Land ownership has been an important part of American life since colonial times. Deeds, which are documents that transfer ownership of real property from one party to another party, are the most common land documents.
Most of us have some experience with deeds; you probably have the deed to your house. Deeds are public records, most commonly recorded by county governments at the county courthouse, and are usually indexed by grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer).
The genealogical value of land records varies. Basic information included in deeds are the names of the parties involved, location, and date. But some deeds contain a lot more information than the basics.
Genealogy information that might be found in a deed:
Names and relationships are often included in deeds. A wife is named when she releases her rights to land being sold. This is called dower rights. She could also be named as co-grantor on the deed.
A husband may name his wife; a father could name his son or daughter in a deed.However, if a relationship is not given, that does not mean one does not exist.
A spouse and children may be named when land is transferred as part of a probate transaction. The married names of daughters, sometimes including the full name of the husbands, will be included. Caution should be used when evaluating this type of deed because it may not name all of the children. A son could have already received his share of the land, or a son or daughter might live out of state, requiring a separate document.
Place of residence of the grantor and grantee is usually included in a deed. There may also be information about their past residence or a future residence. Information also might be included about the place of residence of witnesses and of others named in the body of the document.
Deeds can help to differentiate men with the same name by tracing when and to whom a piece of land was bought and sold. An occupation, military rank or position in the community included on a deed also might be used to distinguish two men.
Names of neighbors could be given and their proximity to the property being sold might be included in the land description. Family, friends, neighbors and associates often served as witnesses to the transaction although relationships are not usually provided.
The amount of money paid for the land is a clue to a relationship between the parties. When a son became of marrying age, it was common for a father to give his son his inheritance in the form of land. A relationship is not always spelled out, but look for a selling price of $1 or another low amount.
Tips for working with deeds:
It is not unusual for the information in a deed to go unnoticed. Many old deeds are difficult to read because of poor handwriting. A way to understand the information in a deed is to transcribe it. Always transcribe a deed.
As the deed is transcribed, little details are caught that can go undetected when the document is only read. It is harder to miss details when you have to write them down. Look at the entire document–sides, back, top, and bottom for notes written by the clerk. In a deed between Sarah Brown and Lyman Webster, I found a note on the side written six months after the deed was registered. The note gave Sarah's new married name of Hart. This was my first clue that Sarah married a second time.
Deeds were not always recorded when the transaction occurred. It could have been months or even years before it was recorded at the county courthouse. This commonly occurs when land is handed down in a family. The deed may not be recorded until the land is sold to someone outside the family.
I found a deed in Rockland County, North Carolina that had been passed down through several generations. The 1873 deed was recorded at the county courthouse in 1918, 45 years after the transaction took place.
It is a good research strategy to acquire the deeds when land was bought and also when it was sold. For example, you have the deed when John Smith sold land to William Warren. Acquire the deed when John Smith bought the land, and the deed when William Warren sold the land. This will give the chain of ownership and could contain additional information.
There might be clues in a deed that lead to other records, such as marriage, death and probate. For example, if the name of the wife changes when searching in a series of deeds, that is a good indication that the first wife died and the man married a second time.
Deeds document more than where an ancestor owned land. Take the time to acquire and study these records and the reward might be more than you expected.