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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 5/21/2003

What to Expect from a Deed

Land records are a great source, but some genealogists do not consider using them because the information they contain is not always as straightforward as clues contained in other records. Two of the main reasons land records can be useful are:

  • For a significant part of American history, a relatively high proportion of the population (at least a higher proportion than today) owned at least some property.
  • U.S. Land records are frequently kept from the earliest days of settlement in an area.

    When to Use Land Records?
    Land records will not solve every genealogy problem. Land records should always be a part of a comprehensive research design, and they are particularly helpful in cases where wills and estate records on your property-owning ancestor are not available or do not mention the disposition of real property. It may also be possible to track an ancestor's wife through the wife's acknowledgement of the deed (frequently referred to as the release of dower), or to track children through gift deeds (where the property is transferred free of charge, or at a minimal cost to the purchaser).

    The census may be a first clue as to whether your ancestor owned any real property (by noting the value of real estate in 1860, or by noting if your ancestor owned or rented his property in 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930). Probate or estate records may also indicate in an inventory if your ancestor owned land. Even city dwellers might have owned a small lot and a house. If your ancestor's address or residence does not change over a long time, he was more likely to have owned his own property.

    When Not to Use Land Records
    The researcher who is really stuck should consider land records, but there are times where they are not likely to be helpful. If your ancestor was a day laborer on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, land ownership is not as likely. One of my own ancestors who apparently lived pretty much hand to mouth (based upon census records and family recollections) never owned any real property. Fortunately for me, many other ancestors at least owned a small town lot or small acreage this possibility is worth considering. Some city dwellers might have moved from one tenement to another and never left any kind of land record. City directories might be helpful in some city cases to determine if the ancestor was a renter or an owner of the property at the address were he lived.

    Two Broad Categories
    For our purposes, we'll divide land records into two categories: the first recorded deed and all subsequent deeds. First recorded deeds are usually more relevant in the early years of settlement in an area. Researchers whose ancestors were not "early" settlers (in a very broad sense) typically will spend the bulk of their time in land records working in subsequent land sales between private individuals.

    Public Land States
    These are states where the first recorded property transfer is from the federal government to a private citizen. Land in these states is typically described using a system of townships and sections. The majority of the United States falls into this category, especially areas from the former Northwest Territory and further west Additional information on these early transfers can be found at the Bureau of Land Management site, There is also a searchable database of these patents (first deeds) on the site as well.

    State Land States
    These are states where the first recorded property transfer typically is from a colonial government to a private citizen. State land states are generally considered to be the thirteen original states plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia.

    For state land states, the starting point for information on first owners is best done at the state archives in the state where the property is located. Land in some states was granted by states further east (Kentucky and Tennessee are prime examples) and records of first land transactions may not be in the state where the property is located today. Some of these parcels were given to settlers for bring additional settlers to an area, for military service, or obtained through outright purchase.

    Following are links to state archive sites that may contain information on original patents and transfers in state land states:

    Connecticut State Archives

    Delaware Public Archives

    Georgia Secretary of State

    Hawaii State Archives

    Kentucky Secretary of State Land Office

    Maine Department of the Secretary of State, Maine State Archives

    Maryland State Archives

    Massachusetts Archives

    State of New Hampshire Division of Records Management and Archives

    New Jersey State Archives

    New York State Archives and Records Administration

    North Carolina Division of Archives and History

    Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

    South Carolina Archives and History Center

    Tennessee State Library and Archives

    Texas State Archives

    Texas General Land Office

    Vermont State Archives

    The Library of Virginia

    We'll now look at the second type of land transfers.

    Transfers Among Private Individuals
    While these first transfers to private ownership are important records, they do not make up the bulk of land records. The vast majority of land records are those that document the transfer of land ownership from one or more private individual(s) to one or more other private individual(s). These records are typically found at the county courthouse where the property was located at the time the deed was recorded. To search these records effectively, you will need to have an idea of when your ancestor moved to a certain area, when he was likely to have purchased property, and approximately where he lived within the county where the property was located.

    What's on a Deed?
    A deed contains the information necessary to change ownership in real estate from one person to another. The following terms and definitions may be helpful.

    Grantor—The person who sells the property.

    Grantee—The person who is purchasing the property.

    Consideration—Typically the money that changes hands during the transaction. (Sometimes the consideration will be "love and affection.")

    Description—A verbal delineation of where the property is located. In state land states, this typically is a metes and bounds description where each borderline of the property is mentioned. In public land states this typically refers to part of a section within a township. There are exceptions. More information on legal land
    descriptions can be found at:

    Witnesses—Those who saw the grantor sign the deed. Witnesses do not have to be relatives. They do have to be live people who saw the grantor sign or make his mark on the deed.

    Deeds may also be acknowledged in front of notaries (especially if the deed is signed by the owner a distance from where the property is located). Deeds are recorded in the county in which the property is located, not where the owner lives at the time the property is sold.

    Find Both Ends of Ownership
    If your ancestor owned property, there was some point in time when it came into his possession and some point in time when it left his possession. Most of the time these transfers will be recorded on a record in your ancestor's name. However, the following are some times when a deed might not exist in your ancestor's name:

  • Your ancestor obtained the property via an inheritance.
  • Your ancestor obtained the property via a marriage.
  • Your ancestor's property was sold for back taxes.
  • Your ancestor's property was transferred to his heirs in a will.
  • Your ancestor's heirs disposed of the property upon his death.

    They Won't Tell You Everything
    Land records do not provide the kind of detailed information contained in probate or vital records. However, land records can be extremely helpful in establishing when a person lived in a certain area and in documenting relationships among different individuals. There are a few reasons we use land records:

  • Land records are usually one of the first land records kept at the county level.
  • Land records were kept with the intent of documenting every link in ownership from the earliest deed to the present. Consequently they usually are a fairly comprehensive set of records.

    Land Record Reference (from DeedMapper software)

    "Lots of Leads from a Little Lot: A City Deed from Davenport, Iowa" (Ancestry Daily News article)

    "NSEW: Legal Land Descriptions in Public Land States" (Ancestry Daily News article)

    "Where Did the Farm Go? How your Ancestor Might have Disposed of His Property" (Ancestry Daily News article)

    Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., C.G.

    Land & Property Research in the United States by E. Wade Hone

    Copyright 2003,

    Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

    Used by the author on his website with permission.

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