Locating Historical U.S. Deeds Online

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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

The Bureau of Land Management's General Land Office records are a great online resource for U.S. genealogists researching homestead records, bounty land grants, and other records for ancestors who purchased or received land in the thirty federal or public land states. In the eastern United States, many state archives have made available at least a portion of original grants and patents online. These online land records are all wonderful resources, however they generally only provide information on first owners or purchasers of the land.

The bulk of American land records are found in the form of deeds, or private land/property transfers between individuals and corporations (non-governments). The vast majority of deeds in the United States are recorded and maintained by the county, parish (Louisiana), or district (Alaska). In the New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, deeds are recorded at the town level.

Due primarily to increased interest by title searchers for online access, as well as to help cut access/personnel costs in the future, many U.S. counties, especially in the eastern part of the country, have started putting their historical deed records online. The best place to begin your search for online historical deed records is the website of the Register of Deeds, or Clerk of Court, or whoever is in charge of recording deeds and other real estate records for your county/locality of interest. Salem, Massachusetts historic deed books 1-20 (1641-1709), for example, are available online from the Essex County Registry of Deeds.

Thirty Pennsylvania counties have deeds available online (several going back to the time of county formation) through a system called Landex (fee for access).

There are also other online sources for historical deed records, such as state archives and local historical societies. The Maryland State Archives is especially notable for its cooperative project to provide access to deeds and other land record instruments from across the state.

Check out MDLandRec.net with searchable indexes and viewable volumes from Maryland counties dating back to the 1600s. The Georgia Virtual Vault, hosted by the Georgia State Archives, includes Chatham County, Georgia Deed Books 1785-1806.

How to Find Historical Deeds Online

  1. Locate and browse the website of the local office in charge of recording property deeds. This might be the Register of Deeds, Recorder, Auditor, or County Clerk, depending on the particular locality. You can often locate these offices through a Google search ([county name] state deeds, or by going directly to the county government site and then drilling down to the appropriate department. If the county uses a third-party service to provide online access to historical deeds, they will generally include access information on the home page of the Register of Deeds.
     
  2. Explore FamilySearch. Search the user-supported FamilySearch Research Wiki for your locality of interest, preferably the government level at which deeds are recorded, to learn what deeds might be available and whether they may be available either online or on microfilm from FamilySearch. The FamilySearch Research Wiki often includes links to external resources with online records as well, and may include details on any potential loss of deed records due to fire, flood, etc. If FamilySearch has deed or other land records for your locality online, you can find this by browsing FamilySearch Historical Records. The Family History Library Catalog (browse this by location as well) includes information on any microfilmed deed records, and may link to the record set online at FamilySearch, if it has also been digitized.
     
  1. Investigate the holdings of state archives, local historical society and other historical repositories. In some areas, the state archives or other historical records repository hold either the originals or copies of older deed records, and some have placed these online. U.S. State Archives Online includes links to each U.S. State Archives website, along with information on digitized online records. Or try a Google search such as "locality name" "historical deeds".
     
  2. Look for state-level finding aids. A Google search such as digital deeds [state name] or historical deeds [state name] may turn up helpful finding aids such as this collection on North Carolina Digital Records, which brings together information and links for each North Carolina county deeds office, including dates and coverage for available online digital deed records.

    Tips for Researching Historical Deeds Online

    • Once you locate a deeds collection of interest, explore it thoroughly to be sure the actual records available match the stated description. County record offices are putting digitized deeds online so fast that the available online documents sometimes exceed the text description. For example, the online Document Retrieval System for Martin County, North Carolina, states that it includes "Old Deed Books U (08/26/1866) thru XXXXX," however, if you manually enter the book and page numbers from the older books in the search box, you will find that the digitized deed books available online actually go back to 1774, the date of county formation.
       
    • Understand what you are looking at before you give up. Researchers new to Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, research might move on after entering their ancestor's name in the search box for Historical Deeds 1792–1857 and receiving no results. What they might not realize, however, is that this database, despite its misleading name, is a collection of documents recorded in deed books that described people who were involved in the slave trade in the early days of Allegheny County, and does not include all deeds recorded between 1792 and 1857.
       
    • Take advantage of current property records, tax maps and plat maps. Edgecombe County, North Carolina, has their historical deed indexes online, but the actual deed books are available online only back to September 1973. However, in some cases the deeds of current property owners include information on previous owners going back several generations, including deed book and page references. This type of online research can be especially helpful when platting historical deeds or conducting other types of historical neighborhood reconstruction. The Edgecombe County GIS Maps database, for example, lets you select parcel locations on a map and view information on the neighbors, along with digital copies of the most recent deed record for that parcel.
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      Powell, Kimberly. "Locating Historical U.S. Deeds Online." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/locating-historical-us-deeds-online-1422109. Powell, Kimberly. (2017, March 3). Locating Historical U.S. Deeds Online. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/locating-historical-us-deeds-online-1422109 Powell, Kimberly. "Locating Historical U.S. Deeds Online." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/locating-historical-us-deeds-online-1422109 (accessed December 16, 2017).