I can buy real estate from another seller. That seller at some point bought it from someone else, and so on, until we arrive at the first "owner" of this property. How did that individual become its owner?

I'm especially intrigued by ownership of lakeside property, such as marinas and boat slips.

To add color/context to my question: I live in Seattle, a relatively new city. It was settled by Europeans in 1851. Today, a one-bedroom condo can go for $500-700K, and Lake Union is teeming with expensive houseboats. I want to know what I would have had to do, as an enterprising new Seattleite in the mid-19th century, to secure new land for myself, and what's possible today?

2 Answers 2


Most of the privately owned land in the United States has a chain of title that traces back to what is called a patent (a fancy name for a government issued deed) from the United States government. In the Midwest, the Northwest Ordinance provided a framework for many of the patents, and in the West, several Homestead Acts provided the land (the exact homestead act involved matters quite a bit because some homestead acts granted settlers only surface rights, reserving mineral rights to the United States, while others granted both surface and mineral rights). There are also numerous isolated patents authorized piecemeal by Congress over the years.

Some land in the United States was recognized as owned by an Indian tribe by treaty and sometimes subsequently to a patent from an Indian tribe to a private owner.

On the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest, a fair amount of land is traceable instead to a patent from a government granted a British or Dutch colonial charter, some going back to the 1600s.

Land in Florida is traceable to multiple sovereigns as it changes control several times in early North American history (almost all Indian land in the American Southeast was conquered in war by the United States or predecessor colonies or was ceded in treaties resolving those wars generally to the detriment of the Indians). The ultimate roots of land title in Florida is arguably the most complex in the nation.

There is some land in the American Southwest that derived from Mexican land grants, some going back to the 1500s.

There is some land in Louisiana and along the Mississippi River that has a root of title in French land grants.

A great deal of land ownership in Hawaii traces back to prehistoric times in the Kingdom of Hawaii and its predecessor states. It is home to the oldest continuous periods of land ownership recognized as such in the Untied States.

Most land in Alaska is government owned, tribally owned, or traces back to a United States patent, but some of it can be traced back to Russian land grants.

There are a couple of other important real estate rights.

Rights to use water in the arid West arose from people gainfully using a certain amount of water at a certain location at a legally established date, and within each watershed, water rights have priority based upon the year in which they were established. Low priority water rights are worthless when there is little precipitation and only have value in wet years.

Mineral rights are leased from mineral interest owners, sometimes owners of the surface rights or former owners of the surface rights who severed the mineral rights from the surface rights, and sometimes from the United States government (or less often, state and local governments) that retained those rights. The process of acquiring rights in minerals that were reserved by the United States is called "staking a claim" and the process is similar to the process under the Homestead Acts, except that the Homestead Acts are mostly spent and no longer in force, while there are many places where it is still possible to stake a claim to minerals.

A couple of notable statutes also did the reverse, establishing public roads in places where there was historic use of those roads, even if it would have otherwise been subject to a land grant. Private land can also be ceded to public roads by prescription (i.e. use without permission by the general public for an extended period of time as set forth by statute).

There are special rules, that are not uniform in the United States, regarding who gets land that comes into being as a result of a changing coastline. Usually, it is either the adjacent land owner or the government.

Sovereign title is acquired either by purchase from another sovereign, including Indian tribes (usually subject to private land grants made by prior sovereigns), or by conquest, sometimes recognized by a treaty with the former sovereign and sometimes not. The United States acquired sovereign title to more land by purchase from other sovereigns than any other country on Earth. But, generally speaking, colonial powers did not recognize pre-Columbian grants of private land title, even in the parts of the Americas where such a thing was recognized (e.g. the Aztec Empire). Few North American Indian tribes recognized permanent private land ownership as a concept at all.

The allocation of sovereign title in the New World between Spain and Portugal was made by treaty in 1494 CE.

One cannot obtain rights in real estate from a sovereign by adverse possession or prescription in the manner that one can from a private land owner, except when expressly authorized by a statute passed by the land owning sovereign.

  • 2
    Also interesting were the railroad land grants of the 1860s, where the federal government gave 10 square miles of land -- occasionally creating a checkerboard of ownership through existing Indian reservations -- on either side of a railroad to railroad companies as a incentive for construction. The effects of that can still be seen in California's Coachella Valley. Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 16:41
  • @jeffronicus Indeed. Both railroads and public schools were recipients of generous grants of land from the federal government.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 17:00

As a male, you could file a claim for 320 acres under the Donation Land Claim Act (the first of the homestead acts, designed for the Oregon Territory), starting Sept. 27, 1850, and you could own it after 4 years living on it and cultivating it. If you were married, you and your wife could claim 640 acres, and the two of you would each own half of that land. You had to file a claim in Oregon City. After 1854, you could buy the land for $1.25/acre. This is what created private ownership here. Since nobody wanted Lake Union of Lake Washington at the time, you could have acquired a lot of lakefront property and become filthy rich. Now, you need to spend a bit more money to buy the land from the current owner.

The King County Assessor's office theoretically has the records (in a vault). The Denny plat for southeast Lake Union from 1875 is here; street names have changed. It is not clear what records still exist of the first legal land claims.

  • Thanks for that; homesteading is fascinating. Can you elaborate on how homesteading played a role in a young city? The largest class of city blocks are about 170,000 sq feet (wikipedia: 410x410 ft), while 320 acres is about 14 million sq ft, or about 83 city blocks.
    – Philip
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 7:16
  • @Philip While I don't know in particular about Seattle, in the urban Western United States, the typical pattern was for a developer or development company to buy a substantial amount of already privately owned land acquired by others, and then, after consolidating it, to subdivide the land into blocks and lots which were then sold by the developer to private and non-profit owners, often with rudimentary public works like roads that would eventually be dedicated to a municipal government and some basic attention to land use regulation via initial planned sales to different kinds of land users.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 15:51
  • @Philip Continued . . . the process of developing subdivisions then and now isn't all that much different although it is now more tightly regulated, and developers are now more likely to establish "special districts" and home owner's associations, rather than municipal governments as they did pretty much through the 1950s.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 15:55

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