Essential Records for Finding Your Colonial Maryland Ancestors

by Michael Hait | Oct 16, 2012

Michael Hait

When the Ark and the Dove carried the first settlers to the Maryland colony in 1634, it became one of the earliest English settlements in North America. Several aspects of the colony--even in this early period--distinguished Maryland from other colonies.

King Charles I granted the land comprising Maryland directly to George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, in 1629. Maryland therefore became a proprietary colony, meaning that landowners did not truly own the land. They had the right to buy and sell real property, but paid annual rents to the Lord Proprietor. (Upon statehood following the American Revolution, annual rents were replaced by land taxes.)

The Calvert family and many of the earliest settlers of Maryland were Roman Catholic, and the colony was initially established as a Catholic refuge to counter the Virginia colony. Maryland passed the first law granting religious tolerance in the British colonies. This law remained in effect from 1649 through 1692 (with a brief repeal between 1654 and 1658). In 1692, King William III established the Church of England over all of the American colonies, including Maryland. Many Catholic families simply built chapels on their own property and continued to practice in private. Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Maryland records during the colonial period also bear some unique qualities. In order to effectively research your roots, knowledge of the records--and what information they hold--is vital. The following facts and intricacies of Maryland records will offer significant assistance to any Maryland genealogist looking into their colonial forebears.


To encourage settlement in the Maryland colony, Lord Baltimore passed "conditions of plantation." These acts provided for the granting of certain acreages of land for each settler. This privilege was known as a "headright," quite literally meaning a right to land for every "head" settling in the colony. Headrights were common in other North American colonies as well. Any person paying for the passage of another was also eligible for the land allotted to that passenger. Masters would get additional acreage for each of their indentured servants. Husbands and fathers would receive the land for their wives and children.

maryland-flag copy.pngThe process for receiving this land involved three parts. First, an eligible settler would apply for a warrant from the provincial Land Office. Once his warrant was accepted, a parcel of land for the appropriate acreage would be surveyed and named. Finally, the settler would apply for a patent on the land and would have full rights to the property.

Each step of the process appears in a series of records known as the "Patent Record." The original Patent Records are held by the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. The patent record books have also been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, as "Patents series of the Maryland Land Office," microfilm reels 13063 through 13143. They have been indexed in the book Early Settlers of Maryland by Gust Skordas (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1968), which has been updated by Dr. Carson Gibb on the Maryland State Archives website.

These registers hold the recorded warrant applications, surveys, and patents. They also hold evidence of settlement that was entered during the application process--including a significant number of ship passenger lists. These passenger lists generally include the name of the ship, the name of the captain, the date of arrival, and the names of the passengers. Occasionally, you will also find the port from which the ship departed.

Unfortunately, Maryland discontinued headrights in 1680, making these records unnecessary. After 1680 settlers purchased land warrants and patents directly from the Land Office, though the rest of the process remained the same. But if you are looking for an ancestor who settled in Maryland between 1634 and 1680, you may be able to find more than you think.

Land Names

During the patent process, Maryland land tracts were designated by specific names. These names followed the land parcel from this point forward--in subsequent deeds, in probate records, and in tax lists. In fact, many deeds do not contain the metes and bounds description at all, and only refer to the land by this name. The only way that a name would be changed would be through the process of resurveying and filing a new patent. Resurveys may have been taken to correct a faulty earlier survey, to add adjacent vacant land to a previously patented tract, or to combine parts of earlier tracts into a new tract by a new owner.

How can this help genealogists? Prior to 1786, real property was controlled by primogeniture, meaning that when a landowner died intestate (without a will) his eldest son inherited the land. If this eldest son is your ancestor, then all you have to do is find out who previously owned the land to find your ancestor's father. Even after primogeniture was abolished, when a landowner died intestate, his heirs-at-law would inherit his property. Tracing land from one generation to the next using deeds, probate records, and tax lists is one of the most certain ways to establish relationships. This is much easier in Maryland when you know the name of the land tract!

Protestant Episcopal Church Records

In 1692 King William III declared the Church of England, also called the Protestant Episcopal Church, the official state church of the British Empire, including the American colonies. In 1695, the Maryland legislature passed an act requiring that the vestry clerks record all births, marriages, and deaths occurring within their parishes. It also established a penalty for failing to obey the law. These records appear in the registers of each parish.

The most interesting aspect of this law is that it makes no mention of religious affiliation. In other words, the births, marriages, and deaths of the people of Maryland appear in the registers of the local Protestant Episcopal Church, regardless of the religion of the people themselves. This includes Roman Catholics, Quakers, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and anyone else who lived in Maryland prior to 1776. Of course, some people were inadvertently missed, but most of the population was recorded.

Better yet, for genealogists, most of the surviving parish registers have been transcribed and published. Check WorldCat to locate libraries that hold the book you need. The original registers are generally either at the Maryland State Archives or the Maryland Historical Society, though many of them are in such poor shape that they have been withdrawn from circulation. However, most have been microfilmed, and many are available on microfilm from the Family History Library.

In 1776, when Maryland created its own independent government, this practice of recording everyone's vital records in the parish registers was discontinued. From then on, only events for members of the Protestant Episcopal Church would appear in the parish registers. But if you are researching any ancestors that were born, married, or died during the eighteenth century, the Protestant Episcopal registers should be one of the first places you look.

Estate Inventories

During the colonial era, estate administration was a function of the Deputy Commissary and the Prerogative Court. Most estates required the filing of a testamentary or administration bond, an inventory, and an account.

Estate inventories are among the most undervalued of all probate records. After all, who wants to read through a list of common items like clothing and furniture? Estate inventories can provide more insight into our ancestors than most other record groups, if we read the lists of their possessions with a discerning eye. Tools may point to a trade; livestock and crops may reflect the size and nature of the family farm; and the total valuation of the estate will give you an idea of relative wealth. (You can find more information about estate records in Harold Henderson's article "Probate Records: A Gift Many Genealogists Fail to Open.")

In 1715, the General Assembly passed an act requiring that all estate inventories be witnessed by the two "of the next of kin" and two greatest creditors. The signatures of these two family members appear on each inventory. The relationships of the "next of kin" to the deceased are not stated, though they are seldom relatives with an interest in the estate.

For genealogists, identifying these "collateral kin" and their relationships to the deceased often provides important information into the family. These kin could be in-laws or step-relatives, which can help identify married females in the family, such as the decedent's sister or even his widowed remarried mother. Thorough genealogical research involves following every clue, and colonial estate inventories give us some great ones with these signatures.

Colonial resources for research are often more sparse than those for later periods in our history. In order to be successful in our search, genealogists must know what records exist, what information they hold, and how we can best use this information. Understanding these four resources will make your colonial Maryland research more successful.

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