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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 4/16/2003

More Tracking the Tract

This week, we follow up on last week's column on tract indexes. Those who missed the column or are unfamiliar with tract indexes are encouraged to read that article before continuing.

Tract indexes (if available) are potential finding aids that will be located at the county record office where the deeds are recorded. Not all counties will have these indexes, but they are a wonderful finding aid when they exist. Users of the Family History Library's excellent collection of records should keep in mind that this finding aid is not often filmed by the library, a serious oversight in the eyes of this genealogist. Researchers may find that the only place to access a tract index is at the county land records office.

Why was it Created?
The tract index was created to help abstractors document a clear chain of title from the first owner of a piece of property until the time the abstract was created. Tract indexes were not created for genealogists.

How Many Times is it Indexed?
When a tract index exists, a typical deed will be indexed three times. The deed will be indexed once under the name of the grantor (seller) in the grantor's index, once under the name of the grantee (buyer) in the grantee's index, and once in the appropriate section of the tract index. A tract index typically has a separate set of pages for a section or quarter section of land (in rural areas) or for a specific lot or subdivision in villages, towns, and cities. Using any type of tract index requires that one know precisely where the property is located.

Let's look at an example, Hesa Farmer. Hesa dies in 1880, owning 120 acres spread in three sections of Greenacres Township. Forty acres are in the northwest quarter of section 12, forty acres are in the southeast quarter of section 13 and forty acres are in the northeast quarter of section 15. Upon Hesa's death, the farm is sold to a non-relative. For purposes of illustration all the heirs sign the same deed and only one deed is drawn up to transfer property ownership. If the county where the deed is recorded has grantor/grantee indexes as well as tract indexes, the deed will be referenced five times in the indexes as follows:

Grantor index: under the name of the first heir listed as a seller on the deed.
Grantee index: under the name of the purchaser.
Tract index for northwest quarter of section 12, Greenacres Township
Tract index for southeast quarter of section 13, Greenacres Township
Tract index for northeast quarter of section 15, Greenacres Township

So if I have the names of the sellers and I know the location of Hesa's property, I have four options to find the deed in the indexes. Hopefully, I can find it.

How do I get the "legal" description of the property?

For town or city lots, in some cases the recorder of deeds (or the tax office) in the county where the city is located may be able to convert a specific address to a legal description. Keep in mind that street numberings might have changed since the time of the address and the present day. Probate records or wills (if they mention the property) will typically include the legal description of the real estate. If one knows where the property is located, some Sanborn fire insurance maps also have the subdivisions indicated, which will at least provide part of the description. Libraries, historical and genealogical societies and other repositories in and near the city of interest may have city maps with subdivisions and block numbers for the time period of interest.

For rural areas, the use of a county atlas or plat book can be helpful. Older plat books typically did not include full-name indexes, but many have been reprinted with an index. If only the township where the farm was located is known (perhaps via census, death, or other records), manually scanning the plat book's page for that township is usually not too onerous a task. Again, probate or will records (if the property was owned at time of the will or the individual's death) should provide the legal description of the property.

We'll now look at a few examples of land records and briefly discuss how they would be indexed.

THE DEED: Scott County, Iowa, Town Lot Book 50, p. 608

DATE OF DOCUMENT: 1 Nov 1894 Date of recording: 5 December 1894

GRANTORS (sellers): John Cawiezell and Elizabeth Cawiezell (his wife), Catherine Freund and George A. Freund (her husband), Louis Cawiezell and Lenora (his wife), Lizzie Thelken and Joseph Thelken (her husband), Julius Cawiezell (single) and Ida Cawiezell (single)

GRANTEE (buyer): Mary Hamann of Scott County, Iowa

PROPERTY: Lot No. 4 in Block Number 14 in G. C. R. Mitchell's Third Addition to the City of Davenport.

How Would it be Indexed?
Despite all the names in this document, it would appear in the following indexes a total of three times:

1) Grantor Index: under the name Cawiezell, John.
2) Grantee Index: under the name Hamann, Mary
3) In the index to town lots for lot number 4 in block number 14 of Mitchell's 3rd addition to the city of Davenport.

This deed makes an excellent point about searching for all family members in order to locate all relevant land records.

Note: this document is analyzed more fully in an earlier column

Stumbling on Something Unexpected: An Affidavit
This was a fortunate discovery that was located using the tract index in an attempt to locate land records for my ancestor Riley Rampley. Several land records were located using the tract index, but an interesting document was noted in the index. The actual record is an affidavit signed by William Rampley, one of the heirs of Riley Rampley, on 17 January 1898. The affidavit, recorded as document 3304 in Deed Book 134, states that Riley Rampley, father of William died on 27 March 1893, leaving widow Nancy J. Rampley, and ten children. William further states that all debts and funeral expenses of Riley had been paid and there was no outstanding debt on the property. There was no estate or probate file on record for Riley and this document seemed to explain why.

This document is listed as William Rampley to Affidavit. Unless I had searched the grantor index under all the children of Riley Rampley, I would not have located this document. The document was located using the tract index as an index reference was created in the appropriate section of the tract index in each quarter section of each township where Riley owned property.

Suggestion: Copy the Tract Index
When time is of the essence, or just when I want to make research easier, I simply copy the tract index. This photocopy can be taken home and analyzed, providing complete references to all land transactions in a very specific geographic area. If a record was originally overlooked, it may be possible to obtain a copy via mail from the land record office since you already have a citation from the tract index.

Other Records
In some cases, a tract index may refer to records outside of the office that records land transactions. In some cases, a court action might have impacted real estate. References to these court cases may be made in the tract index (particularly referring to a court record book or journal). This does not have to happen. Problems especially come about when ownership in property is transferred by a will. In this case there may be no record other than the will and the will may not be referenced in the tract index. If there are "gaps" in the chain of title that cannot be remedied using the tract index, consider searching for court or probate records on the last owner of the property.

Reasons to use a tract index (when available):
--- It is possible for researchers to overlook a reference in an index.
--- Clerks occasionally omit references from grantor/grantee indexes.
--- Deeds sold for taxes or as the result of court action will list the sheriff or judge (in their legal capacity) as the grantor.
--- The tract index might reference documents outside of typical land records.
--- Tract indexes are an efficient way to search when the family owned a specific piece of property for several generations.

Limitations of the tract index:
--- Typically no dates are provided in the index.
--- Need to know the location of the property.
--- Not all jurisdictions have a tract index.

Use All Indexes
I had always known the location of a farm purchased by my ancestor Johann Ufkes in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1881. Using the tract index, I easily located the few land records on the property involving my ancestor. I almost did not even use the grantor/grantee indexes as I thought I "knew everything" about Johann and that he had not owned or been involved with any other property in the county. This was a big mistake. By using the grantor/grantee indexes, I learned this ancestor had owned a mill for a few years and I located a record where he had loaned money to his brother-in-law in the 1870s.

Next week, we'll analyze the mortgage and see what is interesting about this piece of property and learn why even in public land states metes and bounds are sometimes relevant.

St. Charles Workshop With Michael John Neill
Michael John Neill will be presenting a genealogy workshop co-sponsored by the St. Charles County, Missouri, Genealogy Society and the St. Charles Community College in St. Peters, Missouri (suburban St. Louis) on 3 May 2003. Topics will include:

--- Analyzing Court Documents
--- Inheritance Concerns with Female Ancestors
--- Land Records in Public Domain Land States
--- Using Records from the Family History Library when you don't read the Language
--- There is an optional "early" session for beginning genealogists.

Early registrants can also get lunch as a part of the workshop.
Get more information.

Those with questions about the workshop can direct their emails to:

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 and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist
with personal research.

Copyright 2003, Inc

Other genealogy articles by Michael John Neill