Essential Records You Won't Find Online

by Claudia Breland | Feb 7, 2012

Claudia Breland

Consider these words:

"But Sir I would implore your Aid and assistance, as far as you can to A Man that has left Europe, and brought Seven Sons and two Daughters to this Country one of My Sons was Shot Dead by A young Indian In August 1820 And This is my oldest son's Land that is in Contemplation And He is Dead. I have five living yet..."

They were written by one John Donaldson, an emigrant from Ireland to New York, and then from New York to Monaghan, Ontario. In this message to the General Council, he was asking them to let him buy the land belonging to his son James Donaldson, who had died two years before this was written in Nov. 1844.

Where did I get it? Not online on any website, but from a researcher at the Archives of Ontario. And this is only one of thousands and thousands of records that you won't find online, at least not anytime soon. While you can easily find census records, cemetery records, and an increasing variety of birth, death and marriage records on the internet, there are some types of records that are not online. And these accounts are what will make your ancestors come alive, and tell you the kind of life they lived.

Land Records

Land records may sound boring - they're just the records of the sale and purchase of land, right? Wrong. Records of land sales and purchase can tell you a great deal about an ancestor. The land record I quoted above told some of the story of John Donaldson and his family - a wife and nine children. Earlier land records from the same area of Ontario for John Donaldson said that he was a shoemaker, lately come from Ireland. Two of the witnesses to his affadavits were George Donaldson and Daniel McCannan, possibly a son and son-in-law. The four land petitions I received contained a wealth of family information and fodder for further research.

You may be familiar with the Bureau of Land Management's General Land Office website (GLO Records), which covers millions of Federal land title records issued since 1820. However, keep in mind that these are federal grants - once the land was in private ownership, it could have passed through multiple owners many times over the years. Those records are likely to be in bound or loose volumes sitting in county courthouses. If you live across the country from the county your ancestors were living in, you can check the Family History Library Catalog at FamilySearch to see if those records have been microfilmed.

For instance: there was a family story handed down through generations that my great-great-great grandfather Marshall Jackson Chase was involved in a logging accident; he was "cleft in the head and not expected to live." He did live, and survived for many years, until he died in 1885. On the 1860 census, he and his wife Mary Ann Chase are listed as owning a farm in Bengal, Clinton County, Michigan. On the 1870 census, however, they are living in Lansing, Ingham County, and he is making a living as a peddler. Could the accident have happened between 1860 and 1870? Doing a place search on the Family History Library Catalog, I searched for Clinton as part of Michigan. Then, clicking on the subject heading "Michigan, Clinton - Land and property", I found "Deed Records, 1836-1933; index, 1836-1912". Looking at the details of this entry, I saw that there were 45 rolls of microfilm. When I clicked on the printable version of the record, the contents of each roll of microfilm was listed. Since I didn't want to scroll through pages and pages of deeds, and since there was an index available, I ordered the deed indexes that covered 1836 to 1867 and 1867 to 1887.

When the microfilm arrived, I scrolled to the pages with the "C"s, and started hunting. Sure enough, there were two deeds that listed M.J. Chase as grantee (buyer), giving the volume and page number of the deed. A little further on, I saw a listing for Mary Ann Chase as the grantor (seller) of land, and made note of that volume and page number as well.

Since I was at this time most interested in when they sold their land to move to Lansing, I then ordered the microfilm that contained that last volume. When I received it, there was Mary Ann Chase's signature on the deed where she sold their land for $300, in September 1865. What was most interesting was that it said "Mary Ann Chase, a resident of the city of Lansing". I had always assumed that they sold their land and then moved - but evidently it was after they moved to Lansing that Mary Ann Chase came back to Clinton County to take care of the sale.

If the Family History Library does not have microfilmed land records for the county you're interested, an email or phone call to the county courthouse or county archives might get you the information on whether or not there are land records.

State and National Archives are a wonderful repository of original land records. You can search the National Archives and Records Administration at Archives their directory of state archives is at Archives. The Seattle Branch of the National Archives has microfilmed land patents for Washington, Oregon and Idaho, from the 1840's, which was long before Washington became a state in 1889. The printed volume of abstracts of these land patents reveals the story of William and Elizabeth Brannon, who settled on Sections 6 & 7 of Township 21 North, Range 5 East (now part of downtown Auburn, Washington). Elizabeth's father, Michael Livingston, testified that the Brannons were killed by Indians on their land about 25 Nov. 1855. Looking at the full record on microfilm, several pages of testimony give valuable primary genealogical information: the original land patent filed by William Brannon in April 1885 gives his birth date and place (1832 in Ohio) and his marriage to Elizabeth Livingston in King County, Washington Territory in Dec. 1853. There were depositions that gave the date and place of death of Elizabeth Brannon's mother, Margaret Howard Livingston: Benton County, Oregon in 1856.

Wills, Probate & Guardianship Records

County courthouses and state and regional archives all across the United States are filled with records of civil proceedings such as the probating of estates and assigning of guardians. In the Puget Sound Regional Archives are records of wills and probates for the Seattle area, from 1853 to 1971 for King, Pierce and Kitsap counties. These records include wills, letters of administration and other loose records, only some of which have been microfilmed. One of the sets of papers you'll find in this Archive is the probate papers of Arthur A. Denny, one of the founders of the city of Seattle. He died January 9, 1899 leaving a wife and 6 grown children. The original handwritten will names his children and directs the division of his estate after the payment of his debts. Other records in the file are to be expected: letters of administration, testimony that there is no other will, an order appointing appraisers, an appraisal of his property (appraised at $506,000 - quite a lot of money in 1899!) and due notice to creditors. What was unusual was a record of a judgment against the estate, by the estate of another man, John Collins. The Court ruled in favor of the Collins estate, handing over 340 shares of stock to the Collins Improvement Co., worth $12,500.

And in the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh resides another example of a will - that of James Oliver, Revolutionary War veteran who died in Rockingham County NC in 1840. In his will, dated 1829, he names not only "his beloved wife Susannah", but also his heirs: John Oliver, Polly Goff who married William Goff, Susannah Oliver who married James Lumbrick, Sally Shepherd who married William Shepherd, Samuel Oliver, Elizabeth Oliver, and Nancy Barker who married Thomas Barker. Peter Oliver (possibly James' brother) was one of the witnesses to this will, and signed with his mark. This will goes a long way in fleshing out James Oliver's family, including the married names of his daughters.

Guardianship records are way down the list of records to be put online or to be microfilmed. The Manistee County Courthouse in Manistee, Michigan holds a thick packet of guardianship records for my great-grandfather Henry Hickox Chase, who was found mentally incompetent in 1936. The court appointed Henry's son-in-law Maurice L. Reed as guardian of the property and estate. Among these original papers (becoming more fragile as the years go by) are affidavits by both of Henry's daughters (with their addresses), an inventory of his estate, and letters from family members, with their addresses. There is a handy directory of US county clerks here: County-clerk.

Divorce Records

Often we look at the people of 100 years ago or more and think in generalizations that divorce was shocking and almost unheard of back then. Divorce was more prevalent than you might think, and has actually been around for hundreds of years. However, divorce records are also low on the list of records to be put online, for various reasons.

You may find divorce records at the county level, or they may have been transferred to a regional or state archive. It's definitely worth a call or an email to the county clerk of the area where you think a divorce has taken place.

Divorce records tell some interesting stories. One couple who lived in Aberdeen, Washington filed for divorce in 1943, several years of marriage and 7 children. However, when it became apparent there was no official record of the marriage back in Minnesota, they were married (again) in 1942. Two weeks later the wife began divorce proceedings, which are detailed in 42 pages of records that are on microfilm in the county courthouse.

In my grandfather's memoirs, he said that his grandfather James Reed had come to the Seattle area to get married, "but the marriage didn't work out", and he returned to Michigan. After I subscribed to GenealogyBank, I found the newspaper articles detailing this messy break-up in the Olympia newspapers for 1916. On my first (but not last!) trip to the Washington State Archives in Olympia, I asked to see the divorce file. It was several inches thick, and when I opened it up, there on top were two hand-written letters from James to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, stating his case. Also in the file were affidavits from friends and family members back in Beulah, Michigan. One of the other resources I found was the original marriage record - on a ledger page in a huge bound volume that was in storage there at the Archives.

If all we wanted were the names and dates for our ancestors, we would be content with census and vital records. Most genealogists, though, want to know the stories behind the people who came before them. Land records, wills and probate records, and divorce records all serve to tell more of the story. Let the treasure hunt begin!

Find Records Now for Free

Start your free trial today to learn more about your ancestors using our powerful and intuitive search. Cancel any time, no strings attached.

Start free trial