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from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 2/8/2000

Where Did the Farm Go?

Tracking how your ancestor disposed of real property is just as important as determining how it was obtained. In some cases, how it left his (or her) hands provides a number of genealogical details.

The records discussed today are local land records and were created at the county level. Consult Ancestry's Red Book for more details on specific localities. Wade Hone's book Land & Property Research in the United States is an excellent guide for those who utilize land records.

Record keeping agencies generally have indexes that list buyer (grantee) and seller (grantor). Each deed usually appears in each index once regardless of how many buyers or sellers there are. These indexes should be referenced for several years after your ancestor died or left the area, as properties were sometimes transferred after a move or a death or were not recorded promptly. Deeds are recorded in the order they are brought to the office, not the order in which they were created. The index reflects this recording order.

I also look for what is termed a lot, parcel, or tract index. Not all counties have these indexes (and sometimes they are not microfilmed either). These indexes are more likely to appear in those areas that were originally federal land states. Transactions are indexed by the location of the property, not buyer or seller names. The exact location of the property must be known. Not all locations have this type of index. The use of such an index when searching for the purchase and disposition of a specific lot in Davenport, Iowa was facilitated by such an index.

Here are the main ways your ancestor's property could have been transferred. There are, of course, exceptions.

1) Sold for Back Taxes

It's possible your ancestor got so behind on his taxes that he was unable to pay the final amount. In this case, his farm might have been sold for back taxes. In this case, your ancestor will not be listed as the seller, instead it will most likely be listed under County Sheriff (possibly under just "sheriff"). Determining if it's your ancestor's deed requires comparing the property description on the Sheriff's deed to the known description of the property.

2) Foreclosed?

Was you ancestor behind on his payments? If so, he might have "lost the farm" due to a foreclosure. Court records should be referenced for foreclosures. I had one ancestor whom I was told "couldn't keep a farm." It was implied that he couldn't please a landlord. A search of court records revealed it was multiple foreclosures the relative was referring to.

3) Sold Before Moving

Your ancestor might have sold the property to raise capital for a move. These transfers generally offer few clues about new residences.

4) Sold After Moving

Perhaps your ancestor left before selling. In this case, the deed might list your ancestor's new residence. In some cases, a person remaining in the area might have been given power-of-attorney to complete the transaction. My ancestor left Maryland for Ohio in 1817, still owning property there. He gave his brother power-of-attorney to sell the farm. This document is recorded directly before the deed transferring the property.

5) Sold Before Death

Your ancestor might never have left the area and sold the property before his death. The transfer might have been to a child. "$1 and love and consideration" or something similar might be the payment if this is the case. My ancestor who owned several hundred acres had no probate. A search of land records determined he had transferred most of it to his children before his death (frequently for $1). Of course your ancestor might have sold to complete strangers and used the funds to support his retirement.

6) Sold After Death

The property might have been sold by the heirs after the owner's death. There might not have been a probate or the probate might not mention land. If you suspect your dead ancestor had a farm, look for deeds where any of the ancestor's children are grantors. They might not be indexed under your ancestor's name.

7) Transferred by Will

The property might have been bequeathed in your ancestor's will and not mentioned in land records. One ancestral homestead still owned by a family member has changed ownership four times since 1869. Only one transfer resulted in a deed. The other transfers resulted from wills written in 1877, 1924, and 1968.

8) Transferred by Court Action

If the heirs could not agree on how to split the farm, they might have gone to court. If a deed resulted, the judge might be listed as grantor. In some areas these deeds are called Master's deeds (titles can vary) and these deeds might even be recorded in a separate set of records from other deeds.

9) It Never Got Recorded

Your ancestor might never have bothered to record the deed. It didn't happen often, but maybe your ancestor never went to the trouble of taking his deed to the county office.

10) It Never Got Indexed

This is the worse case scenario. It's there, but not in the index. The only recourse is a page-by-page search. In this case "Good Luck" is extremely appropriate.

Always document the disposition of your ancestor's property. Would you track all your family's births and ignore all the deaths?

Good Luck.

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 2000, Michael John Neill. 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:

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