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 Many genealogists are unaware of the value of these historical documents and the family relationship information that can be gathered from them.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

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Fun Family Folklore: Are These Superstitions Fact or Myth?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott decides to add some of his family’s superstitions to his family tree to make it more complete—and searches old newspapers to find more information about those superstitions.

I would not be surprised if every family that ever lived had one superstition or another that was “believed in.” Maybe not 100%, but at least to the point that the superstition cropped up each time the subject was broached. For instance, when my wife was well overdue with our first child, she was told: “Eat Chinese takeout food and your labor will start.” I also well remember my grandmother’s constant admonition to “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” and her commandment “Sing at the dinner table and you’ll marry a drunkard.”

My family folklore included many superstitions and my wife’s family added a few more that I was not familiar with, so I thought to make my family tree even more interesting and complete, I’d look into a couple of the superstitions that were amongst the strongest in our families. So off I went to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could discover and add to our family tree.

Fact or Myth? Snakes Don’t Die until Sundown

First up was a superstition that still haunts me to this day. It is that a snake does not die until sundown. Actually, the way it was related to me by my father was this: “The only way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and then leave it be, since it will not die until sundown.” Well, let me tell you, that was more than enough to instill a fear of snakes that exists in me to this very day, which you can see in this photo.

photo of Scott Phillips holding a large snake in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Photo: Scott Phillips and his uncomfortable “close encounter” with a large snake in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: from the author’s collection.

My father’s “wisdom” about snakes was imparted to me frequently back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I found this 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper article that addressed my dad’s snake superstition.

Killing Lies about Snakes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 November 1906

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 November 1906, page 13

In this old newspaper article a zoologist debunks many of the myths regarding snakes, and there in the list at #12 is this: “It isn’t true that when snakes are killed their tails do not die until the sun goes down or until it thunders.” Good grief! If I had ever heard that “thunder” part I might still be in my old backyard waiting!

Open the Doors & Windows before Midnight on New Year’s Eve

I then recalled the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated when I was dating my future wife. Just before the stroke of midnight she began going around my parents’ home opening the windows and doors—during a Minnesota winter! As we all stood there shivering, watching our breath indoors, she explained her superstition that in order to have a good New Year, you needed to let the old air, spirits, year, etc., out and the new year in.

I married her anyway and then, 38 years later, I found this 1954 Washington newspaper article that gives instructions for doing exactly this. It was interesting for me to learn that my Italian wife had evidently picked up a Danish superstition, which we still follow.

notice about midnight superstitions, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 19 December 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 19 December 1954, page 95

No Hats on the Bed or Chair!

Next up, I took on another one of my wife’s oft-cited superstitions from her Italian family. I can still hear my wife’s grandparents saying “Don’t ever put your hat on a bed or a chair!” While there were some strong rules in my home about never, ever wearing a hat in the house, I was not aware of anything like this Italian hat superstition that it is bad luck to lay your hat on a bed or chair. Then I found this 1938 Nebraska newspaper article, in which the columnist not only discusses this mysterious hat superstition—he also explains how he and his family still don’t abide seeing any hats on a bed.

notice about superstitions, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 22 May 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 May 1938, page 39

Bury a Statue of Saint Joseph to Sell Your Home

Then I laughed out loud at myself as I came across an article in a 1991 Alabama newspaper. It verified that I am as “guilty” of following superstitions as anyone else!

notice about a superstition involving real estate and St. Joseph, Mobile Register newspaper article 7 April 1991

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 7 April 1991, page 18

You see, just as this newspaper article explains, my wife and I have always buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard every time we were in the process of selling a home. I’ll just add here that with my wife being an architect/designer, this burial ritual happened fairly often! It did my heart good to see that this tradition started, according to this article, “hundreds of years ago in Europe.” I take issue with the company selling these St. Joseph statue kits, though! While they do get the part right about burying him on his head and facing the street, he must be buried in a piece of linen from your house!

After reading the “error” in this newspaper’s account of a superstition that I personally follow, I became all the more resolved to add our folklore and superstitions to my family tree. Someone has to be sure everyone gets it “right” in the future!

What kinds of superstitions have been handed down in your family? Post a comment and let me know about your traditions and rituals rooted in superstition. I’d love to learn more about your family’s folklore!