Taking The Mystery
Out of Land Records

Now in book Form


(c) Linda Haas Davenport

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I love to research in land records. Over the years land records have allowed me to - fill in gaps on my Family Group Sheets, find a name for my mystery females, figure out which female is the mother of which child and determine when and where a person was born or died. They have led me to copies of letters of consent written by my ancestor and signed by both the father and mother of an underage bride. They have led me to wills, marriage records, court documents, graves and given me a glimpse into the everyday life of my ancestor. I have a snapshot in time of my ancestor's home, farm and life from Homestead records. Not only have I found records of an ancestor's military service I have his physical description and a sample of his handwriting. I have testimonies of friends, family and neighbors that tells me what kind of man or woman my ancestor was. I would never had known that my great-grandfather owned a racing surry and a matched team of bay mares without land records. I have walked on my ancestor's property, I have strolled through old towns where my ancestors walked, I have found old graveyards located in fields behind houses. I have been led to all kinds of court records, I have read about my ancestor in the local newspaper of the day and I have been able to track the moves of my ancestors on maps which in turn gave me places to research in that I would never have found otherwise. I have never come away from land records empty handed.


Before I close this tutorial and let you get on with your research I want to remind you of a few things to keep in mind as you enter the exciting world of land records:

First and foremost - be sure you are in the right county at the right time. Many a family historian has become frustrated with using land records simply because they were in wrong county. Consult either The Red Book or the Handy Book for Genealogists for the date of a county's formation and its parent county(s).

Land records are the single largest body of extant records after the Federal Census and no family historian should ignore them if they wish to fill in the 10 year gaps of the Federal Censuses.

Land was the reason that most men came to the colonies. As the colonies became crowded men spread out along the eastern seaboard and when gateways to the west were found people moved west. Most moves were 10-20 miles from a prior home, unless the move was after a war or to newly opened land. Prior to railroads there were only a few major migration routes and the majority of our ancestors followed those roads. Since most families didn't move long distances in one move you should check all the county records between the old places and the new places you find your ancestor. William Dollarhide has an excellent book out about old roads and migration patterns that will give you the counties you should check. Dr. George K Schweitzer publishes small inexpensive books about genealogy research in a given state and most of his books cover the migration routes for the state along with information on how the state and counties were settled (books can be ordered direct from Dr. Schweitzer - and as a side note if you ever get a chance to hear him speak don't miss it). For every move our ancestor made there is the possibility of information in the land records.

Deeds are one of the very few records that will give us the name of a wife(s) and pin-point in time when she was the wife of a given man.

Not all deeds are for the sale and purchase of real estate. Slaves were once property and the selling, buying or trading of slaves is recorded in deed books. At different times other items were important or expensive enough that the bill of sale is found in deed books. Trust deeds (mortgages), Quit Claim Deeds, powers of attorney, the pledging of land as security for a public office and many other things all found their way into the deed books.

Land Records allow us to locate our ancestor's property in a given time frame, allow us to locate old churches, cemeteries, schools and small towns. They allow us to visit the property of our ancestors, possibly locate living relatives in the area and lead us to newspapers that were available in the area during our ancestor's stay in a given place. Property Tax Departments often have plats or county maps that can be purchased or may be able to give you the current location or address of your ancestor's property.

There are large differences between State Land States and Public Domain States and your research methods must be different for the two.

The majority of deed books and deed finding aids have been microfilmed and can be ordered through the Latter Day Saints Local Family Centers. To determine if your county has been microfilmed search the locality records at the LDS on-line site. Many of us visit local courthouses but our time is almost always limited and there are always records at courthouses that haven't been microfilmed. Since these records are only available to you at the courthouse your time there can better be spent searching those records. Use your time profitability by using the microfilm first and then at the courthouse make copies of the deeds you want from the original deed books (always much clearer than microfilm copies). Remember that finding aids don't list every name found in deeds (for example they don't list witnesses) and you will always miss something if you don't check each deed in the deed books. For most of us, much too time consuming to do at the courthouse.

The handwriting of county clerks in the old deed books often leaves a lot to be desired. The formation of capital letters has changed over time and the complication of such things as the double S have tripped up more than one family historian and caused problems for people compiling indexes from old records. For help visit Deciphering Old Handwriting and Old Handwriting Styles or for several links visit Help With Old Handwriting. As you struggle to read old handwriting that often looks like a foreign language make yourself a Cheat Sheet - lay a thin piece of paper or a piece of plastic over the deed and trace the letters or words that you are sure of, such as the name of the state or county and common words. Use your tracing to help you decipher other words. Bearing in mind that the content and layout of deeds were pretty much standard use my Deed Sample to help you with different sections of a deed.

You need to be familiar with the different surveying systems (metes & bounds, New England Town, public domain) since each returns a different type of legal description and will dictate your method of research. Find your state of interest in the list of Which State is What? and then re-read the chapters for the correct type of state.

Land Entry Case Files, Patent Files, Bounty Land Warrant files and Private Land Claim files all contain information that is valuable to the family historian. Even a file that contains nothing except a receipt for cash can be a clue that your ancestor sold land in an old area to have the money to purchase land in the new. If your ancestor was a patent holder or a deed mentions a patent, warrant or homestead application you need to order the appropriate files. I have complied a list of where patents and land files (of one type or another) are located. Use this list to help you.

Making a sketch of your ancestor's property from the legal description. Filling in the names of neighbors, physical locations, etc., will help you to visualize your ancestor's direct neighborhood and help keep in mind the names of your ancestor's neighbors - many of which will probably be found, along with your ancestor, in other locations. Always remember that the farther back in time we go the smaller the community and the smaller the number of possible spouses. Although our ancestors were not the stay at home people we often think they were, still most people married individuals in their immediate circle of acquaintances and the more we know of them the more likely we are to find a spouse.

DeedMapper is a computer program that draws plots from legal descriptions and has an add-on feature that allows you to overlay your plot onto a current map. This is invaluable if you are researching in State Land States. The site also offers examples or links to sites about land records and has volunteers who are building plats for whole areas and some that may be willing to help you.

The Bureau of Land Management site has a lot of patents for Public Domain States on-line. Remember that the date on the patent is not the date the land was purchased and you need all of the information on the patent to order Land Entry Case Files - remember to print the patent.

Visit the on-line genealogy projects different web sites for information at state and local levels. Many of these sites give information on the formation of the county, links or addresses for state and local genealogy societies, state archives, local funeral homes, cemetery information, lists of books that pertain to the county, etc., etc. Visit The USGenWeb Project, The American History and Genealogy Project and the America Local History Network.

Try to locate old maps of your area of interest. Here's some help on the old maps in the Mapping Division of the Library of Congress by state.

Final Word:

Researching land records is fairly complex and I've certainly not covered everything here. If you'd like more in-depth information, examples and research hints I have a book you might be interested in.

I wish you the best of luck and if you've found my tutorial helpful and/or useful or if you have comments, suggestions or criticisms please let me know (my e-mail address is at the bottom of the page). I'll also do my best to answer general land record research question. I have not searched in every state and courthouse so the questions need to be general.

Request For Information:

Now for some help from you. If you have researched land records in a particular state and county, or as you do so, are you willing to share with others information about the courthouse, deed books, finding aids, etc.? If you are I'll set up a section by state & county and add the information donated. My e-mail address is below.

For further help with Land Records please visit Cyndi's List - Land Records


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