FlipSide: BLM: In search of history

History runs deep at the General Land Office Web site, which debuted 10 years ago this month.
The Bureau of Land Management at the Interior Department established the Web site, at www.glorecords.blm.gov, during the dot-com boom of the 1990s that marked the early days of e-government.

The site’s mission is to digitize more than 9 million documents related to public lands that have been transferred to private ownership during the past 200-plus years. A team of 10 BLM employees scans those records and posts them online in a searchable database.

The team has digitized about 4.2 million records so far with a goal of posting another 200,000 this year. Now researchers who once had to wait two or three weeks for BLM staff to locate records often can find documents for themselves in a matter of seconds.

The agency’s original goal, though, was to protect its records from too much handling. “They are so frail, we just needed to do something to preserve those documents,” said Patricia Taylor, branch chief of General Land Office Records at BLM’s Eastern States Office.

History on tap
The legal language of its documents might be dry, but the collection provides an unusual perspective on the history of the country and its people.

The U.S. government became a real estate baron immediately after the Revolutionary War when — as a result of the 1783 Treaty of Paris — it acquired more than 270 million acres stretching west from the Appalachian Mountains. As quickly as possible, the government began to survey and sell the land, which helped expand the economy westward and raised much-needed capital.

Such transactions were documented then — and still are — as land patents, which make up the bulk of the General Land Office database. Users can search by the name of the recipient, location of the land or date of the title transfer. The Web site also includes links to survey maps and field notes associated with many patents.

In subsequent years when public funds were in short supply, the government issued military warrants that gave soldiers land in return for their services. The database includes records for land in Illinois granted to a young Abraham Lincoln and in Wisconsin to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But most people searching the Web site are looking for traces of their family history, not national treasures. Genealogists and individual researchers have found the site to be an invaluable resource, Taylor said.

A land patent might not reveal much personal data, but it establishes a link between an individual, a place and a time.

Before the records were searchable online, “it was just finding a needle in the haystack,” Taylor said. Now someone might type in their grandfather’s name and pull up a land patent that fills a gap in their family history.

“We’ve had people break down crying when they find those documents,” Taylor said. 

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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