February 13, 2003
Ask most genealogists about land records and they'll tell you that they are full of dry, dull legal descriptions and that they are only helpful in establishing that an ancestor bought or sold land. I will be the first to admit that the land records are one of the less glamorous records that we use, but they are far from useless.
Buying and Selling Land
When our ancestor purchases land, he is referred to as the grantee or the patentee. If he is selling land, then he is referred to as the grantor. Finding these records sometimes depends on how and from whom he is acquiring the land.
For land bought from the federal government, the first place to look for information about the land is the Bureau of Land Management. Their searchable database of land patents issued from 1820 to 1908 is a great resource, and the fact that is available online makes it all the easier to search. This index is to public domain land that the government owned. As such, there are certain states that you will not find entries for, including the original thirteen colonies.
Most of the time, you will find yourself spending time with the deed books in a county courthouse. These books are where the deeds were recorded, usually by the county clerk. Because they were recorded by the county clerk you will not find original signatures for your ancestor or his wife, but you will find the complete deed and the names of everyone involved.
Finding the deeds that pertain to your ancestor usually means turning to the grantor and/or grantee indexes. These indexes must be used thoroughly to ensure that you have accounted for all of the land.
All Present and Accounted For
Because the genealogical value of land records is often underestimated, researchers often don't spend as much time with the records as they should. They quickly scan the available indexes and perhaps they actually look at each land record, but they seldom spend much time evaluating what they find in the deeds.
Occasionally, a deed record will mention specific relationships between the people listed in the deed, but I find that the strength of the deeds is in knowing that I have accounted for each transaction made by my ancestor. It is kind of like creating a land balance sheet of sorts. If I can account for all the acres, and have an equal number of acres being sold as were being bought, then I know there are no surprises. To do this means I must not only read the deed but also make some notations about the deed and keep a running tally of acres bought and sold.
A colleague used land records in an effort to identify thirteen daughters. She was researching an ancestor and had been unable to account for all the acres that were purchased. This clued her in to do some further research and she discovered one of the ancestor's daughters and where she was living. This was a number of years after the death of the original ancestor who purchased the land. Had she not been adding up the total number of acres both bought and sold, she might not have continued her search for additional land records some twenty years after the death of the person who bought the land. As a result she wouldn't have discovered the records she needed to identify and establish the location of the last daughter.
Each deed, whether written in rectangular survey, lots, or metes and bounds will tell you how much land was purchased or sold. You can keep this tally easily enough. Take a piece of paper and divide it down the middle. On the left record acres that are being purchased by your ancestor. On the right list the acres being sold by that same ancestor. Keep a running total. If they do not equal each other then you know you are missing a record.
Clues in the Index
An ancestor of mine, Benjamin Standerfer, had a 1/6 undivided interest in a piece of property that he sold. When I was just beginning my research I didn't understand the gold mine that this land record gave me. As I became more experienced, I realized that the deed was letting me know that there were 5/6s of that property that I had not yet accounted for and should see who owned it.
I returned to the index for Standerfers and began to look at the names of those who the Standerfers were selling the land to, looking for the same man who purchased the land from my Benjamin. This netted me three more deeds to the same property. I read the deeds and was able to verify that it was the same person purchasing all of the pieces, which made sense since the property was undivided. Next, I looked at the grantee index to see if I could pick up the other two pieces based on the name of the individual, a Jacob Seass, who was buying the property. It did show me one more piece, from a female who was married, and therefore no longer a Standerfer. But I was still stuck with 1/6 unaccounted for.
A return to grantor index seemed in order so back to the Standerfers in the grantor index I went. This time, though, I looked at the land description seeing if I could find another 1/6 undivided parcel. Sure enough I did find one that I had not noticed before, primarily because it was being sold to a different person. I got a copy of that deed and then turned once more to the indexes again going to the grantee index to see if Jacob Seass had purchased anything from the person who bought the last parcel of land. It turned out that he did but that the land description had not been as detailed. I missed this in my original look at the index because this person wasn't a Standerfer.
The indexes, when used in a variety of ways showed me all six deeds and the other five deeds mentioned the father from whom the six children had inherited their 1/6 interest. Why hadn't Benjamin's deed had the same information? It appeared that the book in which his deed was found was a reconstructed book. The volume just before and just after the one with Benjamin's deed were all hand written, whereas his deed was a typewritten form. This led me to believe that it was damaged in some way and had to be reconstructed. During the reconstruction, valuable information either wasn't included or wasn't known so I wasn't able to find the name of Benjamin's father until I spent a little extra time digging in the indexes and the deeds.
Land records may be full of legalese, but they may also be the clue to the rest of the story. For years I had ignored the screaming clue about the land Benjamin was selling. When I stopped to think about it, though, I not only found the other land records but also the reason that those six individuals had the land in the first place. This helped me establish relationships between the children and their father.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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