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
- 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
- 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