Got a family mystery on your hands? Or just want to learn more about your ancestors? Then deeds are what you need. County recorders, clerks of court, town clerks and other similarly titled officials (depending on the state) have been recording local land transfers in deed books from the county formation up to today. These are among the earliest and the most complete court records you’ll find. In the foreword to E. Wade Hone’s classic reference Land and Property Research In the United States, William Dollarhide notes that “In America, land and property records apply to more people than any other written record.” Your ancestors are likely among those people.
When you dive into deed books, you might find a number of different types of transactions involving your relatives: Someone may have bought or sold land (but remember that original purchases from the federal or state government are generally recorded in land patents, not deeds). When your ancestors inherited property, a deed often would record the transfer of inherited interest. When taxes or debts were owed, your ancestor might have bought land the county seized—or he or she might be the one who lost the land.
Digging up deeds
Investing in property was as big a deal to our ancestors as it is for us, and they wanted the security of having their ownership recorded at the county courthouse (or in many New England states, the town hall). The deed generally would be signed and then recorded in a deed book, with the new owner keeping the original. If you’re lucky, a court clerk or a modern genealogist created an index to the names recorded in local deed books.
You can get your ancestors’ deeds in a number of ways. The easiest is to go to a county courthouse, archive or library that holds the original books or microfilmed copies of them. But looking for an 1840 deed in a county that wasn’t formed until 1851 is a fruitless search, so first, you need to know the county the property was in when the deed was recorded. Try the Family Tree Sourcebook (Family Tree Books) or Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, available free at <ancestry.com/wiki> (click the Red Book title, select a state, then click the county resource link). If you’re still not sure where to look, a call to the county courthouse can’t hurt.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely all your ancestors were considerate enough to live close to you. When you can’t get there in person, turn to the Family History Library (FHL). Run a place-names search of the catalog, typing in the name of the county. Choose the correct option from the choices that pop up and look for a Land and Property heading. Click it, then examine the titles for ones that describe deed books and indexes. Click the title for more about the item; you’ll see details including the years covered by each volume or index, as well as the film number for each roll.
If you see a volume or index covering the years your ancestor purchased land in that county, click the corresponding film number and you’ll be directed to a page where you can order the film to be sent to your local FamilySearch Center. I recommend ordering the index roll covering the years you need, then ordering the roll of deed records if you find your family in the index. At the center, you’ll be able to view the film and save or print copies of any relevant records.
If you don’t find the deed in the year you expect, expand your search to subsequent years. A deed could be recorded at the courthouse decades after the document was signed. Few old deed books are posted online, although a check of your county clerk’s website and the county USGenWeb project page and click the state, then the county) certainly wouldn’t hurt. You might find an index to the county’s deeds, if nothing else. One notable exception is the state of Maryland and its free site MDLandRec.net. Beginning in 1648 and continuing to today, MDLandRec.net offers digital images of deed indexes and books for all 24 counties. If you have Maryland ancestors, visit this site and click the link to apply for a password.
Whether you work at the courthouse or on microfilm, start with indexes if they’re available. Indexes come in different formats, so take a minute to understand how the index you’re working with is set up. Most deed indexes are consist of two separate series of books: an index by grantee’s (buyer’s) name and another one by grantor (seller). These series usually have one book for each beginning letter of the surname. For example, if you’re looking for a Smith buying land, you’d go to the grantee indexes and find the S volume.
Within the surname indexes, entries may be organized differently. Some indexes are “sounds like” indexes, organized by key letters. Some might be alphabetical by first name, and others are simply chronological—so you’d need to look through all the Smiths to find yours.
Note all the information the index gives you (next, we’ll go over the juicy details you might learn). Once you’ve recorded the volume and page references for the deeds you want, it’s time to get the actual document. If you’re using microfilm, this may mean ordering more rolls. It might be cheaper to mail a request to the court clerk, county recorder or other office holding the original deeds. Most offices won’t do research for you, but some will make copies (usually, for a fee) if you provide the deed volumes and page numbers.
Solving family mysteries
Laws regarding land transfers varied from place to place and evolved over time, but they defined exactly how property was to change hands: what information required at the time of recording, how land descended to heirs when someone died without a will (intestate), and more. All those details mean you can make new discoveries and solve mysteries in deed records—including these 10:
1. Was he (or she) married?
2. When did he die?
3. Why is my ancestor selling someone else’s land?
4. Who were the neighbors?
5. Where was the land?
6. Where did my family come from (or move to)?
7. Which guy is my ancestor?
8. Are the records really gone?
9. I can’t find a will.
10. Who are his heirs?
- Jacob Staats Sr. had seven children (under Delaware law, the eldest son received two shares, making a total of eight parts to the estate)
- The heirs inheriting full shares included: David Staats, Lydia Standley, Jacob Staats, Elijah Staats and a daughter who married someone named Irons.
- The daughter who married Irons, as well as her only child, died before Jacob Staats Sr. did, so her share was split equally among the remaining seven shares.
Most of this information isn’t in any other source. The deeds answer questions about other documents involved in the estate, and without them, we could only guess at the names of the heirs.
Tip: To shake every hint of family relationships from each deed, take the time to understand laws that affected a given land transaction: Was estate distribution governed by primogeniture (the eldest son inherits everything)? Did the eldest son receive a double share? What happened when an heir was deceased? Laws varied by place and time—see the September 2011 Family Tree Magazine for advice.