Jan 10 2013
One of the best places to search for clues to family and community relationships is in the land records of ancestral counties. Land records are among the oldest extant records available. Before 1850 grantee/grantor indexes are the most complete lists of residents that exist for a county. There have been fewer losses of land and property records than any other type of record. Land records are among the first to be reconstructed after disasters such as the courthouse fire, flood or tornado.
Prior to the US Civil War, more than 85 % of all Americans owned or leased land. Land use dictated the need for most non-land records such as probate, marriage, civil and criminal court records. Before World War I, people in agricultural communities tended to marry neighbors within a five-mile radius of their home. A young man would walk 3-5 miles after a day’s work to court his lady. This gave him about an hour’s walk to her home and an hour’s courting time before leaving for home to rest up for the morrow’s work. He walked because the family horse wasn’t available for courting, as it needed its rest from working the field all day.
The most common land record is the deed. A deed is more than just a record of land being passed from one owner to another. It may hold the clues to your family’s history. These strategies may help you unlock those clues.
- Check the Red Book or the Handybook for Genealogists to see which county office is responsible for recording deeds. These references will also give you the time span of the records they hold. If you’re not able to visit the courthouse personally, check to see if the land records have been microfilmed by the state historical society or the Family History Library. The local genealogical society may have some one who will do research for you.
- Search both the grantor/seller index and the grantee/buyer indexes for ALL entries for your surname. These are often called the General Index.
- Compare property descriptions. This will alert you to surname spelling variations and other possibly related surnames. If Joseph E. Johnston sells the same land that Joseph E. Johnson inherited, they are probably the same person, regardless of the change in spelling of his surname.
- Using a county map, plot out the property description. This will help determine neighbors, who might be relatives of a different surname. It is fairly easy to plot out a community in a federal-land state to see who your ancestor’s neighbors were. It’s just a bit more complicated to plot out neighborhoods using metes and bounds descriptions of the state-land states. Atlases of plat maps of the county townships were often published, showing property owners, the locations of schools, churches, cemeteries, post offices and towns. Check the local public library or genealogical society for a copy. Many of these are on microfilm, available through interlibrary loan.
- Land deeds can serve as a census substitute, showing when a person entered and left an area. This is especially useful for the years before 1850, when only the head of household was listed on the US census.
- Consideration or price may reveal a blood relationship. If the price was “for love and affection” or greatly below market value, there may be a familial relationship.
- Search the tract or numerical indexes, tracing the land your ancestor owned. Affidavits, particularly, will often reveal family relationships. Partitions divide land among heirs.
- A wife’s first name may be listed in the dower release. Her maiden name may be discovered in land given her by her father. Her maiden name may be hidden in the Index to Lands, as her father disposed of his holdings.
- Record both the date the instrument was written and the date it was recorded. A long span of time between the two may define the years of the ancestor’s activity in that county.
- Note the addresses of all parties. Addresses may give other locations where you ancestor lived.
- Compare the acreage bought with the acreage sold. Did a father divide his land among his children? Did a woman inherit land?
- Search at least fifty years beyond the last known date of an ancestor’s existence in an area. Deeds were not always recorded at the time of the transaction, especially among relatives. The family farm may descend several generations before being recorded when the family sells to a non-family member.
- When courthouses were destroyed, deeds were frequently re-recorded years after the transaction.
- Look for “et al”, meaning “and others”. The others may be siblings.
- Look for “et ux” or “et uxor,” meaning “and wife.”
- Look for “et vir”, meaning “and husband.”
- Look for powers of attorney. If the person was not a lawyer, it was probably a relative or very close friend.
- Determine legal age for signing contracts or witnessing deeds, usually age 21. Minors transferring property usually did it through their guardian, whose name will be listed in the index, rather than the minor’s.
- Some deeds identify the occupation of the parties. This helps separate two people with the same name.
- Check county boundaries. Are you searching in the correct county? Does the land cross a county line or a state line? A Map Guide to the US Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 is a good source to see boundary changes over the years.
- Compare signatures on original deeds. This helps separate two people of the same name.
Land records provide two types of important evidence of kinship ties, and to place individuals in a specific time and place. Land records are also useful to sort people into families, neighborhoods, and closely associated groups; help distinguish one person of the same name from another of the same name, and are crucial to southern research which is often lacking the vital records kept by northern states.
For further study, consult:
- Eakle, Arlene and Johni Cerny. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry. Inc. 1984. Chapter 7
- Eichholz, Alice, editor. Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. Provo, UT: Ancestry, Inc. 3rd edition. 2004.
- Greenwood, Val. D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. “Local Land Records-Using Land Records”
- Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1984. Chapter 15: Land Records.
- Hatcher, Patricia Law. Locating your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2003.
- Hone, E. Wade. Land & Property Research in the United States, “Strategies for State Land Records”, Strategies for Federal Land Records”, “Strategies for Individual Land Records.”
- Thorndale, William and William Dollarhide. Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790- 1920. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1987
- The Handy Book for Genealogists. United States of America. Logan, UT: The Everton Publishers, Inc. Several editions are available.
- http://www.cyndislist.com. Search “land records”.
- http://www.bcgcertification.org. Search “Skill building,” Elizabeth S. Mills’ article “Analyzing Deeds for Useful Clues”
- Dollarhide, William. “Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records.” Genealogy Bulletin 25 ( Jan-Feb 1995), online <http://users.rcn.com/deeds/deeds.htm>
- “How To Search Deeds”, online < http://www.dohistory.org/on your_own/toolkit/deeds.html>
- An excellent glossary of terms used in land records can be found at http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/Visitors/Glossary.asp#29
- For more in-depth study, try the lessons on US Land & Property Research, by Bill Utterback, Certified Genealogist(sm). http://users.arn.net/~billco/uslpr.htm