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COWBOY LOGIC: Land man

TOWNER, N.D. -- Owning land is a fairly new concept in my neighborhood. Homesteaders started the practice here about 100 years ago. Before that, land was mostly shared by the people indigenous to this part of the country.

TOWNER, N.D. -- Owning land is a fairly new concept in my neighborhood. Homesteaders started the practice here about 100 years ago. Before that, land was mostly shared by the people indigenous to this part of the country.

With the advent of land ownership came some paperwork, and courthouses were built to hold all the documents. It's an amazing system where a little piece of paper tells everyone who owns what.

And even more amazing is that people honor what that paper says. No more gunfights to settle land disputes, just a couple sheets of paper, an attorney or two and the rule of law. Saved a lot of cemetery space when the system took hold.

I've been looking over the paperwork on our ranch. We call the stack of papers "abstracts." It's a fitting term.

One definition of abstract is a summary, and abstracts summarize all the actions recorded on a piece of property at the county Register of Deeds office. Another definition of abstract is "not easily understood." After reading our abstracts, that definition fits, too.

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There are lots of grants, conveys, acknowledges and assigns language about places described as romantically as the southwest quarter of the northwest quarter of section three of township number 154 north of range number 75 west of the fifth principal meridian.

Common recordings

After looking at pages and pages of abstracts from our ranch, there's a fairly common chain of events. The government got the ball rolling with a patent deed for some homesteader. As quick as they could, the new owner would mortgage the land to some financier to secure some dollars.

Mortgages turned pretty quickly. Pay one off in a year or two, mortgage it again, pay it off, and then back in the hole again and again. If things went bad, there'd be some recordings by the sheriff about a foreclosure and a public auction at the front door of the courthouse, another new owner and, of course, new mortgages shortly after.

Sometimes the county ended up with the land for nonpayment of taxes. If you hung in there and still owned the land in the 1930s, the popular mortgage holder was the Land Bank Commissioner in St. Paul.

Looking at the course of hard times, death, estates and mortgage history, it's nothing short of miraculous for a family that homesteaded a piece of land to still own it 100 later.

Looking at those abstracts makes me appreciate my ancestors even more.

Heavy reading

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In North Dakota, there're a lot of people studying abstracts. There's a good sized oil boom going on and courthouses in the boom areas are full of newly minted "land men" from the oil companies poring over documents to figure out who owns the mineral acres on the prime land for oil exploration.

We're a good 100 miles away from the heart of the new oil activity, but you never know, a little oil might have accidentally seeped this way without knowing any better.

I haven't quite figured it all out yet; the entries are pretty abstract you know, but it looks like some of our mineral acres made it through the Depression, the Land Bank, past oil booms and slick mortgage holders.

I'm not banking on it, but an oil lease would make a nicer recording than another bank mortgage on our debt-worn abstracts.

With luck, a lease out here on the fringe of the boom might bring in enough cash to fill both gas tanks on my pickup.

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