Taking The Mystery
Out of Land Records

Now in book Form

State Land States

(c) Linda Haas Davenport

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State land states are those states that retained the right to dispose of land within their borders and the land was never a part of the public domain. The other thing that distinguishes a state land state from a public domain state is the use of the metes & bounds surveying system. The legal description generated by metes & bounds uses physical features of the land (trees, creeks, rivers, roads, swamps, etc.); often citing boundaries by naming neighbors; may include references to patents, grants or earlier deeds and/or owners; uses measuring devices such as chains, degrees, rods, etc..


The first patents were issued by the Proprietors in the colonies and after the Revolutionary War were issued by the states. If a piece of property was purchased for cash there may or may not be a patent file. However, for patents that were issued for Just Cause a patent file was set up and many of these survive today. (See Patent Locations) Just cause was different from time to time and from colony to colony and later from state to state. A good history covering the time frame you are researching will usually contain information on what constituted just cause in the area.

Finding Aids:

Although the important thing in land records is an individual piece of land, because of the way metes & bounds describes the land there isn't a way to easily track the chain of ownership through use of the legal description. In state land states the way to locate the deeds for a particular piece of property is through a finding aid called a Master Deed Index. The earlier a county was in existence the more likely it is that the master deed index was compiled from the indexes found in the front of the individual deed books. Many of the later formed counties began with a master deed index book. In any event, a master deed index book is a large book (the same size as the deed books) that has two sections. One section is for the seller (grantor) and the other for the buyer (grantee). The grantor and grantee sections are further divided by the letters of the alphabet. As deeds are presented for recording the name of the seller, the deed book number (or letter) and the page number where the deed is recorded are listed on the next blank line in the alphabetical section that corresponds to the first letter of the seller's last name. The same information is recorded for the buyer.

A Word to the Wise:

The names within the alphabetical divisions are not in alphabetical order. Names are recorded in the order the deed is received at the courthouse, therefore you will need to check each line within the alphabetical division. For example if your ancestor's last name begins with an "A" you need scan each line in the "A" section (for both grantor and grantee) searching for your ancestor's name. Now after having said that - I have run across master deed indexes that were complied from the individual deed index books that are alphabetized and it is in those that I have found the most errors. If you run across one of those take yourself to the individual deed books covering the time frame you believe your ancestor was in the area and check the index in the front of the books. Along those same lines if you find one that is typed and the county was in existence before typewriters were invented or in common use do the same. Indexes compiled from individual deed book indexes can, and very often do, contain errors.

If there is more than one seller or buyer you may or many not find more than one name listed in the index or some kind of notation that more than one person is involved. I've found indexes where the clerk squeezed as many names as possible in the space available on a single line. I've found indexes where, when more than one person was involved, some kind of abbreviation to note that was added. But, more often I've found only a single name. A prime example - this deed was listed in the index as "Samuel Vanover" with no notation anyone else was involved in the sale, but look at the sellers names found in the deed - "Samuel Vanover and wife Rebecca; Elizabeth (Haas); Anderson Hinson and wife Margaret, part of the heirs of Amos Haas.". Since I had no idea who Amos' children were this deed gave me cause to rejoice!

Moving to the Deed Books:

A state land state deed for one of our ancestors usually contains a wealth of information that should send us to other records to be searched. Here's an example of a deed I have for one of my ancestors. The detail in this legal description is not unusual:

... containing by estimate thirty five acres more or less bounded as follows: Beginning on a beech the south east corner of Benjamin Bennett land purchased of James A Wilson, thence southward with the eastern boundary of John Vantreasis land purchased of Dale and the Liberty road to a stake in the center of William Dales spring branch, thence north 45 degrees east three chains and 25 links to a walnut, thence north 61 degrees east five chains to a blue ash and sugartree on Vantreasis north boundary, thence north 33 degrees west seven chains and sixty links to an ironwood, thence north 55 degrees west five chains to a beech the southeast corner of a 20 acre tract conveyed by Hendrickson to Philip Haas, thence west of north to a rock in the old dismal road, thence north with a line marked with a knife the west boundary of Ester Kemps land to a rock on the south bank of Hylton Creek then up the creek to the beginning. This being the land delivered to me as heir of John Haas by the Circuit Court of said county at the December Term 1841 and it also being lot no 3 as laid off by said commissioners appointed for that purpose said decree recorded in the Registers office of said county book B .....

This legal description contains a wealth of clues and information. First it tells us that the person named in the deed is the son and heir of a deceased man named John Haas and that the court appointed a group of men to survey and divide John's land among his heirs. John may or may not have died interstate (no will). It wasn't unusual for early wills to direct "my land to be equally divided among my heirs" in which case the court would appoint a group of disinterested men to survey and divide the land. The court and court term of the return of the division is listed and also noted as recorded in book "B." This should send us to: the will books, the circuit court records, the probate court records to check for estate sales, the assigning of guardians for minor children, etc. and to deed book B. The return of the commission will name all of John's heirs that received a part of his land.

Neighbors are named. Their deeds should be checked for a mention of John which will give or expand the time frame John owned his land. This in turn gives us a clue to locate John's deed(s). One neighbor is also named Haas. Is this a son who has already received his land? A brother? Philip's deeds should be checked to see what information they contain.

The name of the creek in this deed proved to be a vital clue for me. By finding as many deeds as possible that mentioned Hylton creek I was able to fill in a lot of blanks on my family group sheets.

The legal descriptions generated under metes & bounds surveys range from nothing more than a reference to a previous deed to an extensive listing of heirs, referencing court battles, land disputes, etc. You will have to read, re-read and analyze each legal description and use the clues found to determine what other records you need to search.

More Words to the Wise (in this case that you don't want to hear):

Now I'm going to tell you something you need to do that you probably don't want to hear. Only a tiny percentage of the names found in state land states deeds are listed in the index they are found buried in the legal description. It is the legal description where you find the majority of names - as neighbors, in division of property, claims of a dower (which are almost always listed under a husband's name if the widow has remarried), as witnesses, as a prior land owner, etc., etc.. (Remember the example I used about Lorenzo Haas/Vanover?) This means you need to scan every deed in the deed book or books that cover the time frame you believe your ancestor was in the county. I'm not telling you not to begin with the indexes because of course that's where you need to start but you really need to scan each deed. The first time you look at a the size of a deed book you're going to think "that lady is crazy" since deed books usually contain about 500 pages, but there normally aren't 500 deeds in the book. Deeds often span 2 to 4 pages and the only thing you need to look at are the names of the buyer(s) and seller(s), do a quick scan of the legal description and check the names of witnesses. It actually goes pretty quickly and you of all people will spot you surnames easily. You will probably struggle with the first few deeds since it seems to me that the majority of court clerks were chosen for their rotten handwriting, but it won't take you long until you can scan a deed in no time.

Locating Your Ancestor's Property in the Here and Now:

Locating your ancestor's property today isn't easy in state land states. The legal descriptions usually don't contain information that is easily transferred to a current road map. Each time I've located my ancestor's property I've followed the chain of ownership up to the present (my ancestor's sale - the buyer selling the land - next buyer selling, etc. etc.). Armed with the current owner's name the county property tax department gave me the address or location. Once I located my ancestor's property that gave me a small area in which to search for churches, cemeteries, old newspapers, local records, etc.

If you are saying - I Can't Find My Ancestor:

The first question you ask yourself is - Am I really in the right county? Did you check to see when the county was formed and from what counties?

The next question you ask yourself is did the courthouse burn or are some of the land records missing or destroyed? Is your time frame before the loss? If so your ancestor may have come and gone before the loss. But even so he may be referenced in re-recorded or later deeds. Check each deed in the first few existing deed books.

If you are sure you are in the right county and the land records are intact - Did you really check each deed? Did you look for all possible spellings of the name? If you can answer yes to these questions then your ancestor probably didn't own land or he really wasn't in the area when you thought he was. Before you abandon your research in the county check other county records to see if you can find mention of him. If so, go back to the deed books and re-search those before and after the time frame found in the other records. Bear in mind that the land he owned may have come to him through a wife and he may be mentioned in the deeds where his wife inherited the land. Or, the wife had already petitioned the court for her 1/3 and was living on the land at the time of the marriage. I know of an instance where a man married a woman, lived on her dower property and then died before the land was sold so his name never appeared on a deed, but did appear in the deed of a child. A man may have lived with a family member on their property and moved away before the land was sold with the sale being long after he the left the area. For example one of my great-grandfathers signed away his rights to his father's land almost 20 years after leaving the area. Always pay special attention to any deed that contains the surname you are researching, even if you think your ancestor was long gone by the time the deed was recorded.

Moving On:

That about covers state land states, let's go look at public domain states.

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