Genealogical Gold in Land Records, Part 1

In a previous post I looked at town annual reports and the genealogical treasures that one can find in them.   You won’t find these reports on, but they can often be found online, freely available for downloading.

Today, continuing with this line investigation, I’d like to discuss another record type, one which, if you develop facility with it, will make you feel like you have genealogical superpowers.  I kid you not.  A fair number of the clients who come to me, sometimes frustrated after years of research, with brickwalls they are unable to surmount, had genealogical problems that were relatively straightforward to solve using this kind of record.

What is this magical record type?  Land records.

High record density

What makes land records so valuable?  Basically, they often exist where other records do not.

Although this might not be true of all parts of the country, but in New England land records have a high “record density,” meaning deeds tended to be recorded and preserved, that most survived, and a high fraction of families owned land. (Two notable county-wide losses of early New England land records are Barnstable County, Massachusetts and Coos County, New Hampshire.)

Land was wealth, and communities tracked it far more diligently than they tracked, say, the births of their children.   But, in general, in times and places where few other records were created or survived, there is a good chance you’ll find land records.   I find land records especially valuable for early 18th century and early 19th century research.

Excuses for not looking at land records

Why aren’t land records consulted more?  I have a few ideas why this might be the case:

  1. Land records generally have not been transcribed or full-named indexed.  So, you won’t find them on behind a quivering green leaf.
  2. To find them requires that you learn how to navigate the various indexing systems used by registrars of deeds.
  3. Once you locate a deed, you need to be able to read the old handwriting.
  4. And once you understand the handwriting, you encounter all sorts of legal jargon, and may struggle to find the real important nuggets.
  5. To interpret a deed properly requires that you know something about the laws and customs of land transfers at a given time and place.

What you might find in land records

For all the additional complexity of working with land records, it is amazing what you can find there.  Here are a few examples of what you might find:

    1. It is quite common for a deed to call out the occupation of the grantor (seller) and grantee (seller).
    2. Deeds typically give the town, county and state of residence of the grantor and grantee.  It is particularly valuable to look at the first purchase and the last sale of an individual in an area, as it might list them as then residing in some entirely different place, and give a critical clue to where they came from and went to.
    3. Family relations can be called out in the deed, such as sales between family members, where you might find the grantor calling the grantee “my son” or “my honored father.”
    4. Since one had to be an adult to buy and sell land, the first appearance of a man in land records can give a upper bounds for their birth year.   So, a man who buys land for the first time on April 1st, 1850 must have been born no later than April 1st, 1829.
    5. And, obviously, any sale or purchase indicates that the parties were alive as of the date they signed the deed.
    6. If a man buys land as John Smith jr, and then sells it later as John Smith, and refers to the land as “land I formerly purchased under the name John Smith jr,” then this suggests that the other John Smith (the senior) either died or moved out of the area in the interim.  Perhaps this is a clue.
    7. We all know the challenges of finding women’s names, especially in the period (1790-1840) when the census recorded only the names of heads-of-households.  But due to the legal requirements of dower it is quite common to find wives of grantors explicitly mentioned in deeds.
    8. Similarly, when a widow sells land formerly owned by he husband, his name, along with hers, are often mentioned in the deed.
    9. When an estate is probated, sometimes it is not convenient to divide the land among the heirs, and instead they agree to sell the lot intact.  In that case you will sometimes find a land sale where all the heirs are listed among the grantors, and the married women listing their husbands as well.
    10. Witnesses can sometimes just be a neighbor, or another person convenient at hand.  But often they are relatives.
    11. Similarly, owners of adjoining land can often include relatives.
    12. There is a fairly good chance that the maiden name of the wife, the one you’ve been trying to find for years, is one of the surnames you’ll find among the counter-parties to the land transactions, the adjoining land owners, or the witnesses.
    13. You can sometimes get a sense of the financial stress that a family faces, when you find their land put up for auction for payment of debts, or repossessed for a mortgage default.  Maybe this explains why they moved out west shortly after?
    14. Even if your subject is not buying or selling land, he might be mentioned in someone else’s deed, as an owner of an adjoining parcel of land.  The transition of your subject’s land as “land of John Smith” to “land of estate of John Smith” gives a range for when he died.

In my next post I’ll drill into where to find land records, what to look for, and how to organize your work.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top