What land records can reveal about your ancestors

The Wild West by overgraeme, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved


Land records are an important, and sometimes overlooked, source of information in genealogical research.  Land records are not simply descriptions of the details of a plot of land.  Besides providing evidence of where our ancestors lived and the length of time they lived there, land records in America often contain information about the landowner himself.  If your search takes you further back in time (such as the 17th and 18th centuries), then land records are even more valuable because they often predate the existence of other documents, such as census records.  It is believed that approximately nine out of 10 adult white males in America owned land before 1850.  Thus, the chances that there is a record of a land-owning ancestor are significant.  Countywide indexes organized by surnames exist for virtually every landowner since the early 1600’s and are separated into two categories: one for the grantor (the seller) and one for the grantee (the purchaser).  So what can landholder records reveal in terms of genealogical information and how can they further our understanding of ancestral history?

Migration history.  Land records can determine when your ancestor lived in a certain geographical area and when he left that region.  When a new parcel of land was acquired, often the deed listed the purchaser’s county or state of origin.  By locating this information, you can attempt to trace that ancestor back until his date and place of birth.  Similarly, if an ancestor left his land prior to selling it, the old county deed book noted the seller’s new location once the property had been sold.

Familial relationships.  When a father sold a deed of land to his son, the record served as evidence of a relationship between the parties, or at the very least, listed their proper names.  Sometimes land was inherited by a husband and wife from the woman’s father and the deed contained the maiden name of the woman.  Deed records may also contain information about the division of an estate among heirs.

Differentiating between people with the same name.   When you come across historical documents that contain the same name, analyzing where and when land was sold and bought can help identify the exact individual you are looking for.

Understanding the geography during the time your ancestors lived.  Land records may help you draw conclusions about why your ancestors migrated and why they chose particular locations.  Perhaps the terrain in one county was more suitable for farming so your ancestors moved.  Or there was a marriage that required the family to relocate to a different state.  In this way, land records can provide insight and context to your family history.

There are different types of land records and various methods to obtaining information on land transfers, which I will address in a subsequent article.  As these documents have the advantage of tying a person or family to a designated time and place in history, they should be an integral part of your research.



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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