How to Research Land Records for Genealogy Clues

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan discusses a genealogy resource that will help family historians trace their family tree: land records.

Prior to the Civil War, more than 85% of American males owned property! This astonishing statistic shows the importance of using and understanding land records when researching our ancestors. Many genealogists are unaware of the value of these historical documents and the family relationship information that can be gathered from them. Some genealogists are intimidated by these old property records. However, it has been said that land records are the bread and butter of American genealogy research, particularly in the Southern states.

During the Civil War, records were destroyed across many areas in the South—some accidentally by fire, others deliberately by Union troops. Southerners had begun classifying slaves as property similar to land. This was a political move to prevent the North from encroaching on their property rights. When Northern troops attacked Southern towns and cities, they often targeted courthouses to destroy documents recording property—and therefore records of slave ownership.

After the war, Southerners were anxious to protect their property rights and quickly re-filed their land claims. Sometimes these reconstructed land deeds list previous owners and their relationships, providing valuable family history information and clues.

Brief History about Deeds

A deed is a document showing the transfer of land from one private entity (person, company, trust, organization, etc.) to another. These documents record the seller, buyer, and property details. They are usually indexed in two ways: under the name of the grantor (seller), and under the name of the grantee (buyer). The index will list the book and page number to search for the actual recording of the deed.

photo of Aroostook County, Maine, deed books 1865-1900

“Maine, Aroostook County Deed Books, 1865-1900,” accessed Aug. 2014, Northern Registry > Deed books, 1868-1879, vol. 7 (p. 1-300) > image 6 of 303; citing Register of Deeds, Houlton. Source: FamilySearch.

See: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-21740-26870-86?cc=1447693&wc=M6KC-X29:38808601,38833501

This deed is between an engaged couple. It goes on to give conditions and qualifications, including a nullification of the deed in the event that the marriage does not take place. Some of the information that we gather from these two paragraphs:

  • Anna Perkins Pingree of Salem, MA
  • Thomas P. Pingree of Wenham, MA
  • Joseph Peabody of Salem, MA
  • Joseph and Anna plan to marry
  • Anna owns an estate of which Thomas is the trustee
  • She received the estate from her father David Pingree, deceased, of Salem, MA
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When a married man sold land, his wife was often asked to give a dower release. This meant that after the seller died, his widow could not claim rights to a portion of the land he had previously sold. The dower release will usually list her name.

photo of Cattaraugus County, New York, land records, 1841-1845

“New York, Land Records, 1630-1975,” accessed Aug. 2014, Cattaraugus > Deeds 1841-1845, vol. 13-14 > image 122 of 1144; citing County Clerk. County Courthouse. Source: FamilySearch.

See: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-32808-9067-66?cc=2078654&wc=M7C7-2ZZ:358137101,359440401

In this dower release we learn about the following individuals:

  • Ferdinand Suydam’s wife, who was named Eliza
  • James Boyd Jr’s wife, who was named Maria Ann

Genealogy Clues in Deeds

These land documents can help to distinguish between two individuals with similar names. They can provide the name of the wife. Sometimes they explicitly state other familial relationships such as receiving land from a father, mother, brother, uncle, grandfather, etc. I have even seen deeds which include the last will and testament of an individual. Plotting out the residences of all those with the same last name in an area can help to clarify family groupings. For example if there are two John Smiths in an area, and one owns land near or purchases several plots of land from Robert Smith and the other one is doing the same thing with Simeon Smith, you can build a case for which father belongs to which John Smith.

As you can see, these documents are an important part of a well-researched family history project. Unfortunately, there are some challenges. These documents can be hard to read as the hand writing is not always clear. There is a lot of legal terminology that you will want to become familiar with. Also, not very many of these documents are available online at this point. Fortunately, the sale of land was also recorded in newspapers, which in many cases are available online.

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Legal notices in newspapers about land transactions began very early. For example, here is one from 1716, 60 years before the USA became a country.

article about an estate sale for Jonathan Springer, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 2 April 1716

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 2 April 1716, page 2

Genealogy Tip: When reading old newspapers, keep in mind that the letter “s” often appears as an “f.”

This article lists several individuals:

  • Doctor Jackson in Marblehead
  • Jonathan Springer, deceased, of Glocester (sic)
  • John Newman, Esquire, of Glocester (sic)
  • John Maule of Salem

All of this information is helpful for the genealogical researcher.

Some land records will list even more information. Here is an example of an 1857 land sale notice that mentions the grandchildren of an individual.

article about an estate sale for Samuel Randall, Barre Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1857

Barre Gazette (Barre, Massachusetts), 13 February 1857, page 3

This land sale mentions the following individuals:

  • Mary E. Marsh, minor child, daughter of Hiram Marsh, granddaughter of Samuel Randall
  • Ellen Marsh, minor child, daughter of Hiram Marsh, granddaughter of Samuel Randall
  • Hiram Marsh, minor child, son of Hiram Marsh, grandson of Samuel Randall
  • Hiram Marsh, probable son-in-law of Samuel Randall
  • Samuel Randall, original land purchaser
  • Artemas Bryant, guardian of minor children
  • P.W. Barr, owner of auction house in Petersham
  • Deacon Bassett, neighbor of Marsh children

Have you used land records in your family history research? What success have you had tracing your family tree with property records?

Related Articles about Property Records for Genealogy:

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Genealogy Checklist: 13 Types of Records to Include in Your Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides a handy tool to help with your family history research: a checklist of 13 types of genealogy records that you can use for each ancestor you search for, to make sure your research is thorough.

After conducting online searches through your favorite genealogy websites, you may feel like you’ve hit a brick wall. This is understandable—it’s easy to become overwhelmed with multiple databases and lose sight of what sources might help you answer your research question.

Before you decide you’re facing that brick wall, consult this checklist of frequently-used family history sources. A checklist of sources can help you plan out your research and keep track of where you have searched. Print this out for each individual you search for, and refer to it as you research your family history.

illustration of a magnifying glass

Illustration: magnifying glass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

1) Census Records

One of the first places we often look for our family is in the U.S. Federal Census. The census should be your go-to source for trying to place your ancestor in time. The census was taken every 10 years starting in 1790. (However, the 1890 census was largely destroyed.) Because of privacy concerns, the latest census you can access is 1940.

As you think about your ancestor in the census, don’t forget that other census schedules exist aside from the familiar population schedules. Depending on the year, you may also want to consult the Mortality, Agriculture, Slave, Veterans and Defective, Dependent and Delinquent schedules.

Also take a note if the state your ancestor lived in conducted a state or territorial census. Not every state participated in such a census and in some cases a state may have only conducted one when it was still a territory, but a state census can often yield additional information not compiled in the federal census.

2) Church or Synagogue Records

What religion was your ancestor? This is important, especially considering that in some cases a religious record might take the place of a civil registration. What records should you look for? The answer is: it depends. It depends on where your ancestor lived, what religion they practiced, and what still exists.

Records that might exist include those that document baptisms, christenings, marriages, and deaths. Other religious records include: cemetery records, school records, censuses, meeting notes, membership lists, pew deeds, adoption records, excommunications, church periodical articles, directories, and church auxiliary records. Exhaust religious databases found online like the selection found at JewishGen. To find church records, consult the individual meeting house and then archives associated with that religious community, including academic institutions and seminaries. Also, consider conducting a place search in the Family History Library Catalog.

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3) Court Records

Even if you think your ancestor would have no interaction with the local court, don’t overlook searching at least the civil case index for their name. Our ancestors were involved in all sorts of legal matters, and it’s a myth to believe that only our modern society is “sue happy.” Some items to look for include minutes, orders/decrees, judgments, case files, indexes, criminal proceedings, naturalizations, and divorce petitions. Learn more about what court records exist by reading the book The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood. Note that you can also find court case files and courtroom transcripts in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives.

4) Death Records

Death results in a lot of paperwork. Sure, there’s the death certificate—but that’s just the beginning. There can be paperwork from the hospital, funeral home and cemetery. What other paperwork can be found? Death certificates, newspapers (including articles, legal notices, funeral notices, death notices and obituaries), funeral home records, pension records, church records, cemetery records, court records (to include a will or probate or in the case of an accident there might be a lawsuit), Coroner’s Inquest, city directories, and the Social Security Death Index. Notices from membership directories and publications may also offer clues.

5) Home Sources

Every genealogy project should begin with home sources. These are the heirlooms and “stuff” inherited and passed down through the generations. Sometimes just talking about your interest in genealogy will alert family members that you would be a grateful recipient of items that they have inherited. What are some possible home sources? Correspondence, newspaper clippings, photos, scrapbooks, diaries and journals, family Bibles, naturalization paperwork, funeral home cards, and work- and school-related papers. As you try to find home sources, don’t forget to use social media to connect with long-lost cousins who have also inherited heirlooms.

6) Land Records

Did your ancestor own land or a home? You’ll want to search for a grantee/grantor index, deeds, mortgages, patents and grants. These records can be found anywhere from the Family History Library, a local courthouse or a county recorder’s office, to the National Archives. Make sure to plan out what you are looking for and search online for what entity has that record.

7) Major Life Events

Let’s face it, a birth or marriage can result in all kinds of documentation. Everything from home sources (think baby books and photo albums filled with greeting cards and descriptions of the big day), to official government records (vital record certificates) and church records. Don’t forget newspaper articles about the actual event (birth or marriage) as well as articles about the engagement, elopement or milestone anniversaries. Marriage records that could exist include: banns, bonds, licenses/applications, and certificates.

8) Military Service Records

Did your ancestor serve in the military? If they were a soldier at any point, think about searching for military service records, pensions, bounty land grants, awards, draft registrations, unit histories, battle histories and maps. Been told that all of your ancestor’s military records burned? Make sure to check for a Final Pay Voucher and ask your recent vets about the DD214 which lists information about their service including awards earned.

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9) Historical Newspapers

Many of the life events we have mentioned were reported in newspaper articles. But don’t forget that your ancestor could be mentioned in all parts of the newspaper, including legal notices, advertisements, society pages, crime reports, and other general articles. Not sure what types of articles exist? On the GenealogyBank Blog we focus on a variety of newspaper articles and how they can assist your genealogical research.

10) Occupational Records

Even if your ancestor was “just a farmer,” an occupation can leave behind a paper trail. Consider items like paycheck stubs, occupational periodicals, union records, membership cards and records to professional groups. Mentions of occupations can also be found in the city directory.

11) Published Sources

There are many different types of published sources that can assist you throughout your family history research. In some cases, like that of unsourced family history books, they may be just a place to gather initial clues. In other cases, however, they can provide you with definitive information to confirm your ancestor’s place in time, such as city directories.

Make sure to consult biographical works on your ancestor or their associates, county and local histories, and periodical indexes like PERSI, Google Scholar and JSTOR.

12) School Days

What schools did your ancestor attend? Even if they only attended for a few years, records may be available. Consider what may be available from attending an Elementary, Secondary, High, or Vocational/Trade school, as well as a College or University. Papers may in some cases be found in the home, but also could be found in an archive or the Family History Library. Look for yearbooks and alumni directories, school newspapers, articles about school awards and events in local newspapers, award certificates, report cards, and school census records.

13) Tax Records

We all know the saying “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” and that is as true for us now as it was for our ancestors. Why search tax records? They can not only establish a place in time for your ancestors, but they help you better understand their lives.

Some ideas about tax records that could exist are: poll, personal property, real estate, income, federal, inheritance, and school taxes. Don’t forget that the newspaper also printed lists of those who were negligent in paying their taxes.

Is the above list of 13 genealogical sources totally comprehensive? No, of course not, but it provides a handy reference for your family history research. As you plan your genealogy searches, also consider what libraries, archives, and museums exist where your ancestor lived. They may have catalogs that will provide you with additional sources that you may not have known existed.

You can either print or create a PDF version of this Blog post by simply clicking on the green “Print/PDF” button below. The PDF version makes it easy to save this post on your desktop or portable device for quick reference—all the links will be live.

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