and single men were eligible for one-third of a league (1476.1 acres).

Second Class Headrights — Issued to those who arrived between March 2, 1836 and October 1, 1837. Certificates were issued for 640 or 1280 acres, depending on marital status.

Third Class Headrights — Issued to those who arrived between October 2, 1837 and January 1, 1840. Certificates were issued for between 320–640 acres, depending on marital status.

Pre-emption Grants — Issued from 1845 to 1856, and from 1866 to 1898. Certificates were issued for between 160–320 acres, depending on time of arrival.

Bounty grants — Issued to soldiers who served in the Texas Revolution and to those who enlisted in the army before October 1, 1837. Each three months of service provided 320 acres, up to a maximum of 1280 acres.

Donation grants — Issued for participation in specific battles of the Texas Revolution (Siege of Bexar, Battle of San Jacinto, and to heirs of those who fell at the Alamo and Goliad). Most certificates were issued for 640 acres.

The Muster Roll — A register of all soldiers in a company, who were present or accounted for on a particular day, or for a period of time.

Clerk Returns — If a headright was issued, it should lead you to a clerk return. Clerk returns feature the names of witnesses and fairly specific dates of a settler’s arrival. Sometimes other family members are mentioned, and assignees or heirs often appear as well.

Court of Claims — The Texas Court of Claims was created to perform a thorough audit of certificates that had already been issued, as well as to review claims and issue original, duplicate, and unlocated balance certificates to those who provided substantial evidence — items such as depositions, testimony, or personal correspondence.

The Spanish Collection — Dating to 1720. These records contain titles to land, character certificates, applications for admission, and correspondence dealing with the settlement of pre-revolutionary Texas. If your ancestor came to Texas prior to 1836, you cannot miss this collection of records.

Every square or rectangle on the map is associated with a different person’s story and is represented by a file in our Archives. Remember, no matter where you go in Texas, the land you are walking on was granted to someone’s ancestor — maybe yours!

To learn more about the General Land Office Archives and Records, please email archives@glo.texas.gov, or call 512–463–5277.