Original Land Titles in Utah Territory

Division of Archives and Records Service

About the Records

This is an overview of the legal processes involved in obtaining original title to land in Utah Territory. Understanding these processes will help you understand the meaning of land related documents and also provide ideas about where to look for them at the Utah State Archives.

During the nineteenth century the federal government pursued a policy of transferring land in the public domain to private ownership as rapidly as possible. This policy was designed to encourage western expansion. Federal laws governing land distribution were already in place before Utah settlement. At settlement, Brigham Young and the territorial government established a system of land distribution, which is documented by territorial land records, but which did not comply with federal laws. For the first 22 years after settlement, land ownership was based on the Utah territorial land policies. In 1869 Congressional legislation called for the establishment of a land office in Utah and reconciliation of land titles. Additional records were generated out of that process. (See sources used in compiling this research guide.)

Federal Laws Governing Land Distribution

All land in Utah became part of the public domain when the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848. This land came into the possession of the United States government with a clear and undisputed title. No state contested title, and no private rights had been established previously. Therefore every original land title in Utah can be traced to a patent or other document transferring that land from the federal government. Prior to 1848, Congress had already established laws governing the transfer of land from federal to private ownership. Federal laws governed the establishment of land offices, methods of surveying, and procedures for acquiring land by purchase or preemption, and later by homestead.

Land Offices

Congress provided for the establishment of land offices in various districts throughout the United States to carry out the business of transferring land from public to private ownership. Regardless of the method used to acquire land, some basic interactions with the land office created universal documents. An entry made at the land office, was a notation in the records of that office that a particular applicant intended to acquire title to specific land. Entries included necessary payment or application. After making an entry an individual was entitled to occupy the land and make use of it as he saw fit, or as required to complete the application process. Whether before or after entry every title required a survey, which is a detailed description of the property including such things as boundaries, distances of the perimeter, and descriptions of natural or man-made features on the property. When application requirements had been met or full payment received the land office issued a certificate, which was verification that all of the necessary steps had been fulfilled and that the recipient held clear and undisputed title. Certificates were redeemable at the General Land Office, which held exclusive right to issue a patent or final title to the property.

Since the federal government was responsible for the process, entries, surveys, certificates and patents are in federal custody. The National Archives holds land acquisition case files. The Bureau of Land Management holds patents. However, individuals who completed the process of acquiring land should have had their certificate or patent recorded by the county recorder in the county where the land was located. Recorded copies of these documents are among the deeds and other land records in Utah county recorders' offices .

Federal Surveys

The federal method of surveying, as applied to Utah, originated with the Land Ordinance of 1785. This ordinance prescribed that land should be laid out according to townships and sections. According to this system, a principal meridian was laid out as a true north and south line . Additional north-south lines are laid out six miles apart, dividing the land into six-mile widths called ranges. These are numbered, range 1 east, 2 east, etc. and range 1 west, 2 west and so on. A base line was then laid out intersecting the principal meridian at right angles, and corresponding base lines are laid out six miles apart. These lines divide the land into six mile square blocks called townships. Each township is numbered according to its position in relationship to the meridian and baseline. Each township is subsequently divided into 36 sections, each one square mile . Sections are broken down into smaller pieces by halves, fourths, eighths, sixteenths, and thirty-seconds. By law, no public land could be disposed of until it had been officially surveyed.

In Utah two meridians and baselines were established, the principal being the Salt Lake Meridian with a center point at the southeast corner of Temple Square. Most land in Utah is defined by it. Parts of Duchesne, Uintah, and Wasatch Counties are defined by the Uintah Meridian with a center point north of Roosevelt, Utah.

Land Purchase

By the time the federal government opened a land office in Salt Lake City in 1869, several laws were already in place to govern the process of acquiring land in the public domain. The purchase of public land was governed by an "Act Making Provision for the Sale of Public Land," enacted 24 April 1820. According to this law, surveyed land would initially be offered at a two-week public sale. The law prescribed that land be sold in quarter sections (three- miles square) as defined by an act passed in 1805, and that it be sold to the highest bidder. Land not sold at this public sale was to be subsequently offered for private sale in amounts not less than 160 acres. Originally no credit was allowed and complete payment was due on the day of purchase. Whether at private or public sale no land was to be sold for less than $1.25 per acre.


Laws for purchasing land were problematic. Many settlers did not wait for surveys to be completed so the land could become available for sale, but instead settled on any available unclaimed land. When the land was later surveyed and made available for sale, it could be purchased by anyone who had enough money to outbid the settler. Settlers could lose the land along with home and improvements. Congress addressed this issue by passing the Preemption Act in 1842. This law gave settlers first right to purchase 160 acres and allowed them up to 21 months to make payment.


The Homestead Act, which Congress passed in 1862, evolved from preemption. This act provided free grants of public land to any person who was a citizen of the United States and over 21 years old or the head of a household. Homesteaders were allowed 160 acres. In order to obtain a patent, homesteaders were required to improve and cultivate the land and to maintain residency on it for five years. Potential homesteaders were originally required to personally appear at the land office to file an entry, prove citizenship and other qualifications, and verify that they had personally examined the land and were satisfied with its character.

Utah Territorial Land Policies

Because of conflict between Utah Territory and the federal government, the first land office was not opened in Utah until 1869. For the first 22 years after settlement the national land system did not extend to Utah Territory, but the Utah Territorial Assembly governed land ownership in Utah. The territorial government established methods of surveying and acquiring title. These practices and the documents they created were recognized in Utah Territory, but did not provide Utah settlers with federally recognized legal title to land. The territorial government also established county recorders as keepers of land records, and in 1888 the Territorial Assembly defined certain indexes and finding aids which county recorders were thereafter required to keep.

Territorial Surveys

Brigham Young intended to populate the territory as rapidly as possible, and from the start declared that "no man should buy land…but every man should have his land measured off to him for city and farming purposes, what he could till." In 1847 he had a survey made of Great Salt Lake City. Plats selected for urban purposes were divided into ten-acre blocks, each containing eight lots of 1 1/4 acres. Each settler received his lot by lottery for $1.50, which was to cover the cost of surveying and recording. Settlers received separate portions outside the city for agricultural purposes. All disputes were resolved by an appeal to ecclesiastical authority. In 1850 Governor Young approved "An Ordinance Creating the Surveyor General's Office." This ordinance created the office of surveyor general and established methods of surveying. It ordered that all surveys in the territory should be made to correspond with the original survey of Great Salt Lake City. The following year the first Legislative Assembly passed "An Act to Regulate Surveyors and Surveying." This law required surveyors to provide a certificate to each person for whom a survey was made. These certificates were considered title of possession. The law also required each county surveyor to submit true copies of the diagrams of his surveys to the surveyor general and to the county recorder.

Acquiring Title

The First Legislative Assembly further refined methods of acquiring title in "An Act Regulating Transfers of Possession of Land and Real Estate, 1851." This act provided for the sale or transfer of property with a quitclaim deed to be recorded by the county recorder. "An Act in Relation to County Recorders, and the Acknowledgment of Instruments of Writing, 1855" stated that county recorders could not record land to any person, either by transfer or application, until a certificate of survey had been produced. Certificates were to be countersigned by county selectmen. Further, this act required any person having land surveyed to enclose [fence] it within two years. Subsequent legislation required survey certificates to be signed by a county selectman and recorded by the county recorder within 30 days of issue in order to validate title.

County Recorders

Brigham Young established a method for recording land records in "An Ordinance in Relation to County Recorders," approved 1 March 1850. A county recorder in each county was commissioned to record "all transfers or conveyances of land or tenements, and all other instruments of writing and documents suitable, necessary and proper" to such conveyances. In short, the recorder was to keep a record of every action or transaction that involved real property. Documents were to be recorded in "good and well bound books, suitable for the purpose." The books were to be indexed in alphabetical order and were to be free to examination.

The earliest Utah deeds were typically called transfers. The earliest county recorders' books contain copies of surveyors' certificates and transfers. As time passed, recorders added various types of deeds, patents, mining claims, etc., to create an ever-increasing variety of official land records. Since the law required only that these be recorded in well bound books, record types were combined or separated at the recorders' discretion. Early county recorders' books were separately indexed.

Indexes and Finding Aids

In 1888 the Territorial Assembly revised the laws governing county recorders. The new law required that separate books be kept for recording different classes of instruments. It also required county recorders to keep several indexes or finding aids. The most important of these are entry books, abstracts, and grantee and grantor indexes. The new law required every county recorder to keep an entry book in which he should, immediately upon receipt of an instrument to be recorded, enter the names of the parties involved, the date and time, and a brief description. Each instrument was assigned a corresponding entry number. County recorders' entry books enable retrieval of documents based on entry number or filing date.

The new law also required each county recorder to keep a grantee index and a grantor index. In the grantor index, the recorder was to alphabetically list the names of grantors (sellers) and for each record, enter the date of the instrument, the date of filing, the kind of instrument, and the book and page where the document was recorded. Grantee indexes are identical to grantor indexes except that they reference the grantee (buyer). Grantee and grantor indexes enable retrieval of documents based on the names of parties involved in a transaction.

The new law required each county recorder to keep an abstract which would show a true chain of title to each tract and the encumbrances thereon. For each tract the abstract lists every conveyance or encumbrance, the date recorded, the type of instrument, and identifies the book and page where the document is recorded. In cases where abstract books had not been kept prior to the enactment of this law, the law required the county court to procure books and make an abstract for each tract showing a connected chain of title and encumbrance up to the time of the taking effect of this act. Abstracts should have been created or reconstructed for every tract of land in Utah. They provide access to documents based on location.

The law required county recorders to keep an index to maps and plats recorded for the county surveyor.

Records in Utah county recorders' offices are public records and all persons interested in titles have free access to records during business hours.

Establishment of a Land Office in Utah and Reconciliation

Reconciliation between the territorial and federal land distribution systems required Congressional legislation to establish a land office in Salt Lake City, integrate Utah Territory into the national land system, and provide relief to the inhabitants of cities and towns on the public domain. Subsequent legislation provided the additional opportunity to acquire land through the Desert Lands Act.

Salt Lake City Land Office

In 1855 Congress directed the President of the United States to appoint a surveyor general for Utah Territory, and to cause that the lands of that territory should be surveyed preparatory to bringing them on the market. Certain sections were to be reserved for the benefit of schools and a university in the territory.  The surveyor general arrived in Utah in July of the same year to begin surveying. He established the initial point for his survey (base line and meridian) at the southeast corner of the Temple Block, and from there extended that survey over 2 million acres. Because of numerous conflicts between the surveyor and the territorial government the first surveyor general abandoned his post in 1857. His successors recommended that no additional land be surveyed. Conflict between the federal and territorial governments kept the issue on hold until 1868, and in the meantime, large sections of the territory were transferred to neighboring territories and states. Again in 1868, Congress directed the President to appoint a surveyor general in the Utah Territory, to establish a land office in Salt Lake City, and to extend the federal land laws over the same. The land office opened 9 March 1869. From that point settlers began the process of securing federally acknowledged legal title to their lands.

Integration into National Land System

When the federal government opened a land office in Salt Lake City, it provided integration into the national land system by extending the rights of preemption, homestead, and purchase to Utah inhabitants. Settlers were subsequently able to make entry for homesteads or purchase federal land. Much land was already settled and claimed in amounts smaller than the 160-acre minimum the federal government wished to impose. To accommodate the law, many settlers purchased or entered preemption or homestead claims and then divided the land among those already settled thereon.

Desert Lands Act

Subsequent to the establishment of the Salt Lake City land office, Congress passed additional legislation designed to expedite private ownership in the public domain. The Desert Lands Act, passed 3 March 1877, is of particular significance in Utah because it applied to all arid land in the public domain. This law provided for the purchase of up to 640 acres of desert land by an applicant who could bring it under cultivation. The law required that the applicant be a U.S. citizen and that he be at least 21. Upon entering his claim, the applicant was required to identify the land, explain exactly how he intended to bring it under cultivation, and make a down payment of 25 cents an acre. The claimant had three years to prove that he had brought the land under cultivation and to make final payment of $1 per acre.

Relief for the Inhabitants of Cities and Towns

Prior to opening the land office, Congress addressed the issue of providing legal title to the owners of town lots in already surveyed towns. In March 1867 Congress passed an "Act for the relief for the inhabitants of cities and towns on the public domain." This act provided that a mayor (for incorporated towns) or the county probate judge (for unincorporated towns) should enter town site lands at the land office and purchase them for the benefit of all inhabitants. Congress further specified that the territorial legislature should prescribe rules by which these lots would be disposed to individuals. Pursuant to this law, the Utah Territorial Legislature established regulations for disposing of town site lands. Within 30 days after making the entry, the judge or mayor was to give public notice and advertise the land he had entered. Every person, association, or corporation claiming to be a rightful owner of any part of this land was required within six months to present a claim to the probate court. In case of adverse claims the probate judge was required to "decide according to justice in the case," and when claims were undisputed, to determine the validity of the claim. The probate judge or mayor was then required to issue a certificate authorizing a deed to be recorded.

Since Utah county probate courts were responsible for adjudicating and authorizing federally recognized title to previously distributed town lots, the records relating to those judgments are among the records kept by county probate courts. Land adjudication records may appear in the body of probate court minutes or they may have been kept in separate volumes designated for that purpose. They may simply be land certificates authorized by the court.

Page Last Updated April 1, 2003.

About this Guide
Written by Rosemary Cundiff and originally published in June 2002.

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