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 Many genealogists are unaware of the value of these historical documents and the family relationship information that can be gathered from them.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
Enter Last Name










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.

Enter Last Name










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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Remembering Daniel Boone, Dr. Seuss & Paul Newman with Newspapers

During this September week in American history three famous octogenarians died who had a big impact on America:

  • Daniel Boone, American explorer, died at 85 on 26 September 1820
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”), American children’s book author, died at 87 on 24 September 1991
  • Paul Newman, American actor, died at 83 on 26 September 2008

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

Daniel Boone, who died 26 September 1820, is one of the most famous figures in American history, a legendary frontiersman, hunter and explorer credited with opening up the area now known as Kentucky to white settlers. In his long, adventurous life, Boone was an officer in the American Revolutionary War; a captive of the Shawnees, who later adopted him into their tribe; and a successful politician, serving three terms in the Virginia General Assembly. When he died in Missouri in 1820, all of America mourned.

The St. Louis Enquirer published Boone’s obituary four days after he died. Today Daniel Boone is regarded as the quintessential American folk hero, and in this contemporary obituary we can see that he was held in high regard during his own time. When the Missouri General Assembly learned of Boone’s passing they sadly adjourned for the day, pledging to wear black armbands for 20 days as a sign of respect and mourning.

obituary for Daniel Boone, St. Louis Enquirer newspaper article 30 September 1820

St. Louis Enquirer (St. Louis, Missouri), 30 September 1820, page 3

The obituary erroneously states that Boone was 90 when he died (he was 85). It reports that up until two years before his death, Boone “was capable of great bodily activity,” and notes that “Since then the approach of death was visible, and he viewed it with the indifference of a Roman philosopher.”

Here is a profile of Daniel Boone published in 1910, burnishing his legacy and legend, calling him a “courier of civilization.”

Daniel Boone: Pathfinder, Mighty Hunter and Courier of Civilization, Oregonian newspaper article 17 April 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 17 April 1910, section 6, page 2

The old newspaper article states: “He found more profit in the woods than in tilling the soil, and for months at a time he was away hunting beaver, otter, bear, deer, wolves and wildcats. Garbed in hunting shirt of deerskin, with leggings and moccasins of the same material, and with powder horn, bullet pouch, scalping knife and tomahawk, the world afforded him plenty. The bare ground or the bushes furnished him a bed, and the sky was his canopy. His skill with a gun or in throwing a tomahawk was marvelous. Of Indian fighting he had enough to satisfy.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”) (1904-1991)

Best known as the author and illustrator of beloved children’s books, Theodor Seuss Geisel was also a novelist, poet and cartoonist. His vivid imagination, crazy rhymes, and colorful illustrations graced 46 children’s books, creating such enduring characters as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Horton” the elephant. Generations of American children grew up learning to read from such classics as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Horton Hears a Who!

In this obituary, published two days after Geisel’s death on 24 September 1991, we learn how the wild animals that peopled his imagination and stories came from his childhood experiences in the zoo.

'Seuss' Author Dies in Sleep, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 26 September 1991

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 September 1991, page 1

Dr. Seuss’s obituary states:

“The world of Geisel’s imagination was nourished by his childhood visits to the zoo in Springfield, Mass. He was born in Springfield on March 4, 1904, the son of Theodor R. Geisel, the superintendent of parks, and Henrietta Seuss Geisel.

“Superintendent Geisel, the son of an émigré German cavalry officer who founded a brewery in Springfield, expanded the zoo and liked to show it off to his son.

“‘I used to hang around there a lot,’ Geisel recalled in an interview. ‘They’d let me in the cage with the small lions and the small tigers, and I got chewed up every once in a while.’”

Geisel did very little merchandising of his popular characters during his lifetime—but that all changed after he died, as reported in this 1997 newspaper article.

'Cat in the Hat' Joins Commercial Scene, Register Star newspaper article 7 February 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 7 February 1997, page 18

The newspaper article quotes Herbert Cheyette, Geisel’s longtime agent:

“Ted had been very reluctant to do it [merchandizing his characters],” he says. “His primary reaction was, ‘Why should I spend my time correcting the work of other people when I could do my own work creating new books?’ He said to me more than once, ‘You can do this after I’m dead.’

“In fact, Geisel’s death at 87 made merchandizing his characters a copyright necessity rather than a luxury; a case of use it or lose it, Cheyette says.”

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Paul Newman was an Academy Award-winning American actor who appeared in more than 60 movies during his long career. Gifted, handsome, famous and wealthy, Newman shunned the Hollywood lifestyle and preferred his home life with his wife Joanne Woodward, to whom he was married 50 years—right up to his death. Newman also was a great philanthropist, co-founding a food company called “Newman’s Own” that donated more than $330 million to charity during his lifetime.

Paul Newman died on 26 September 2008; the following obituary was published the very next day.

obituary for Paul Newman, Sun newspaper article 27 September 2008

Sun (Lowell, Massachusetts), 27 September 2008

Newman’s obituary states:

“Newman, who shunned Hollywood life, was reluctant to give interviews and usually refused to sign autographs because he found the majesty of the act offensive, according to one friend.

“He also claimed that he never read reviews of his movies.

“‘If they’re good you get a fat head and if they’re bad you’re depressed for three weeks,’ he said.

“Off the screen, Newman had a taste for beer and was known for his practical jokes. He once had a Porsche installed in [Robert] Redford’s hallway—crushed and covered with ribbons.”

The following 1998 newspaper article reports on one of Newman’s charitable endeavors: he published a cookbook featuring favorite recipes from his famous actor friends.

What's on the Menu When Hollywood's Elite Meet to Eat, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 8 November 1998

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 8 November 1998, page 52

The news article reports:

“But it’s not all about dropping names. Newman introduces several recipes by recounting fond memories of meals enjoyed. He also tells about his life as the only man in his house along with his actress wife, Joanne Woodward, and five daughters, and waxes poetic about his ‘relationship’ with food.”

Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover!