Do you use land deeds in your genealogy research? If you don’t regularly search out these rich documents in our ancestors’ lives, then you are missing out on a treasure trove of information. Some of the information contained in those deeds just might not be found anyplace else.
What is a land deed? It is a document created between the buyer and seller with a legal description of a piece of real property being conveyed from one owner to another.
Today, I’ll share all the different types of information that I’ve come across while seeking out land records for my ancestors.
What might land deeds tell us?
1. Seller – If a married couple is selling property, sometimes both are named at the beginning of the deed, but more often, the wife is only named at the closing. There may or may not be a statement that she waived her dower rights in early deeds.
2. Buyer – If a married man is buying land, he is almost (like 99.9% of the time) always recorded as the sole buyer. A wife had few rights and, in terms of her husband’s land ownership, she only had to waive dower.
3. Occupation – 17th and 18th century Massachusetts deeds often include the occupation of both buyer and seller. My Benjamin Blackman was a tanner, as seen in this 1740 Suffolk County, Massachusetts deed:
4. Town/county/state of residence of buyer and seller. If the buyer and/or seller aren’t residents of the town/county where the property is located, it is an excellent indication that someone is going to move soon or they may have just moved.
5. Amount paid for land
6. Relationship between buyer and seller. The crop below is difficult to read, but “my beloved father Hubbard Haskell” gifted property to his son, William Haskell in 1811. Both their occupations are given. Hubbard was a mariner and William, a “truckman” or someone who moved goods from one place to another.
7. Separate out men, and possibly married women, of the same name living at the same time. The example in #3 also enabled me to determine this was Benjamin Sr. selling the land because Jemima, his wife is also named. His son’s wife was Abigail.
8. Legal description of the land, either in metes and bounds of township, range and section (PLSS or Public Land Survey System). Location of PLSS land can be determined with exactness. Metes and bounds (from the old oak tree to the rock at the southwest corner of John Smith’s land. . . .) will be quite difficult, if not impossible, to plat exactly on a map. Waterways like rivers and creeks that are mentioned can get us in the neighborhood. If your ancestor was an early settler, someone might have hand drawn maps showing locations, but it is somewhat rare to find those.
9. Acreage of the property
10. Neighbors bordering metes and bounds property. Often, multiple names are mentioned bordering the sides of metes and bounds property. Many times, a surname is repeated, giving clues as to possible family relationships.
11. Proof of parentage if seller inherited the land. It took years, but I finally proved my Mary Elizabeth Coleman of Calais, Maine, was the daughter of Daniel Astle, who died in Miramichi, Northumberland, New Brunswick, Canada about 1819. This is a place lacking early vital records. The land was sold until 37 years later!
12. Proof of death of an owner if heirs selling. If death records aren’t extant, a “no later than” date can be determined because heirs are usually spouses, children, etc. of “John Smith, dec’d.” If other land records exist for the seller, a range of dates can be determined to narrow down the time frame when the person died.
13. Names of heirs. If the deed states the sellers are heirs of someone, you can be sure that they are. HOWEVER, there are occasions when NOT ALL heirs are named. For example, if a parent willed a piece of property to one or two children out of several, only those children will be selling the land “inherited from our father (or mother).” Sometimes, a family member has moved far away and the relatives remaining “at home” don’t know how to contact them. My husband’s ancestors occasionally sold land by the heirs, but one or more was omitted with no mention made even though I have proof they were still living. Lastly, I have come across deeds in which an heir was not mentioned because the heir, too, had died by the time of the property sale.
14. Proof of spouse, if named
15. Proof of woman’s maiden name, if selling land she inherited. Women had few property rights, but a major exception was when their own father or mother died and the woman/wife became an heir. Lacking a marriage record, a deed can provide proof of parentage in this case.
16. Proof of second spouse, if named and there is a time frame to compare with a first spouse. If you know an ancestor married more than once, but at lacking marriage and death records, deeds can again provide a timeline to narrow down the dates of remarriage.
17. Proof of seller ability to write his/her name. Hard to read, but in this deed, Benjamin Blackman signed, while wife Jemima’s mark is noted:
18. FAN club of both buyer and seller in the witness names. Land ownership is/was a serious undertaking. Witnesses were family and close friends who lived nearby, representing the interests of both buyer and seller and are clues to be followed.
19. Chain of ownership if originally a land grant. Many American colonies and Canadian provinces granted land to entice settlers. Grants were identified usually by number and recorded in county deed books or separate land grant volumes. When the original land owner sold the land, or forfeited it because government requirements, such as improving the land, weren’t met, the land deed descriptions often state the name of the original owner in addition to subsequent ownership changes. I’ve found deeds that provide 3 generations of owners. Be sure to read the land description carefully.
20. Date land was sold & date the deed was recorded. Sometimes land was sold on, say 24 April 1843, and the deed was recorded at the county courthouse on, say 26 April 1843. However, there are many instances in which land changed hands but the deed wasn’t recorded for months or even years after. Why? If the buyer/seller were family, they might not have seen the need to pay the court fee to record the deed. Or, the men might have lived far from the county courthouse and rarely traveled in that direction. Given that county clerks are human, there are probably instances where he didn’t have time at the moment the parties walked in the door to record the deed, so they left it with the clerk, who “misplaced” it for a period of time. Sometimes, deeds were recorded when the seller died and the buyer wanted to be sure his title and ownership of the land was clear and official. It was also common for deeds to be recorded when the seller was moving out of the area. Again, the buyer wanted to be certain he had clear claim to the land. Long gaps between date sold and date recorded in the court house are clues to follow.
21. Power of attorney given to represent the buyer or seller. PA was given to other men for a variety of reasons. If business had to be transacted far away, PA might be granted. For example, the only proof I had that my husband’s ancestor Martin Miller of Muhlenburg County, Kentucky was the son of Revolutionary War soldier Jacob Miller who died in Franklin County, Tennessee was this deed:
22. Signature of the seller IF you are the caretaker of an original deed. I feel very lucky to have in my possession the original deed of sale by my 2X great grandmother of land in Washington County, Maine. Her granddaughter, who I met years ago, offered me the deed because she didn’t want it anymore!
Remember that the county clerk’s deed book is a TRANSCRIBED copy of the original deed, hand copied in the clerk’s office. Signatures are RARELY original, although I have found a couple of seller signatures in very early land records.
Obviously, not every deed is going to contain all 22 facts that I’ve discussed in this post. However, given all the unexpected information I’ve come across in land deeds, I have to say they are an exceptional collection of records.
FamilySearch has digitized land records from many counties in the United States up to about 1900. Be forewarned, though, if you seek out 20th century deeds. Most county clerks will no longer look up deeds, or even check an index, for a 20th century query. Instead, they’ll refer you to a title search company, who will charge for the service.