Using various land records to unlock clues about our ancestors

family by pixel0908, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved
family by pixel0908, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved


Valuable information can be gleaned from analyzing your ancestor’s land records.  In addition to vital historical facts, these records also give context to your family’s status, lifestyle and migration patterns.  And with 90% of the adult white population owning land before 1850, the odds are favorable that you will locate some information about your family history from these documents.  “Land records” actually consist of a variety of sources and there are multiple places to search for these records.  Below is an overview of some of the most important types of land records and the best methods for locating them.

County indexes.  There are two categories of indexes for land records: grantor (seller) and grantee (purchaser) indexes, which are also referred to as the Index to Real Estate Conveyances.  If you know the county that your ancestor lived in, you can access these records on a county-wide level.  These indexes can be found in virtually every county in the United States with the exception of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, where deeds are recorded at the town level.  The grantor/grantee indexes generally contain the proper names of the seller and buyer, a description of the plot of land, and the date of the document, as well as the date it was recorded.  The index also contains a reference number for the entry of the transfer in the deed books.  It is important to search both grantor and grantee indexes to ensure that you obtain the most complete information possible.

Deeds.  After gathering information from the indexes, you can search individual volumes of deeds to locate the instrument.  Deeds are records of land ownership and transfer, and many predate the American Revolution.  Deeds were generally recorded at the county level.  When a transfer of land occurred, a deed was then documented at the local courthouse.   Research on deeds can be done at the actual courthouse in which the deed was recorded or via mail through a request to the county’s register of deed records.   Deeds are also organized into indexes.  Many of these indexes and actual documents have been microfilmed and can be retrieved at a local Family History Center.  In addition, subscribers to the online resource, Heritage Quest, can borrow microfilm reels to review deed documents.

Probate records and court documents.  Deeds may reference a probate record when a deed to an heir was the outcome of a probate judgment.  In cases where a deed instrument contains a probate case file number, you can then search probate files for additional clues about your ancestor.  Similarly, a deed transcript may contain a civil court case reference number.  As land disputes were the subject of over half the litigation before 1850, it is possible that your ancestors were party to a lawsuit.  Thus, it is beneficial to be able to access records in both the Probate Court and Civil Court offices to search these ancillary sources of land information.

The land-related instruments above can offer important and colorful details about your ancestry.  They should certainly not be overlooked as one of the more reliable, well-documented and resourceful pieces of information in the course of completing your puzzle.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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