Among the records included in the BCPL archive are the following five major record groups.
- Surveys/Field Notes/Plat Maps The BCPL archive is entrusted with the original field notes of the Public Land Survey of Wisconsin conducted by the federal General Land Office between 1832 and 1866. These detailed, on-the-ground surveys established the township, range, and section grid upon which all legal land descriptions in the State are based. We also have the original plat maps that were hand drawn by cartographers using the field notes. It is interesting to note that the cartographers never set foot in Wisconsin. They drew their maps based solely on the notes of the surveyors. We are also an official depository for the field notes and maps from re-surveys performed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (the successor to the General Land Office) to correct errors and omissions in the original land surveys. The original survey field notes and plat maps, and resurvey plat maps have been digitized and are available here.
- Federal land patents and “clear lists” These documents are the official written instruments that were used to transfer the ownership or “title” of lands granted by the United States government to the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin received a number of different land grants supporting education, including:
- The 16th Section Land Grant and the 500,000 Acre Grant, both of which support K-12 public schools. (Wisconsin needed special permission from Congress to use its 500,000 Acre Grant for this purpose.)
- The University Lands Grant, which helped establish and support the University of Wisconsin.
- The Agricultural College Grant, which provided the funding for the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. This grant implemented the Morrill Act of 1862, which was originally intended to establish educational institutions in each state that would provide instruction in agriculture, mechanical arts, home economics and other professions that were practical at that time. This grant is the reason that the University of Wisconsin is referred to as a “Land Grant College.” President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, which is one of the reasons he is honored with a statute at the top of Bascom Hill on the UW Madison campus.
- The Swamp Land Act of 1850. This grant of all swampland located in the state was originally intended to provide funding for the conversion of swamp lands to arable land via drainage to the extent necessary. By 1865, the state legislature determined that half of this grant was not needed for such purposes and thus half the swamp land and half the proceeds of swamp land sales were dedicated to provide funding for secondary education through the state's “Normal Schools” for the education of teachers.
- Other grants of land were made to the BCPL in lieu of lands previously granted for which transfer of title could not be completed. Other miscellaneous grants were made for the support of railroad and canal construction.
- Appraisals After the BCPL received the above described grants of land, the land was appraised prior to sale in order to set a minimum sale price, except for those situations where the state legislature set the sale price. The appraisals provided an estimated value of the land itself and any timber on the land, and also included information about the features and quality of the land. A few appraisals contain entries describing settlers occupying the land.
- Case files State land sales case files document the individual transactions on parcels of land sold by the BCPL. In the early years, much of the grant land was sold by BCPL on credit for a period of up to 30 years, thus these files contain a rich collection of information about sales price, yearly payments, transfers of sales contracts, and final payment.
- State land patents When a purchaser had paid in full for a property, BCPL conveyed title to the purchaser through the use of a state land patent. Together with the federal land patents, these instruments were the first steps in the chain of title. While the original state land patent was delivered to the purchaser, a duplicate copy was prepared and retained by the BCPL to ensure against loss of the purchaser's copy. Certified copies of these duplicate patents can be used to “perfect” title in those situations where the original state land patent was never recorded with the county Register of Deeds.
The archive is housed in a climate-controlled room in the BCPL’s Madison office. As most of the archival documents are more than a century old, they require special handling to ensure their long-term preservation. Many of our documents have now been placed in archival sleeves to protect them from physical damage and contact with acidic fingers, paper or mold.
Please contact the Land Records Archivist at (608) 261-8841 for further information about access to the archive.