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How to find out what your woods looked like in the past

One thing that nearly every woodland owner has is a curiosity for the history of their property. Understanding the history of the trees and landscape around a property can provide a deeper appreciation of it.

Woodland owners that have recently purchased their property may have a keen interest in finding out how the previous owners used the land. For woodland owners with property that has been in their family for generations, learning about the history of their land can be an enjoyable family activity.

This article describes several resources for woodland owners to better understand the history of the woods they enjoy.

Find historical air photos for your property

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Landview website is a great resource for you to access historical air photos for your property. Landview allows you to create customized maps based on several data layers. Woodland owners are likely interested in the aerial photos of their property, but users can also choose from layers that include public lands, water bodies, roads, and other landscape features.

Some Minnesota woodland owners have used Landview to find air photos of their property dating back all the way to the 1930s! This has allowed them to visualize how the forest has grown over several decades, learn when buildings on their property were erected, and see how landscape features such as roads and fields may have changed.  

The following instructions will help you obtain historical photos for your land:

  1. Navigate to the Landview website and check the "Historic air photos" layer on the left sidebar.
  2. Use the magnifying glass to zoom in on the area around your property.
  3. If photos are available for your area, they will be indicated by colored dots. To view a photo, click the "i" icon at the top, and then click on a colored dot.

The availability and number of photos is variable depending on your location. You may find that there are several years of photos available for your land. You can save these images to your computer or print them to include in your property records.

Find original land survey maps

Historical land survey maps, also known as plat maps, are available for many areas in Minnesota. A digital collection of these maps can be found at the General Land Office (GLO) Historic Plat Map webpage.

This resource is a compilation of the state’s original plat maps drawn by the U.S. Surveyor General’s Office between 1848 and 1907. The collection also includes more recent plat maps, up to the year 2001. These original public land survey plats are the official legal land records for Minnesota and all property titles and descriptions stem from them.

The following instructions will help you obtain maps for your land:

  1. Navigate to the GLO webpage and select the “Find a Plat” link.
  2. Zoom in to your property or the area of interest.
  3. Select the township of interest.
  4. When the new webpage opens, select the links beneath “View Plat” to obtain a PDF image of the plat map.

There is also supporting information about the details of the mapping process. Woodland owners may be interested in the “Field Notes” web links that accompany many of the plat maps.

Find title records for your land

You may be able to find the original title information for your property. The Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office (GLO) Records webpage provides access to federal land conveyance records for several states.

The GLO website provides a diversity of information sources:

  • Land patents provide information on the initial transfer of land titles from the federal government to individuals,
  • Survey plats and field notes contain information on some of the original surveys of the land conducted by the U.S. government, and
  • Tract books contain a listing of all the transactions involving surveyed public lands, including state or territory, meridian, township, range, section, and subdivisions.

Landowners in Minnesota have reported mixed success in finding information on their property through the GLO webpage. However, it provides another tool to learn about the history of the land.

Explore Native American history

The land that Minnesota residents steward today are on lands that were the original homes of the Dakota Sioux and the Ojibwe. The following resources have excellent information on treaty rights and how Native Americans historically used the land:

  • The 1854 Treaty Authority has an interactive map provide information on resources within the 1854 Ceded Territory to facilitate the exercise of treaty rights. 
  • The Great Lakes Indian and Fish and Wildlife Commission has excellent information on hunting, fishing, and gathering rights.
  • A virtual exhibit on Why Treaties Matter explores Dakota and Ojibwe peoples’ relationship with their homelands and the importance of treaties.
  • The Camp 8 Stand is a story map that weaves a compelling narrative about the unique ecology, history and cultural significance of a 44-acre stand of 200+ year-old red pines at the Cloquet Forestry Center in Cloquet, MN. An excellent section describes the cultural use of prescribed fire by the Great Lakes Ojibwe.

A number of resources are available to woodland owners to better understand the history of the woods they enjoy. In addition to these online resources, your local town or county office may have additional information on deeds, titles, and maps of your land. Explore these resources with your family to better appreciate your woodlands and to help inform what management actions you take in the future.

Author: Matt Russell,  Extension forestry specialist

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