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Land Patents: a Real Myth

OCBA Laches Real Estate Law
May 1999

You may have seen signs staked in someone’s front yard or thumbtacked to the front door reading, "Warning: This property protected by a U.S. land patent. Beware." If you are a revenuer, you have had problems collecting tax from the owner of this house. The person inside probably thinks a little like Fox Mulder. But, for most of the rest of us, reference to a land patent sounds too esoteric, too outdated, or simply too confusing to worry about. In fact, land patents are still enforceable in Michigan, but typically not for the reasons normally hoped for by those who would post these signs.


As the population of the United States grew, the federal government was interested in moving people off the east coast, into the woods out west. To that end, the Land Office was created to sell land. At various intervals throughout the 1800s, the Land Office sold land to those daring souls, not by deed or other conveyance of a fee, but by patents. These land patents served as the early forms of title through which people could then assert their ownership as against all others. The territory of Michigan, upon admission to the Union as a State, acquired sovereign jurisdiction and police powers over all lands within its boundaries not then in federal custody. With this grant of power, the Michigan legislature gradually developed the state’s regulation over the use of property within its boundaries.

Effect on Land Patents

So what did this do to the land patents from the federal government? Today, some people believe that being able to trace the title to their property to a U.S. land patent somehow exempts their land from various forms of governmental regulation. Unfortunately for these libertarian idealists, this is a myth.

In Michigan, land patents are still statutorily protected, and are still useful to establish ownership interests in real property. However, land patents do not affect the manner in which someone may use their property.

The United States Supreme Court has plainly stated that land transferred by a federal land patent is subject to the same limitations as any other lands under state jurisdiction:

"We hold the true principle to be this, that whenever the question in any court, state or federal, is whether a title to land which had once been the property of the United States has passed, that question must be resolved by the laws of the United States; but that whenever, according to those laws, the title shall have passed, then that property, like all other property in the state, is subject to state legislation, so far as that legislation is consistent with the admission that the title passed and vested according to the laws of the United States." (emphasis added)

In Michigan, the Michigan Supreme Court has taken the same position:

"[T]he power of sale and disposition of the public lands, and of prescribing the rules, regulations, officers, agencies and the whole course of proceedings, for effecting such sales is vested exclusively in the federal government, until the sale is consummated by the issuing of a patent to the purchasers, which alone (in ordinary cases like the present, at least) divests the title of the United States and vests it in the purchasers, when, for the first time, it becomes in all respects subjects to the local laws of the state, like the great mass of other property within its limits." (emphasis added)

In Klais v Danowski, the property owner sued to establish the boundaries of his real property, which had been partially submerged by Lake St. Clair. the landowner objected to the state asserting rights to his submerged land, claimed by the state under the Submerged Lands Act. The Michigan Supreme Court agreed with the landowner. the Court found that the property conveyed in the land patent, which had a clear legal description, was not lost to the landowner despite the fact that it was now lake bottom under a public body of water. The property owner’s interests in this regard were superior to the state’s.

The relevance of most Michigan court cases interpreting land patents has largely been confined to that issue, i.e., land owned by individuals which becomes submerged by a water course that is then subjected to the public’s navigable use. The reference to land patents in such matters can be helpful in preserving property title rights to the submerged land, which incorporates a variety of related interests including minerals, oil and gas rights, and the right to construct piers, bridges or other structures within the patented area.

Popular Misconception

A land patent is useful to help define the extent of real property ownership. Unfortunately, a land patent will not anoint the property owner with the sovereignty of a king, nor establish the patch of land as a private fiefdom. You cannot dodge taxes with a land patent. You cannot avoid land use regulation with a land patent.

This seems to be the goal of many proponents of land patent rights. Unfortunately, that is one of those urban myths – like sending a letter to the IRS renouncing all federal benefits in order to avoid paying income taxes. Nice try, but don’t bet the farm.