Taking The Mystery
Out of Land Records

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The Same Yet So Different

(c) Linda Haas Davenport

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There are some things that are essentially the same in both state land states and public domain states. These things are the same because U.S. land laws dictate standards no matter whether the land is in a state land state or a public domain state and no matter the local differences in how things are done.

The things that are the same are: Someone has land to sell, someone wants to buy it; the person selling the land must have the right to sell it; the property is surveyed; a deed containing the information required by law is drawn up, signed and witnessed; money (or an equivalent) changes hands and the deed is recorded at the local courthouse in the county where the property is located.

The things that are different are; state land states use the metes & bounds surveying system and public domain states use the public domain surveying system resulting in very different legal descriptions; different steps to acquiring land; the records generated in acquiring a patent are very different and in most instances the finding aids (the way to locate an individual deed in the deed books) are different.


A patent is sometimes referred to as a first title deed because a patent is a document issued by a foreign power, a state government or the federal government transferring ownership of a piece of property, not previously owned by an individual, to an individual.

Patents were issued when someone paid cash money for the property or when the requirements, under certain acts or laws, were fulfilled. For example in the colonies patents were issued to people who had served their required term of indenture or sponsored a new immigrant. Both the colonies and the federal government issued military warrants that could be exchanged for patents. Patents were issued under the homestead act - and the list goes on and on.

But, no matter why a patent was issued or whether it was issued by a proprietor, a state or the federal government a patent file was set up. All of the patent files (called Land Entry Case Files) generated under the disposal of public domain land exist, including the claims that were rejected. Many of the patent files for the colonies and state land states still exist. These patent files contain the documents supporting the issuance of a patent and can be an absolute gold mine of family information, if the patent was issued for anything except a cash sale and even those shouldn't be ignored. I've included a list, by state, of where you can find patent files - see Where to Locate Patents.

The Bulk of Land Records:

The bulk of land records is made up of deeds and deed books. Deeds are pretty standard. In general a deed transferring ownership of land (warranty deed) contains: the date of the deed, names of the seller(s), buyer(s), a legal description of the property, the amount of money (or equivalent or reason) changing hands, the signature of the seller(s), the date the seller signed the deed and the signatures of witnesses. Unless the deed is a patent, a title search of the chain of ownership is usually made to ensure the person selling the land has an undisputed right to sell it and this right is normally stated within the body of the deed. There are other types of deeds - security (trust) deeds for loans, mortgages, bonds, etc; quit claim deeds to quite (or clear) a clouded title; deeds recording land being taken back by a county or state of unpaid taxes, etc.. The farther back in time we go the more apt we are to find other things recorded in deed books. For example, during the time of slavery the transfer of ownership of slaves was recorded in deed books. But, whatever the kind of deed, by and large, they contain much of the same information as a warranty deed.

Deeds must be on file in the courthouse of the county (or equivalent) where the property is located. Unless a courthouse has burned, or otherwise destroyed, all of the deed books from the beginning of the county through the present are found in the courthouse in one form or another. Original deed books still line the record room walls of many courthouses, others have transferred their deed books to microfilm and some are now scanning current deeds and saving them on CDs. Deeds are public records open to anyone who wishes to look at them.

Deed books are numbered or are identified by a letter of the alphabet, although you will occasionally run across a different identifying system. Book number 1 or A is the oldest.

A Word to the Wise:

If you run across a court house that was destroyed at one time or another don't assume land records begin after the loss of the original deed books. Having a deed on file at the local courthouse is a major part of proof of legal ownership and court clerks worked hard to reconstruct their land records. After a fire or natural disaster people brought their deeds to the courthouse to be re-recorded. For a county where the courthouse was destroyed or deed books were lost the first deed book found in the courthouse usually contains the re-recorded deeds.

Since deeds are recorded in the order they are presented at the courthouse a single deed book can contain deeds from all over the county covering a wide time span. When a new county is formed from an existing county or counties there is no way to transfer a deed book covering just the property being given to a new county. However, I have run across counties where the court clerk copied all deeds pertaining to the land now in the new county and those deeds were found in the first deed book of the new county.

A Closer Look at Deeds:

Deeds were (and still are) important legal documents and people didn't draw up their own deed except in the most unusual of circumstances. A local justice of the peace, an attorney, a judge or the county court clerk could all draw deeds. The seller, his wife if married, and the witnesses all had to be present when a deed was drawn and often the buyer was also present to be sure the deed accurately described the property he was purchasing.

Prior to the early 1900s a married woman had the right to 1/3 of her husband's property (of course she couldn't actually own her 1/3 as long as her husband was alive, but be that as it may, it was still legally hers). This right was called a Dower. If a man was married he could not legally sell his land unless his wife agreed to the sale. A wife's name may or may not appear in the body of the deed, but the person drawing the deed was required to privately question the wife to ensure she was agreeing to the sale of her own free will. This examination resulted in a section at the bottom of the deed certifying that [name of wife] did indeed agree to the sale and the date the examination was made. This small section found on deeds may be the only reference we ever find to an otherwise unknown female. This section also allows us to pinpoint in time when a woman was the wife and often helps us determine which children belong to which wife. However, although this was the law I have run across deeds in counties were this examination was not recorded in the deed books. If the information is not on the deed there is often a reference to an court name and term and the examination may be found in the court records.

It was the responsibility of the buyer to have the deed recorded and pay the recording fee. The deed was handed over to the court clerk for recording and the court clerk copied the deed on the next blank page or on the next blank section in the current deed book, entered the names, book and page number in the finding aid, listed the book and page number on the original deed and returned it to the buyer. It isn't unusual to find a deed recorded many years after the purchase date in the deed. Normally when you find this you will find the following deed (or one close) where the land is being sold.

The deeds we see in the deed books are all copies of the original deed, including the signatures of the people involved. If a court clerk was at all conscientious the information was faithfully copied (although we all know that errors are apt to creep in when anything is copied). Watch for differences in spelling between the name in the body of the deed and the signatures. Bearing in mind that the deed was drawn up by a third party, this third party spelled the names as they were pronounced and then the people involved would sign their name with the spelling they used. For example one of my ancestor's name was spelled HAAS but was pronounced as HASS. And, another family name is AMBROSE but was locally pronounced as AMBERS. In the body of documents made by a third party the spelling of HASS and AMBERS is often found while the signatures of the individuals spelled the names as HAAS and AMBROSE. These differences give you a spelling that should always be checked in local records and federal census records.

Don't ignore the witnesses. Many "tips" about land records say that witnesses are family members, usually of the wife's family because they are protecting her dower interest. I've not found this to be especially true. What I have found is that yes the witnesses may be family but just as (or more) often they are neighbors or family friends. They may also be the county court clerk or an attorney. The real value of the names of witnesses is you often find them, along with your ancestor, in a new location. This is helpful if your ancestor has a common name and one (or more) of the witnesses have an uncommon name making them easier to located in census records.

A Word to the Wise:

When you find a deed for your ancestor or one that contains your ancestor's name always make a copy. To hand transcribe a deed while at the courthouse or even from microfilm is a time consuming process and given the handwriting of many court clerks you can (and usually will) make mistakes. In state land states you can miss important clues found in complicated and long legal descriptions. You will find yourself going back to the copy off and on as you discover new information.

Knowing Where to Go Looking:

Before we move on - we are (or should be) aware that county, and sometimes state, boundaries changed over time. The county of today may well not be the county of yesterday. To successfully find your ancestor in land records you have to know where to go looking. Unlike most documents which could be recorded at the closest county courthouse, deeds must be recorded in the county courthouse of the county where the property is located. Meaning that you have to be in the right county during the right time frame to located land records for your ancestor.

You should have a location and a time frame, either from your home sources or from the federal census records and those are your starting points. To determine the courthouse for the county during the time frame you will be researching you need to know if and when the county split. Ancestry publishes the Red Book and Everton publishes the Handy Book for Genealogists. One or the other of these books will usually be found at your local genealogy library and your local LDS Family History Centers. Either will tell you when a county was formed and what county(ies) it was formed from and the inclusive dates of the deeds on file at the courthouse. Bill Dollarhide has a book called Map Guide to the Federal Census that is an excellent resource for locating the counties that existed when a census was taken. SEGenalogy.com has a section of their website that has a county map for each census year.

An Additional Word to the Wise:

You will rarely find land records on the web other than the patents and related documents on the Bureau of Land Management site and those all pertain to public domain land. Ancestry.com has some land records on-line but most of them are the same ones found on the BLM's site. The LDS has microfilmed the deed books and finding aids for most U.S. counties and you can order the microfilm through your local LDS Family History Center. Even if you can or plan on visiting the local courthouse you will save a lot of time by using the microfilm before hand.

Moving On:

From here on out this tutorial is divided into two parts - one covering state land states and one covering public domain states. Read all the way through since information for one type of state may well help you in the other. When you're ready to begin researching in a particular state check (Which States Are What) to determine if your state of interest is a state land state or a public domain state and carefully re-read the appropriate section.

 Now, let's move on and take a look at state land states.

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