Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 29
American Land Records
Two White Oaks Used to Grow:
USGS Geographic Names Information System: United States and Territories
Land Record Reference: Direct Line Software
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The descent of land is the purest proof of
lineage. Jo White Linn. "Gotcha:
Positive Identification Through the Use of Deeds," a lecture given at National Genealogical Society,
Arlington, Virginia, June 1990.
Land records are valuable for genealogical research. They provide evidence of places where our ancestor lived and for how long, when he moved into or out of a locality, at least the given name of his wife, and sometimes a surprising amount of detailed information about him.
According to William Dollarhide in Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records, nine out of 10 adult white males in America owned land before 1850 and even today the figure is more than 50 percent. There is a countywide surname index to virtually every landowner in America since the early 1600s and it is more complete than any head-of-household census index ever compiled. This means you are most likely to find information about your ancestors in American land records.
So, where's the dirt?
American land records are often an overlooked resource. Not every family historian initially understands their importance, assuming they are just dry descriptions of the acreage of the land. They are that, however, there can be found some interesting tidbits tucked away in those dusty deeds.
You can search land records to try to determine when your ancestor arrived and left any given area. Often when a man purchased land in a new area his former county/state of residence would be mentioned in the grantee deed. This helps you to trace his migration pattern backward hopefully to his county/state of birth and all the stops along the way.
Many times a family would move on before being able to sell its property. In such instances the new residence's location will be mentioned in the old county's deed books when the land is sold. This will give you critical information with which to continue your search and also provide evidence that the John Case who sold 150 acres in Greenbrier County, Virginia in August of 1838 is probably the same John Case who purchases 200 acres in Darke County, Ohio in June of that year. This information can be extremely helpful if you have lost an ancestor between censuses.
Relationships are another benefit to be found in land records, sometimes. For instance, you might discover a deed that indicates a father is selling to a son; a mother selling to her children before she marries again; or a man selling to his brother-in-law. There are also times when the descriptions of the land will include relationships. This was especially true when the description was done using chains and rods, which required including the names of the owners of adjacent properties. While relationships may not appear, the names themselves may prove familiar and useful to you.
Land records generally have two types of indexes. The grantor index is an index to those who are selling the land and the grantee index is an index to those who are buying the land. This is your first stop when beginning to work with land records. Many of these are on microfilm and can be accessed through your local Family History Center. Such records are found on the county level in most states. However, the New England states are the exception to this rule. They have their land records either at the town level or by land district.
Deeds, grants and patents all follow a particular form.
Finding land records
If you know the county-state, start with a search in that locality's grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) index. Be sure to look in both. Most of these indexes include the name of the person buying the land and the name of the person selling the land, followed by a brief description of the land, two or more columns for dates (date of the instrument, date it was recorded, etc.), and a column for the volume and page number where full entry is found in the deed books.
Take this information and go through the individual volumes of deeds (in person or on microfilm). Once you find the deed in question it is a good idea to make a photocopy of it. You never know when you will need to refer to it. Never assume that a name on a deed is unimportant. You will be surprised how often these names eventually tie together.
All county records are usually located in the office of the clerk of the county where the transaction occurred. Deeds, leases and mortgages are usually indexed, and many of the indexes and actual records have been filmed by the Family History Library. Also, subscribers to Heritage Quest can borrow rolls of microfilm to read deed indexes and transcripts.
Metes and bounds descriptions can be confusing at first when you try to plat them. Fortunately, there are software programs to help with this. One such program, is Deed Mapper by Direct Line Software. This program allows you to do analysis of old deeds, leases, surveys, roads, claims, grants and patents and lets you plot the land description and work with it. One of the features is the ability to drag the plotted land description onto a map of the area being researched. This is an excellent way to get a feel for where your ancestor was in respect to others and to be able to plot the land of all those in the family who were in a particular locality. It enables you to see their proximity to each other and to the rest of the town or county.
Click to see
Public land states. When the U.S. federal government was formed, all land outside the 13 original states and the five states later formed from them was ceded to the federal government and became known as the public domain. Thirty states were formed from the public domain and are known as public land states. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The public land states use the Rectangular Survey System.
Working with rectangular survey lands can take some imagination to picture the square that is your ancestor's. However, if you turn to plat maps, you will find that you can then see where he was in the grand scheme of things. And, best of all, you don't have to find a map of the actual date that your ancestor was living there. In the rectangular survey the townships and ranges and sections have remained the same. This means, for example, you can rent a microfilmed plat map atlas for your county through your local Family History Center and even if the map were created in 1978 you will still be able to locate the correct section and quarter that your ancestor owned a hundred years ago.
Learn to read these legal land descriptions backwards. First, determine the township and range. Then look for this specific township and range combination in the plat book. Next turn your attention to the section number. Once you have located it, divide that section into four quarters and you can then determine which part is your ancestor's.
Your ancestor might have owned an entire quarter or half of a section. More often though, he will own a quarter of a quarter. Read the legal description so that by working backward you go from the largest division (township and range) to the smallest.
Deeds and plat maps provide an insight into how your ancestor fit, geographically, into the town and/or county, and show how much land he owned at any given time. Take the time to work with these records and you may find yourself rewarded with an understanding of the land he owned, who was living around him, and who his heirs were.
Who's got the dower?
Dower rights came from the English common law system and were followed in the American colonies, continuing in most states well into the 19th century. Many deeds, especially early ones, include a sworn statement by an officer of the court saying that the wife was interviewed privately and agreed to relinquish her dower rights. The dower right of any validly married woman was established as soon as her husband became possessed of an estate in real property that could be inherited by his children. A married woman owned an immediate and conveyable interest in all her husband's lands during his lifetime, but no title to any portion of them. However, he could not legally dispose of the land without her consent, and if he did so, she could bring suit to recover the value of her one-third interest from the person who had received title to the land from her husband. It is because the wife's dower interest extended to one-third of all of her husband's lands that it was required by law in many colonies and states that she relinquish dower interest in any parcels he sold during coverture [state of being a married woman; the duration of the marriage] in order to convey a clear title to the buyer.
There are different types of American records which were created in the buying and selling or granting
of land. Much of land research pertains to deeds, which are found on the county level, and most of the
time the results of your search will be descriptions of the land and perhaps the given name of the spouse.
However, you might also learn:
It is a gamble when you begin to search the land records as to what exactly you will find, but it is never dull research.
Bounty land records
Another often-overlooked bounty land record is the one found on the state level. Service in the Revolutionary War and after was the general criterion for the states awarding bounty land. Sometimes the information found in these state bounty records can help replace records lost in burned courthouses or other missing records. Primarily, it is the state land states that have these records. Louisiana also gave bounty land to those who fought in the War of 1812.
Land Warrants for Military Service in the War of 1812
Here's a sampling for land records and/or information about them on the Web: