Digging for Deeds

How to Trace Your Family Tree in U.S. Land Records

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An Indenture for the transfer of land from Nicholas Thomas to Lambert Strarenbergh in Albany, New York, circa 1734. Getty / Fotosearch

Most Americans owned at least some land prior to the twentieth century, making individual land records a treasure trove for genealogists. Deeds, legal records for transferring land or property from one individual to another, are the most prevalent and widely used of the U.S. land records, and can provide a fairly reliable method of tracking ancestors when no other record can be found. Deeds are relatively easy to locate and often provide a wealth of information on the family members, social status, occupation, and neighbors of the named individuals.

Early land deeds are especially detailed and predate most other record sources, increasing the importance of land records the further back a researcher goes.
 

Why Land Deeds?
Land records are an especially powerful genealogical resource, especially when used in conjunction with other records, for breaching brick walls or in building a case where no one record provides a record of relationship. Deeds are an important genealogical resource because:

  • U.S. land deeds often involve more people than other genealogical sources - providing a potential source for information on family members, neighbors, and even friends.
     
  • Land deeds help to locate a person in a particular area at a particular time.
     
  • Deed books at the county courthouse are only copies of the original land deeds, so land records are especially useful in areas where a courthouse fire has destroyed most of the records prior to a certain date. Because property was valuable, most people would bring their original deeds back to the courthouse following a fire or other catastrophe so that they could be re-recorded.
     
  • Deeds can be used to distinguish two men with identical names by locating one or both on a particular piece of property.
     
  • Deeds that transfer property by will or estate may name all children and their spouses.
     
  • Deeds, in conjunction with tax lists, can often help to reconstruct an entire neighborhood - making it easier to find potential migration patterns

    Deed versus Grant
    When researching land deeds it is important to understand the difference between a grant or patent, and a deed. A grant is the first transfer of a piece of property from some government entity into the hands of an individual, so if your ancestor acquired land by grant or patent then he was the original private land owner. A deed, however, is the transfer of property from one individual to another, and covers pretty much all land transactions following the original grant of land.

    Types of Deeds
    Deed books, records of property transfers for a particular county, are usually under the jurisdiction of the Registrar of Deeds and can be found at the local county courthouse. In the New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, land deeds are kept by the town clerks. In Alaska, deeds are registered at the district level and, in Louisiana, deed records are kept by the parish. Deed books contain records of a variety of land sales and transfers:

    • Deed of Sale
    • Deed of Gift
    • Strawman Sale
    • Lease & Release
    • Mortgage Sale
    • Estate Settlement


    Next > How to Locate Land Deeds

    Land transfers between individuals, also known as deeds, are typically recorded in deed books. The original deed was retained by the land owner, but a full copy of the deed was recorded by the clerk in the deed book for the locality. Deed books are kept at the county level for most U.S. states, though in some areas they may be kept at the city or town level. If you're researching in Alaska, then the county-equivalent is known as a "district," and in Louisiana, as a "parish."

    The first step in searching for land deeds and deed indexes is to learn about the locality where your ancestors lived. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

    • Do land records exist for your area and time period of interest?
    • What county had jurisdiction at the time period (the present-day county where the land is located may not have always had jurisdiction due to changing county boundaries)?
    • Are deed records still in county custody or have they been moved to some other location?
    • What is the county seat and what is the name of the deed office (Register of Deeds is the most common name used for the office)?

    Once you have determined where to search for land deeds, the next step is to search the deed indexes. This can be a bit more difficult than it sounds because different localities may have their deeds indexed in different formats and many deed indexes have not been computerized.

    Searching the Index
    Most U.S. counties have a grantor index, otherwise known as a sellor index, of their land deeds.

    Most also have a grantee, or buyer, index. In cases where their is no grantee index, you must read wade through all of the entries in the seller index to locate the buyers. Depending upon the locality, a number of different seller and buyer indexes may be in use. The easiest ones to use are alphabetized lists which cover, in order of recording, all deeds recorded within a particular county.

    A variation on this type of deed index is a list indexed by first initial of the surnames within a selected period of time (about fifty years or more). All A surnames are grouped unalphabetized in the page order in which they are found, followed by all B surnames, and so on. Sometimes surnames which are very common in the area will be grouped by themselves. Other indexes commonly found used to index deeds includ Paul Company Indexes, the Burr Record Index, the Campbell Index, the Russell Index, and the Cott Index.

    From Deed Index to Deed
    Most deed indexes provide a substantial amount of information including the date of the deed transaction, the names of the grantor and grantee, plus the book and page number where the deed entry can be found in the deed books. Once you have located the deeds in the index, it is a relatively simple task to find the deeds themselves. You can either visit or write to the Register of Deeds yourself or browse the microfilm copies of the deed books at a library, archives, or through your local Family History Center.

    Next > Deciphering the Deeds

    Although the legal language and old handwriting styles found in old deeds may seem a bit intimidating, deeds are actually organized into predictable parts. The exact format of the deed will vary from locale to locale, but the overall structure remains the same.

    The following elements are found in most deeds:

    This Indenture
    This is the most common opening for a deed and will frequently be found written in larger letters than the rest of the deed.

    Some earlier deeds don't use this language, but instead will start with words such as To all to whom these presents shall come greeting...

    ...made and entered into this fifteenth day of February in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy five.
    This is the date of the actual deed transaction, not necessarily the date it was proved in court, or recorded by the clerk. The date of the deed will often be found written out, and may appear here at the beginning of the deed, or later near the end.

    ...between Cherry and Judah Cherry his wife...of the one part, and Jesse Haile of the county and state aforesaid
    This is the section of the deed that names the parties involved (the grantor and grantee). Sometimes this section includes details which added to make it clear which William Crisp or Tom Jones was meant. Additionally, this section may also indicate relationships between the involved parties.

    Specifically, watch for details on place of residence, occupation, seniority, name of spouse, position relating to the deed (executor, guardian, etc.), and statements of relationship.

    ...for and in consideration of the sum of ninety dollars to them in hand paid, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged
    The term "consideration" is usually used for the section of the deed which acknowledges payment.

    The sum of money which changed hands is not always specified. If it is not, be careful not to assume that it indicates a deed of gift between family members or friends. Some people just liked to keep their financial matters private. This section of the deed is usually found immediately after the names of the parties to the deed, though sometimes it may be found mentioned between the parties.

    ...a certain tract or parcel of land situate lying and being in the State and County aforesaid containing by estimation one hundred acres more or less butted and bounded as follows Beginning in a Cashy Swamp at the mouth of a Branch then up said branch...
    The statement of property should include the acreage and the political jurisdiction (the county, and possibly the township). In public-land states it is given by the rectangular survey coordinates and in subdivisions it is given by lot and block number. In state-land states, the description (such as in the example above) includes a description of the property lines, including waterways, trees, and adjoining land owners. This is known as a metes and bounds survey and usually starts with the word "Beginning" written in extra large letters.

    ...to have and to hold the above said bargained premises to him the said Jesse Haile his heirs and assigns forever
    This is typical beginning for the final section of the deed.

    It is usually full of legal terms and generally covers items such as possible encumberances or restrictions on the land (back taxes, outstanding mortgages, joint owners, etc.). This section will also list any restrictions on use of the land, payment terms for mortages if it is a deed of mortgage, etc.

    ...whereof we have set our hands and fixed our seals this fifteenth day of February in the year of our Lord God one thousand seven hundred and seventy five. Signed Sealed and delivered in presence of us...
    If the deed wasn't dated at the beginning, then you will find the date here at the end. This is also the section for signatures and witnesses. It is important to understand that the signatures found in the deed books are not true signatures, they are just copies made by the clerk as he recorded from the original deed.