by Harold Henderson | Sep 15, 2011
The property deeds, mortgages, and other legal instruments filed in county courthouses are the superheroes of genealogy. They may appear to be mild-mannered, but once unleashed they can demolish brick walls.
Some of their powers are based on the kind of records they are:
They can tell you where people lived. Those buying and selling property in a town or county often lived there -- but not always. Brothers Sidney and Samuel Vidger were natives of Franklin County, New York, but on 22 December 1888 they were living in Fargo, Cass County, Dakota Territory. They gave their power of attorney to Patrick Donahoe in a document recorded back home in Franklin County. 1
They can name the neighbors, who may also be relatives. In 1850 Simeon Hungerford and his siblings and in-laws sold 35 acres in the Town of West Almond in Allegany County, New York. The deed described the land as bordering on Elizabeth Parks and Philip McHenry 2 -- information that helped build the case that Elizabeth and Simeon's mother Lydia were sisters.
Other powers are less obvious, but fairly straightforward. One 1847 deed shows them all:
They can name a wife or other relative. Aaron Thrall died Christmas Day 1847 in Wabash County, Illinois; he and his wife were never named together in any census. But earlier that year they had sold land in nearby Gibson County, Indiana, as "Aaron Thrall and Sintha Thrall his wife" of Wabash County. This power of deeds becomes increasingly important the further back our research goes in time. Earlier censuses and vital records are more laconic (if they exist at all); but old property records often contain more explicit genealogical information than do recent ones.
They can name other associates. Aaron and Cynthia's deed was witnessed by James H. Embree and Justice of the Peace Lyman Thrall. Do not take these names lightly! Further investigation showed that Lyman was Aaron's older brother, and James was Cynthia's niece's husband.
They can indicate whether an individual was able to sign his or her name. The witnesses to Aaron and Cynthia's deed attested that it was indeed she who signed by making her mark 3. Of course illiteracy or infirmity can be an important part of the family's history. In tough cases it can also be an identifier. Had there been another Cynthia Thrall in the area, this could have been a way of telling the two apart.
Deeds' most interesting powers involve finesse:
They can approximate a death date. Remember Sidney Vidger? On 10 April 1889, he and his wife Martha were among those in Dakota Territory selling land back in New York state. Less than six months later, on 19 September, Sidney again sold New York land. But this time he acted alone, and was called a widower 4. Given the loss of the 1890 census and the lack of vital records on the frontier, this information - on deeds filed half a continent away -- is probably as close as we'll ever get to knowing when Martha died.
Teamed up with other records, they can locate someone who never owned property. In January 2009 at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, I watched the late Birdie Monk Holsclaw, CG, combine census and land records to learn about her target person. He owned no property, but his neighbors did. She used the census neighbors' land descriptions to map out the neighborhood, parcel by parcel, taking the people in the order the census taker visited them. At the end of the process her map showed right where her man was living at the time of the census, and which census neighbors were in fact living nearby.
They can confirm whether two people with the same name are the same person. In Miami County, Indiana, before the Civil War, Joseph Davis and Abraham Miller were common names. In 1859 Joseph Davis sold 74 acres of land to Abraham Miller. Four years later, in 1863, Anna Davis, now Joseph's widow, was among those who quit-claimed land to Abraham Miller. Was he the same person? No need for fancy footwork: the 1863 sale also involved 74 acres, with the same lengthy description. ("Commencing twenty-seven (27) chains and Eighty-nine (89) links West from the South East corner of Francis Godfroy's Reserve No. Nine (9) in Township Twentyseven (27) North, Range No. Five (5) East a post witnessed by a Hickory ten (10) inches in diameter . . ." and so on.) 5 So those two Abrahams were the same; this evidence also strengthened the case that Abraham had married an unnamed daughter of the Davises.
They can substitute for a non-existent will or probate. Benjamin Sweet died in western New York some time before 1819. No property ownership, burial record, will, probate, or death notice has been found for him in Niagara, Genesee, or Erie counties there. But on 3 March 1819, eight people purchased 80 acres from the Holland Land Company: "Lucy Sweet widow & relict of Benjamin Sweet late of the County of Niagara," and Debhe Sweet, Phoebe Sweet, Susan Sweet, Hannah Sweet, Dorcas Sweet, Thomas Sweet, Marcy Sweet and Polly Sweet, "children and heirs at law of the said Benjamin Sweet deceased." 6 Of course these may not have been their only children.
Property records are not hard to find. The US was settled in part because immigrants knew that ordinary people could own land here. Private property has been highly valued, and good public records are key to establishing its ownership. Hence the government generally does a competent job of recording, keeping, and indexing property records - in well-lighted, easily located, hospitable offices.
Once found, deeds and mortgages are not hard to understand, but as with any record you need to be prepared and to know the vocabulary. "Grantor" means seller, "grantee" is the buyer. Read the deed as you would any document, looking for the 4 Ws and the H - Who bought and sold, What land was involved, Where everyone (and the land) was, When the deed was made and recorded, and How much. And as with most original documents, you need to be prepared to deal with interesting handwriting.
As the Sweet example above suggests, the hardest part of working with land records can be the land descriptions. For some purposes the descriptions may not matter, but for the tough cases you need to get them right. Transcribe or copy them faithfully. Land in the US is generally described using one of two systems. The "metes and bounds" system uses natural and human landmarks to describe irregularly shaped properties. The rectangular survey system originated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Some deeds combine the two systems.
Deeds are human creations. Like any other records, they can be wrong. The ones we find in the courthouse are almost always copies made by clerks, not originals, so they can contain additional mistakes, as can the indexes. Beware of drawing conclusions from the absence of a deed, because not all property transactions were recorded in a timely manner. Some buyers waited years or decades before having their deed recorded there. Finally, deeds are not fireproof. But after a courthouse burned, people often found good reason to re-record them. In short: If you love and cherish your brick walls, stay away from property records!
Introductory: Val Greenwood, The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000). Also the FamilySearch wiki.
More detailed: Christine Rose, Courthouse Research for Family Historians (San Jose CA: CR Publications, 2004).
A concise top-notch tutorial: Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Analyzing Deeds for Useful Clues," OnBoard 1 (January 1995):8, in the newsletter of the Board for the Certification of Genealogists, available free
The better genealogy blogs discuss using land records - check out Kimberly Powell's About.com genealogy blog especially for metes and bounds. Another blog on this record group is In Deeds. And if I have somehow failed to convince you of their value, read Dawne Slater-Putt's posts at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center's blog.
5 Miami County, Indiana, Miscellaneous Record, p. 206, Davis and Miller, 2 February 1859, article of agreement. Also, Deeds W:110-111, Davis et al. to Miller, 12 January 1863, quit-claim. Both from Recorder of Deeds, Peru.