How Legal Title Is Acquired

An owner of legal title generally acquires her title from someone who previously owned the title, although it is possible to acquire title without getting it from a previous owner.

The first owners: Identifying original government title

Every piece of property has to have a first title owner. In the U.S. legal system, the first title owner of all land was a government, whether the federal government, a state government, or a foreign government.

Ownership of nearly all the land in the original 13 states began with the British crown. The British claimed ownership by discovering, possessing, and conquering the land. Even though they acknowledged that the native inhabitants had a right to occupy the land, they asserted the right to grant the land to others even if it was occupied.

Some individuals acquired private ownership of land from the British Crown before the American Revolution. Some such lands were confiscated after the Revolution. The lands still claimed by the British Crown after the Revolution passed to the states by treaty. Ownership of other lands not within the boundaries of those states was disputed but ultimately settled in the federal government.

The federal government subsequently acquired other lands from various countries, including the following:

  • France: The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. This territory extended from the Mississippi River on the east to parts of present-day Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico on the west; from Canada on the north to present-day Texas on the south.

  • Spain: The United States purchased Florida and parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi from Spain in 1819. Spain also ceded any claims to the Oregon Territory.

  • Great Britain: The United States acquired the Oregon Territory, including the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, plus parts of Montana and Wyoming, by treaty with Great Britain in 1846.

  • Mexico: In 1848, Mexico ceded to the United States its territory from the Pacific Ocean to the western limits of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1853, the United States purchased some additional disputed land that’s now part of Arizona and New Mexico.

  • Russia: The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.

The federal government didn’t keep all this land, of course; it gave many lands to the individual states.

Patents: Conveying government land to individuals

The federal government has transferred many lands to private individuals over the years. Here are some of the ways:

  • Public sale: Early on, the federal government simply offered surveyed lands for sale. Later, people who had improved the land had the first right to purchase the land.

  • Homestead patents: After public sales ceased, the federal government transferred 160-acre parcels of land to those who occupied and cultivated the land for five years.

  • Railroad grants: The federal government gave a lot of land to railroad companies that built railways. The government generally gave the railroads odd-numbered square-mile sections on either side of the new track for a number of miles, creating a checkerboard pattern of private and public ownership.

The document by which the government officially transfers a land title to another is called a patent. States have likewise transferred many land titles to private owners by patent.

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