Appendix [105]: How Land was Acquired and Owned in mid-1700’s Pennsylvania

How did Michael App acquire his land upon his arrival in 1752?

by Neal Otto Hively


Many early settlers settled on vacant tracts of newly opened land without recourse to official authorization from the Proprietors of the colony. This was accentuated by the accelerated rate of European immigration at about the time the lands west of the Susquehanna River were opened for general settlement, and the inability of the Pennsylvania land grant system to deal with the vast surge of settlers. Settlers of Irish and Germanic extraction, especially took it upon themselves to locate and “improve” a vacant tract of land without obtaining any warrant for the land.

A major Pennsylvania colonial policy shift in 1765 permitted settlers who had squatted on unwarranted land, and who were willing to accept the results of a land survey, to be granted an official warrant for their land, upon application. The “East Side” and “West Side” Applications (corresponding to land on the East and West sides of the Susquehanna River) were exceptional warrants issued to deal with settlers living on unwarranted land. The warrantee was granted an official Pennsylvania warrant, agreed to abide by the subsequent land survey, and pay the original purchase price of the property, with back interest. The large number of “Applications” listed in these volumes are an illustration of this phenomenon. “Interest dates” correspond to the date of actual settlement upon which the back rent was paid. Some 5600 West Side Applications were granted between 1765 and 1769.


There were five steps in the official land acquisition process from the Proprietors of Pennsylvania. Beginning in the late 1730’s, the proprietors of the colony initiated the process based on:

  1. APPLICATION to WARRANT from interested prospective settlers. This resulted in the issuance of a warrant. Most warrants were issued from Lancaster city during this time of the colonial period.

  2. WARRANT was an official order for the county Deputy Surveyor to initiate a survey of the described tract of land. The warrant document designated the county, township, the person to whom the warrant was issued, the approximate acreage, and the date of issue. The earliest warrants give a general description of the land location. Later warrants give increasingly greater and more accurate detail of the property, including contiguous neighbors. Original warrant applications and warrant certificates are maintained at the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA. The Deputy Surveyors duplicate copies for York and much of Adams Counties are in the extensive collection at the Historical Society of York, PA.

  3. SURVEY was the third stage in securing land from the Proprietors of Pennsylvania, and was the official SURVEY that was authorized by the warrant. Usually the survey followed the issuing of a warrant. Occasionally, a surveyor would lay off a property at the request of a prospective warrantee, at his own initiative, or at the request of a “squatter” who was already living on a tract and desired to officially acquire it. Surveys give graphic representation to the land within the designated boundaries. They note the compass “courses” in degrees, and the distances between corners (distances listed in “perches”; one perch = 16.5 feet). The narrative that accompanies the actual survey usually contains detail on the county, the township, the warrantee, the amount of acres contained in the survey with a 6% allowance for roads and error, natural features such streams, springs, etc., and the date of the original warrant and the subsequent survey. Early county roads are approximately located on some surveys.

  4. APPLICATION FOR A PATENT was the preliminary step that led to a review process leading to the issuance of a Patent.

  5. PATENT was the official granting of full, clear release and title to the land by the Proprietors of Pennsylvania. It was always issued at the owner’s initiative. When, and under what circumstances a family applied for a Patent varied widely. Some Patents were granted at almost the same time as the warrant survey in the Eighteenth Century. Other families delayed applying for a Patent until the mid-1870’s, more than one hundred years after the first warrant and survey had been conducted. In the Nineteenth Century, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to prod land owners to secure patents for their lands, by any number of various means. The large number of 1864 patents was one result of this focused initiative by the Legislature.

Like it? Share with your friends:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
© Copyright Larry A. App, all rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Larry A. App with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.