Land records vary by location, time period and other things. It can be a complex subject. There are three types of legal descriptions for example. In order to simplify things this discussion of land records applies to Logan County, Illinois. It disregards methods and types of land records not used in Logan County. Fortunately, Logan County land records are pretty simple compared to those in some states. This is a basic guide, hopefully enough to get you started researching land records for genealogy.
Illinois is a public domain state. Public domain is the name given the land gained in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. This means land is laid out in a grid using the permanent points of meridian, range, township and section. All public domain land is laid out this way. To work with Logan County land records you must understand this works. In the graphic on the left you only need to know the 3rd Principal Meridian. The graphic on the right shows how township sections are numbered and how divisions in a section are described. With the information in these graphics you can plot a location from the legal description.
All of Logan County is west of the 3rd Principal Meridian. All of Logan County is between Range 1 and Range 4 west of the 3rd Principal Meridian. If it says Range 5 west of the 3rd Principal Meridian it either isn't in Logan County or it is a mistake. All of Logan County is between Township 17 North and Township 22 North. There is no Township South, no Township 16 or 23. If you are researching in a wider area that includes neighboring counties you might want to learn location by Township and Range numbers for the area.
Each section is one mile square and in many cases is still outlined by roads. Townships are six miles square. Note that "township" in land record terminology is NOT the same as the political townships such as Oran Township or Laenna Township which may be larger or smaller.
Note that outside the towns in Logan County you will see roads marked 600 North or 1400 East. O North is the southern most boundary of Logan County and 2800 North is the northern most boundary of Logan County. 0 East is the western most boundary and 2400 East is the eastern most boundary. These designations were created to aid in pinpointing locations for emergencies. They will help you get around or locate a rural address but they have nothing to do with the legal description found in land records.
The first settlers to arrive in Logan County were able to purchase land from the government for $1.25 an acre, cash only. If they were veterans they might have been eligible for land grants or bounty land, which they accepted in lieu of pay for military service. Some settlers who might have been eligible for bounty lands had used them at an earlier stop on the way west. Some veterans claimed their bounty lands and then sold them for cash. Not obtaining land as bounty land does not indicate anything regarding your ancestor's military service or lack thereof. Some of the first purchases were in 1821 and others were much later. Not all of the land was equally desirable to the first settlers and was still available to later settlers. In general, settlement was along the creeks first. There are, of course, exceptions to everything.
The first step was to make a petition for the land, generally at the land office. The land office for Logan County was in Springfield. As a general rule all land records for what we know as Logan County are filed under Logan County with the Bureau of Land Management even though that land was in another county at the time of purchase. There may be some errors of course. At the time of the petition the settler paid for the land or claimed bounty land rights and was issued a warrant. Note that the issuance of a warrant does not necessarily mean the person followed the process through and actually lived on the land. The warrant also could be sold.
The warrant was a certification of the right to a specific parcel of land and authorized it to be surveyed. A survey was made. After that the settler was issued a land patent which was his or her deed to the land. There may be years between the petition or warrant and the patent. You may download a copy of the land patent from the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] web site. If you are looking for the original purchase from the government the BLM web site is the place to start.
After the initial purchase from the government land was bought and sold in the standard manner. Due to the courthouse fire on April 15, 1856, copies of early deeds may or may not exist. Deeds were important documents and the owner certainly wanted to preserve and protect the document. The actual deed was held by the owner with a copy transcribed by the clerk at the courthouse. After the fire people were asked to bring in their original deed to be retranscribed and many did. As I write this I have a transcribed copy of a deed dated May 13, 1847, before the fire yet recorded in the existing records. However, if the person owning the property at the time of the fire was the third owner it is probable the deed for the second owner was no longer available. The first owner's deed would, of course, have come from the federal government and be available through the BLM.
The Clerk also has a copy of the Tract Book. The tract book is a record of every piece of property in the county and indicates each time it was sold, listing the purchaser's name, providing a chain of ownership for the property. It is set up by township and section. There is also a Deed Book listing all deeds recorded. This book lists deeds in the order received. If you are looking for any purchase after the original the first place to look for a deed is the Logan County Clerk.
Abstracts are histories of the property which are prepared for a variety of reasons. The abstract contains every document that ever impacted on the property including deeds and law suits. They require a great of research through many records in several locations and transcribing all records from old handwriting. They require knowledge, time and patience and are generally quite expensive as well as lengthy. Once created they can be updated, generally not inexpensive. However, as a general rule a copy of the abstract, the history of the property, is held by the title company. There is only one title company in Logan County. For a reasonable copying fee they will make you a copy of the abstract if you have appropriate details, including an exact address [all rural property now has an address] and/or the name of the current owner, and give them a reasonable amount of time. They do this as a courtesy when they are not busy. Patience is required. Abstracts may be overkill unless the property has been in the family for several generations or you have a brick wall. They do contain an incredible amount of information.
The land patent is a nice thing to have but it doesn't provide a lot of information. If you knew the general area but didn't have the legal before you will get that from the land patent. The BLM web site is useful for more. You can search it in a variety of ways. One way is to ask for a certain section and get a list of purchasers in that sections, a possible clue. Do not assume they were all there at the same time. Pay attention to the date of first sale. Say your ancestor was the initial purchaser in 1846. The neighboring land may have been originally purchased in 1825 and the initial purchaser may have died or sold and moved on. You can run the same type of search for all the sections in that area. When you find a land patent for your ancestor don't stop looking. Often a settler bought one parcel and later bought more, particular if they were among the early settlers. You can also search the BLM by name. In addition to the BLM the Illinois Archives has a listing of public domain land purchases. There are differences, most likely transcription errors, so it is best to obtain a copy of the actual patent.
The Tract Book and Deed Book will provide you with dates and names for land transfers. These books should list all deeds to the present time except for the period before the April 15, 1856, fire. Take paper and be prepared to write down the information. Generally the books cannot be copied. Each Deed Book should have an index but it is alphabetical only in the sense that all the M's are together. Sometimes the books have been microfilmed and a copy would then be printable.
If your ancestor was an original purchaser and the original deed contains a warrant number you can use that number to obtain the land entry case file from the federal archives. The land entry case file should provide family information. It is only obtainable with a warrant number and federal archive records are no inexpensive.
The deed recorded with the county will provide the names of the purchaser and the seller. It is a transcription of the actual deed and will also contain the date of the deed, the date filed, a legal description and the names of witnesses and/or an official who certified it. If the parties could not write it will be indicated that they signed with a mark. If the property transfer is the result of something other than a normal purchase, such as through an estate and lawsuit, that is generally indicated somewhere in the deed.