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A land patent is an exclusive land grant made by a sovereign entity with respect to a particular tract of land. To make such a grant "patent", a sovereign (proprietary landowner) must document the land grant, securely sign and seal the document (patent), and openly publish the documents for the public to see. An official land patent is the highest evidence of right, title, and interest to a defined area. It is usually granted by a central, federal, or state government to an individual or to a private company.
Besides patent, other terms for the certificate that grants such rights include first-title deed and final certificate. In the United States, all claims of land ownership can be traced back to a land patent, first-title deed, or similar document regarding land originally owned by France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Russia, or Native Americans.
A land patent is known in law as "letters patent", and usually issues to the original grantee and to their heirs and assigns forever. The patent stands as supreme title to the land because it attests that all evidence of title existent before its issue date was reviewed by the sovereign authority under which it was sealed and was so sealed as irrefutable; thus, at law the land patent itself so becomes the title to the land defined within its four corners.
As Great Britain began to colonize colonial America, the Crown made large grants of territory to individuals and companies. In turn, those companies and colonial governors later made smaller grants of land based on actual surveys of the land. Thus, in colonial America on the Atlantic seaboard, a connection was made between the surveying of a land tract and its "patenting" as private property.
Many original colonies' land patents came from the corresponding country of control (e.g., the United Kingdom). Most such patents were permanently granted. Those patents are still in force; the United States government honors those patents by treaty law, and, as with all such land patents, they cannot be changed.
After the American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, the United States Treasury Department was placed in charge of managing all public lands. In 1812, the General Land Office was created to assume that duty.
In accord with specific Acts of Congress, and under the hand and seal of the President of the United States of America, the General Land Office issued more than 2 million land grants made patent (land patents), passing the title of specific parcels of public land from the nation to private parties (individuals or private companies). Some of the land so granted had survey or other costs associated with it. Some patentees paid those fees for their land in cash, others homesteaded a claim, and still others came into ownership via one of the many donation acts that Congress passed to transfer public lands to private ownership. Whatever the method, the General Land Office followed a two-step procedure in granting a patent.
First, the private claimant went to the land office in the land district where the public land was located. The claimant filled out entry papers to select the public land, and the land office register (clerk) checked the local registrar records to make sure the claimed land was still available. The receiver (bursar) took the claimant's payment, because even homesteaders had to pay administrative fees.
Next, the district land office register and receiver sent the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington. That office double-checked the accuracy of the claim, its availability and the form of payment. Finally, the General Land Office issued a land patent for the claimed public land and sent it on to the President for his signature.
Usage restrictions (e.g., oil and mineral rights, roadways, ditches and canals) placed on the land are spelled out in the patent. Such private property rights can also be thereafter negotiated in accord with the terms of private contracts. The rights inherent in patented land are carried from heir to heir, heir to assignee, or assignee to assignee, and cannot be changed except by private contract (warranty deed, quitclaim deed, etc.). In most cases, the law of a particular piece of patented land will be governed by the Congressional Act or treaty under which it was acquired, or by terms spelled out in the patent. For example, in the United States the laws governing the land may involve the Homestead Act or reservations placed on the face of the patent, or the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which governs certain jurisdictional dicta relating to large amounts of land in California and adjoining territories.
Because most people become familiar with land rights only when they acquire real estate either by inheritance or through the process of a purchase contract, they never learn the difference between land and the property appurtenant to it. Accordingly, their familiarity with land law remains virtually non-existent; and, they only become accustomed to State statutory regulations relative to the property appurtenant to the land, that is to say: property taxing, zoning and building codes, etc.
When a territory agreed to enter the Union of the United States of America, an Enabling Act was agreed to as a condition precedent of statehood. The Enabling Act requires that all unappropriated (not yet privately owned) lands be forever disclaimed by the territory and the people of the territory, and the title ceded to the United States for its disposition. For example, the enabling act of the Washington Territory declares, in part:
"... that the people inhabiting said proposed States do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof, and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indian or Indian tribes; and that until the title thereto shall have been extinguished by the United States, the same shall be and remain subject to the disposition of the United States. .."
After the right and title to land was disclaimed by the people of the territory, it was held in trust by the United States until someone proved a claim to it, typically by improving the homestead parcel for a certain period of time. Once a proper claim has been filed, the General Land Office (now the Bureau of Land Management) certifies that the claimant has paid for a survey, as well as depositing another sum of money. Then, pursuant to the various land acts of Congress, the land is granted to the private owner by letters patent under the signature and seal of the President of the United States of America.
Legal entities other than natural persons (such as trusts and corporations) cannot obtain land patents except by express act of the United States Congress. An example of Congress granting land through patents to fictitious entities is the railroad grants made to compensate the railroad companies for building railroads across America.
A land patent is permanent and cannot be changed by the government after its issuance except in case of fraud, clerical error, or failure to pay the initial administrative fees. A statute of limitations applies.