Land Record

Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records
by William Dollarhide

From the GENEALOGY BULLETIN, Issue No. 25, Jan-Feb 1995

Establishing Proof of Residence and Learning Genealogical Clues
Since the first colonists came to this continent, land ownership has always been an important part of our American society. As an example, nine out of ten adult white males in America owned land before 1850. Even today the figure is over fifty percent.

With this nearly universal coverage before 1850, and since genealogical research starts getting more difficult about that time, it is a wonder that family historians are not using land ownership records more often to solve their genealogical puzzles.

For instance, did you know that there is a county-wide surname index to virtually every land owner in America since the early 1600s -- an index that is more complete than any head-of-household census index ever compiled? And did you know that you have a ninety percent chance of finding your ancestor in that land ownership index?

There are few indexes used by genealogists that offer a ninety percent chance of finding the right person. Even today, a modern telephone directory gives the names of only those households with a publicly listed telephone number. A recent study in Los Angeles revealed that over twenty percent of the telephone numbers are unlisted numbers. Yet, there is a surname index for Los Angeles County that gives the names of ninety percent of the heads of households of that county during the 1850s. The index is called the "Grantee/Grantor" index or "Index to real estate conveyances". Such an index can be found in all 3,100 counties in the United States.

Let's take the 1840 census as an example. In 1840, the names of the heads of households are all that are shown -- but if you were to look at the Grantee/Grantor index for the same county, you may discover that one household could have more than one landowner. Say you find in the census that the head of household is John Smith, Jr. But what you don't know is that living in the same household is John Smith, Sr., and maybe even John Smith, III, and each of them own a piece of property. Only John Smith, Jr. is listed in the 1840 head of household census, but the Grantee/Grantor index lists all three landowners.

We genealogists eventually recognize the significance of land ownership as we attempt to locate records of our ancestors. But at first look we may not see the importance of land records because they do not seem to give us the vital genealogical facts we are after, i.e., names of parents, dates, children, and so on.

But genealogists who dig into the land records deeper will discover that land grants and deeds can provide evidence of the places where an ancestor lived and for how long, when he moved into or moved out of a county, and in many cases, a surprising amount of detailed information about a person.


Why Land Records?
Here are three good reasons why land records are valuable for genealogical research:

1. The odds are good. Since 90% of the adult white male population owned land before 1850, land grants and deeds provide an excellent way of finding an ancestor in local records. Deeds are recorded at the county level and when property is sold a deed is recorded at the local courthouse. It is a protection to both the buyer and seller that the land being transferred is properly recorded. There are rare exceptions, such as a deed held by a private party and never recorded -- which is every Title Insurance agent's worst nightmare -- but deeds are almost always recorded at the courthouse of the county wherein the land is located.

2. Land records are more complete than other records. Land records such as property tax lists, deeds and deed indexes, and the written transcripts of real estate transactions all go back further in time than any other type of record we use in genealogical research. The earliest records in Europe other than those recorded for the Royal Courts are land records. For example, the "Domesday Books" -- which are property tax lists -- were first gathered for William the Conqueror in the 11th century and are the earliest English records in which a common farmer or tradesman may be listed by name. Certain Scandinavian land records date back to 950 A.D. In this country, land ownership has always been important -- so much so that if a courthouse were to be destroyed by fire or natural disaster, the deed records -- proof of land ownership -- were reconstructed by local authorities soon after. For example, deed records were reconstructed for several Georgia counties after General Sherman's troops burned courthouse after courthouse during the Civil War.

3. Land records often reveal the name of a man's wife. The English common law system of "dower rights" for a widow was followed in the American colonies and continued in most U.S. states well into the 19th Century. Dower rights entitled a widow to 1/3 of her husband's estate upon his death. No written will had to specify that amount. As a result of the dower rights of a married woman, early land deeds will almost always mentioned the name of a man's wife because she had a legal interest in any land being sold or purchased. In fact, a woman had "veto power" over the sale of land by her husband. Under the English system, a married woman could not own land in her own name, but with her dower rights, she could veto the sale of the land. Many early deed transcripts will include an affidavit in which a wife was interviewed privately by the court clerk to determine if she was in favor of the sale or not.


State Land States vs Public Land States
Before digging into the land records, genealogists need to know if their ancestor's land grant was located in a Public Land state or a State Land state. In 1787 the United States Government created the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River and the "Public Domain" of the United States was born. Public Domain areas today comprise a total of thirty (30) states, which are called "Public Land States". The distinction of Public Land States versus State Land States is in who owned the land originally and who was empowered to sell the land.

There are a total of twenty (20) State Land States. They are the original thirteen states plus five states whose bounds were taken from the original thirteen, i.e., Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, and West Virginia. Upon annexation to the Union, both Texas and Hawaii retained ownership of their public lands and became State Land States. So, twenty U.S. States retained ownership of their lands and each set up a General Land Office for the issuing of land grants. For example, Virginia, as a State Land State, sold land directly to private individuals. But land in Michigan, a Public Land State, was sold by the United States Federal Government.

To locate the earliest land records from the agency that sold the land, you first need to know if the land grant was located in a State Land State or a Public Land State.


Documents Relating to Original Land Grants
There are a few definitions needed for words or phrases you may come across in reading old deeds or land grants which may give important genealogical clues about your ancestors. These are documents issued by the government agency in charge of selling land, each of the twenty State Land States, or the United States Federal Government. The origin of these procedures and documents dates back to England during the 15th Century and continued in America.

A Warrant
This was the first document in the land grant process. A warrant authorizes a tract of land to be set aside for a land grant or sale. It may describe the land in general terms, such as "200 acres of land West of the New River". A governmental agency issued a warrant, e.g., the King of England, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Proprietor of Maryland, the State of Connecticut, or the United States Federal Government if the land were located in one of the thirty Public Land States after 1787.

Warrants are records that can confirm that your ancestor did indeed receive a land grant, it is the first document in what may be several records relating to a land grant to a private party.

Warrants were issued by Colonial, State, and Federal Governments as payment to soldiers for service in various wars, including the Colonial Wars of the 18th Century, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. These "bounty-land" warrants indicated a certain number of acres of land without describing the land precisely. The warrant certificate had a cash value based on the location of the land and the number of acres involved. Warrants could be assigned (sold) to someone other than the person granted the warrant before the land was surveyed.

After a warrant was issued a survey of the land was conducted, and defines the exact location and boundaries of the land grant authorized in the warrant. Before the land grant could be possessed, the boundaries of the land had to be marked on the ground. A survey might include a map or description of the boundaries of the land, and the government's surveyor may have written a statement that he had followed the provisions of the warrant.

The survey document might include the names of the surveyor's assistants or "sworn chain bearers", who were often chosen because they lived next door to the property being surveyed. As a result, survey records often reveal genealogical clues to the neighbors of your ancestor, and assist in locating the land exactly.

The final document was the title certificate that was issued to a person granted or sold land -- the first private owner of land. The patent was issued by the governmental agency that originally owned the land. Reference to a "patent" indicates the person holds an "original entry of land".

Land Patents Today
The keeper of any surviving land warrants, surveys, or patents today is the issuing government agency. For example, if you know your ancestor received a colonial land grant in North Carolina (a State Land State), any surviving warrants, surveys, or patents are held by the State of North Carolina and are located at the North Carolina State Archives. Or, if you think your ancestor obtained a land grant in Indiana (a Public Land State), the keeper of the warrants, surveys, and patents is the United States Government. U.S. Public Land Records today are under the care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the National Archives of the United States.


Locating Patents and Land Entry Case Files for all thirty Public Land
States is detailed in "Federal Land Records", in GENEALOGY BULLETIN No. 12, (Oct-Nov-Dec 1991), pp 1-7; and for an update on the thirteen states covered by the Eastern States Branch of the BLM, see "Bureau of Land Management Automated Records Project", in GENEALOGY BULLETIN No. 19, (Jul-Aug-Sep 1993), pp 8-9. (Back issues of the Bulletin are available from AGLL, Inc., PO Box 329, Bountiful, UT 84011).

Since the patent was not a document issued at the county level, it may not be obvious from local records that a man had an original entry of land. The patent did not have to be recorded at the county unless the property was sold. But in many counties, genealogists may find a record book called "Original Entries of Land" which gives the names and property description for those persons who obtained original patents for land in a particular county.

There may also be Voter's Lists, Tax Lists, or County Assessor's records which confirm that a person was a patent holder based on a county tax liability against his property. You may also find a county-wide "Plat Book" which shows the same information. A Plat Book is a map showing the physical location of property ownership within a particular county or region of a county. If any of these types of records survive today, they are usually located today at the county courthouse for the county wherein the land was located.

Another source for confirming if a man had an original entry of land is land ownership maps that have been published privately by several book publishers, generally for the 1800s. Based on county-wide plat maps and other public documents, private companies have produced land ownership maps for about half of the counties of the U.S., some as large sheets, others as bound books. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC has the best collection of these old land ownership maps. There are two excellent guides to locate a map for a county and to determine if your ancestor's name appears on one of these maps. The first is for the manuscript maps (sheets) located in the Library of Congress: 1) Richard W. Stepenson, compiler, Land Ownership Maps: A Checklist of Nineteenth Century United States County Maps in the Library of Congress, (Washington, DC: Geography and Map Division, Reference Department, Library of Congress), 1967; and 2) Land Ownership Atlases in the Library of Congress, which is a county-by-county index to the various land ownership atlases that have been produced. To obtain copies of these maps, write to the Library of Congress and specify the name of the county, the town, township, or area of the county in which you have an interest, and the time period. Mention the two sources for land ownership maps. Write to Library of Congress, Photoduplication Services, Washington, DC 20540. The staff will determine if such a map or atlas exists, and will quote you a price for making a copy of the maps for you.


Subsequent Exchanges of Land
After a patent had been issued to a landowner, he had the right to sell the land to someone else in the form of a deed, but the recording of such land sales became a local responsibility. Unlike the warrant, surveys, or patents, which were recorded at the state or federal level, exchanges of land subsequent to the land grant process are recorded at the county level. This is true for all states except three New England States, where the deeds are recorded at the town level (Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont), and Alaska, the only state with no counties and where land exchanges are recorded at the Judicial District level. In Louisiana, deeds are recorded at the parish level, which is the same as a county in other states.

Some definitions related to land exchanges at the county or town level are as follows:


Genealogical Research in Deed Records
Research in county/town deed records requires that you have access to the Grantor/Grantee Index and then access to the deed books which provide a written record of a land transaction. To understand who is the keeper of deeds, there are two noteworthy books that list every county in the U.S., and the name of the county or town office which maintains the land records. The most popular is The Handy Book for Genealogists (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, Inc.), 8th edition, 1991. However, the Handy Book omits land records data for many counties.

A more complete review of the county offices can be found under "Land Records" for every state in The Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D, C.G., (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc.), revised edition, 1992. The Red Book lists every county in each state, as well as an address for each of the New England Towns, including the three states where deeds are recorded at the Town level: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

There are only three (3) ways you can do this type of research:

1. Research at the courthouse. The best way is to travel to the county courthouse and read the deed books yourself. But the next best way is to find a person familiar with that county's records who can do the research for you. Try contacting a local genealogical society to see if there is a person who can visit the courthouse in your behalf. There may be small fee or donation to the society but this is an ideal way of locating another amateur genealogist to look up items for you in a courthouse -- rather than counting on an Alvin Airhead or Betty Bimbo (the only ones who are allowed to work in county offices). An address list of genealogical societies can be found in the Genealogist's Address Book, by Elizabeth Petty Bentley, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.), 1992-93 edition.

2. Research by mail. A county's register of deed records may look in a deed index for you if your request is concise and to the point. Write to the keeper of deeds and ask for a check of the Grantor/Grantee Index for evidence of your ancestor's name during a period of about twenty years, enclosing a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). The index will indicate the book and page number for a deed transcript -- and you should have an exact citation to write again and ask for copies of the deeds themselves, enclosing an appropriate fee.

3. Research microfilm copies of the deeds. Members of AGLL can confirm if the desired county's deed records are available and borrow rolls of microfilm to read the deed indexes and deed transcripts. The Family History Library (FHL) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has microfilmed deed records for over 1,500 counties in the U.S. Visit a local Family History Center to check the FHL's catalog to confirm the existence of microfilmed deed indexes and deed transcripts. These can be borrowed for a small fee and used at the local center, or catch the next plane for Salt Lake City.


A Check List for Deed Research
A county must be known first. Since deeds are recorded at the county level, you must have at least a clue as to the county where your ancestor lived. The exceptions are land records in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, where deeds are recorded at the Town level.

Come prepared with census or tax lists to find the names of the neighbors of your ancestor. It helps to have the names of other people who you know lived near your ancestor. This is a way of confirming that you are in the right place, by looking for the other names in the same area. In some cases, reading the deeds for neighbors may turn up your ancestor's name as a witness, confirming you are in the right county.

Start with the Grantee/Grantor index. Write down the name, date, deed book, and page number for every deed indexed. If you are looking for a William Johnson and know that he had a brother Thomas Johnson, it may be important to look for all siblings' deeds as well.

In addition to your ancestor's full name, look for "et al" after the same surname in the index ("et al" is Latin for "and others"), which may indicate a group of heirs. This was used as a short-cut for a clerk writing a deed index entry in which there were more than one name as the grantors or grantees, such as "Thomas Johnson, et al". If your ancestor's name was William Johnson, he may be mentioned in the deed transcript along with Thomas Johnson -- but the index may only show "Thomas Johnson, et al".

Read each deed. Note that each will give the residence for the grantor and the grantee -- this is valuable information. Before 1900, deeds usually give the county or town of residence, but today you can find an exact street address for both the grantor and the grantee, right down to the zip code.

Locate the Probate Court office at the same time you are in a courthouse. You may come across a reference to a probate in a deed. The relationship between deeds and probates is that deeds to heirs may be recorded as a result of a probate judgment. In some cases, you may find a reference to a probate case file number in a deed transcript, which is a back-door index to the probate files.

Locate the Civil Court office at the same time you are in a courthouse. Before 1850, the subject of over half of the lawsuits in America had something to do with land disputes. A deed transcript may give you a back-door index to a civil court case and may even give you a case file number.

Get a USGS (7.5 series) Topographic map of the area, or see if the County Engineer's office has detailed county maps available. You will need a map that shows watercourses (in the State Land States) and Range/Township lines (in the Public Land states) to identify the exact location of the land described in a deed. Here is how to get the best possible map for this type of research. Call the United States Geological Survey map information and order line (1-800-USA-MAPS) and request three (3) FREE items:

1. Index of Map Coverage. There is one for each state, either a large sheet map or small booklet of maps. This is a state-wide map showing a grid with the names of the 7.5 series topo maps, and what you will need to order a detailed map from USGS.

2. Catalog of Published Maps. For each state there is free catalog which lists the types of maps available for each state, and the prices.

3. Maps Can Help You Trace Your Family Tree. This is a FREE 32-page booklet produced by USGS and has a good overview of maps that can help you in your genealogical research.

While on the phone, ask USGS for information on their state-wide gazetteers (on microfiche or printed) - one for each state. These gazetteers are the most complete list of U.S. geographic names available anywhere, giving not only towns or cities, but names of valleys, mountains, streams, rivers, lakes, and even named cemeteries. If your ancestor was an early settler in an area, you may be surprised to learn that a stream or mountain was named after him, and these gazetteers are the way you find out. The microfiche versions are only $2.00 for one state, a real bargain. The printed versions range from $10.00 to $35.00, depending on the size of the state and the number of geographic names listed.

You can also visit the USGS's web page on the Internet and obtain the same three items listed above. You can also order a particular USGS map using your credit card. The USGS web address: HTTP://mapping.usgs.gov/esic/mapprice.html

After receiving the Index to Map Coverage from USGS for the state or states you have an interest, you can order a topographic map giving much detail for an area about 6 to 7 miles across and 7 to 8 miles deep. Each map or "quadrangle" has a name, which is what you need to learn before you can order the maps you will need for the area of a county. The cost for one map sheet is only $2.50. Each map is about thirty inches square and is printed in seven colors.

The importance of using a detailed topographic map along with your deed research is that you will discover a Range/Township land description in any deed in one of the thirty Public Land States. The Range/Township lines are prominently marked in red on the topo maps, so you can precisely locate the exact location of an ancestor's land, and draw an outline of a parcel as small as twenty acres.

For the State Land States, where the land description are based on the "metes and bounds" system of land surveys, the topographic map is even more important. All of the lay-of-the-land surveys start with a watercourse. Finding the stream or river on a detailed map is the way you can precisely locate a parcel of land described in a land deed for Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, or any of the other State Land States.

Once you have marked the exact location of your ancestor's land on the map, you can ask some important questions, such as: where is the nearest cemetery? Where is the nearest church? Where is the nearest town? How does one travel from this point to another point? and so on....


A Case Study:
The search for Philip Reynolds To demonstrate the power of deeds in retracing the trail of an ancestor, I will present a case study for one of my own ancestors. This is a real example of the use of deeds to solve a difficult genealogical problem. If you have the problem of knowing that an ancestor was from Virginia, but do not know which county, then this example may give you an idea of how deeds can help you locate the right county. Remember, we are basing this research on the fact that there is at least a ninety percent chance that your ancestor owned land. Let's see if we can solve a "needle-in-a-haystack" search for an ancestor when all we know is that he lived in Virginia before 1800.

The steps I followed to locate the right county using deeds has been repeated several times. My first success was for an ancestor named Philip Reynolds. To follow along, I will have to give you some of my own genealogy -- but a genealogist should be able to relate his own situation to this example.


The Problem:
Where exactly did Philip Reynolds live before 1830? In Indiana? In Ohio? In Virginia? Where was he married? Who did he marry? Who were his parents? Does this problem sound familiar?

Facts known, in the order they were found:

1. I first saw the name Philip Reynolds as a result of Dollarhide research. I found my great-grandfather, John Dollarhide and family living in Jasper County, Indiana in the 1850 census. John's apparent wife was Lucy Dollarhide, maiden name unknown at that time. Per the census, she was born in Ohio about 1821. But also in the household was a Philip Reynolds, a farm laborer, age 62, (born about 1788) in Virginia. I had only a guess about who Philip Reynolds might be...in fact, he could have been a hired hand.

2. John Dollarhide, head of household, 1840 census of Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Based on this information, I wrote to the Tippecanoe County Clerk to see if a marriage record for John and Lucy might be found there.

3. Yes, John Dollarhide married a Lucy Reynolds, 3 Mar 1836, in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, based on a marriage record received. This was the first confirmation that her maiden name was Reynolds. I returned to the 1850 census to look at Philip Reynolds with renewed interest. He now looked like the father of Lucy!

4. I found Philip Reynolds as a head of household in the 1840 census of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, not too far from away from the John Dollarhide household.

5. Philip Reynolds, head of household, 1830 census of Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Several females were indicated, and one was the right age to be Lucy Reynolds, although not named.

6. Since item one gave Lucy's birthplace as Ohio about 1821, I moved to the 1820 Ohio census index. There were only two (2) heads of households with the name Philip Reynolds -- one in Trumbull County, the other in Miami County. The Miami County family seemed most promising, but I had no way to prove which was the right family. Quite frankly, I was not learning anything new, and this research was no longer going anywhere. But several years passed and with a bit of luck, the search began again.

7. I received an obituary from a Corvallis, Oregon newspaper dated 1878. This was a gift from a researcher who came across the name Dollarhide and thought I might be interested in it. I was more than interested, I was ecstatic! The obit said that "Philip Reynolds was born in Virginia.... he married Sophia Hill... they lived in Ohio a number of years... and were the parents of nine children". The obit also mentioned a surviving daughter, one Lucy Dollarhide, living in California.

8. After learning that he went to Oregon, I found Philip Reynolds living with a daughter near Corvallis, Oregon, and per the 1870 census, he was born c1788 in Virginia.

9. Philip Reynolds living with a another daughter in Iowa, per 1860 census, born c1788 in Virginia.

I might mention that Philip Reynolds has become one of my favorite ancestors. It appears that when his wife died about 1845 that the man never worked again -- he just moved in with one of his daughters until she couldn't stand it any more. I found him living with four different daughters. Since he had nine daughters, it appears that he managed to live off his kids for over thirty years. I have decided that this is a man I would like to emulate.

Confirmation Needed:
I still needed to know where Philip Reynolds lived in 1820. Was Miami County, Ohio the place to start? Or perhaps Trumbull County first?

Course of Action:

After thoroughly reading the Miami County Grantor/Grantee index, the only Philip Reynolds mentioned was a single transaction that took place in 1837. Since I knew that Philip was in Indiana by 1830, I stopped here. But, I did record the following information:

Miami County, Ohio
Deed Book 15, page 355
Date: 22 Sep 1837
Grantor: Philip Reynolds
Grantee: Joseph R. John

There were two things wrong with the deed. First, I expected a deed in which Sophia's name was mentioned, since dower rights were still in play in Ohio in the 1830s. I expected to see "Philip Reynolds and wife Sophia..." as a grantor or grantee in the deeds. Second, the date was all wrong. I knew that my Philip Reynolds was in Indiana in 1837, and here was a deed in Ohio for well after Philip Reynolds moved to Indiana. But, as I was to learn later, I was not paying attention.

My First Breakthrough
On a trip through Salt Lake City, I decided to visit the Family History Library and look up that same Reynolds deed just for the fun of it. Book 15 of the Miami County deeds had been microfilmed, and on page 355, I found the following deed recorded:

"...Philip Reynolds, of Indiana, to Joseph R. John, of Troy,

Miami County, Ohio, lot 151, for $60.00...."

The deed gave Philip Reynolds' residence! I was now convinced that this was indeed my Philip Reynolds of Tippecanoe County, Indiana. But why wasn't Sophia's name mentioned? I have since learned that the dower rights for a wife did not apply to small parcels of land (under one acre or so), so there was no need for Sophia's name to be part of the deed. It was also clear that Philip Reynolds had owned land in Miami County, Ohio, but did not get around to selling his lot in the town of Troy until some years after moving to Indiana.

Since I had several census records giving Philip Reynold's birth as Virginia about 1788, I wondered if it were possible to use this same technique to find the right county in Virginia to search for the Reynolds family. I canceled everything else on my agenda, booked five more days in Salt Lake and headed for the microfilmed Virginia deed records. It was now "needle-in-a-haystack time", but which county first?

My Second Breakthrough
I needed to narrow down the number of counties of Virginia to start my search for Philip Reynolds. There were 98 counties in Virginia in 1820, which included present-day West Virginia. So I first went through the 1800 and 1810 census indexes (actually, reconstructed tax lists) for Virginia looking for the name Reynolds. None of the heads of households in Virginia had the name Philip Reynolds.

But there were eighteen (18) different counties with both the surnames Reynolds and Hill. (Remember, Sophia's maiden name was Hill, I decided to look in just those counties which had evidence of both of these surnames).

I decided to check the Grantor/Grantee index to all eighteen counties, for the period 1790-1830. I began in alphabetical order, and discovered that I could go through a whole county in a matter of minutes to determine if a Philip Reynolds ever owned land there. In less than two hours I was in the Bedford County, Virginia Grantor/Grantee index and found this information:

Bedford County, Virginia
Deed Book 18, page 359
Date: 15 May 1824
Grantor: Philip and Sophia Reynolds
Grantee: Charles Bayman

I was immediately out of my chair to get the microfilmed Bedford County deeds to read the complete transcript. Here is how the deed transcript began: "...This Indenture made this 15th day of May A.D. 1824 between Philip Reynolds and Sophia his wife of the County of Miami, and the state of Ohio of the one part and Charles Bayman of the County of Bedford, Virginia...."

No doubt about it! This is the right couple, and the right county in Virginia! Once I had established Bedford County, Virginia as the county where Philip and Sophia Reynolds lived, less than thirty minutes later I was in Bedford County marriage records, where I found the following entry:

Philip Reynolds to Sophia Hill, 20 Dec 1806

Without using deeds, it would have been possible to find Philip Reynolds in Miami County, Ohio or Bedford County, Virginia. But using the deed indexes as a finding tool, it was quicker and easier to get to the right place. Other records soon became apparent, and the research task was a huge success.

What I was able to do with the deeds was retrace the trail Philip Reynolds followed from Virginia to Ohio, and to Indiana. Without the deed in Ohio, I would not have been able to confirm the deed in Virginia was for the same man. I now have a research project in Bedford County, Virginia to find the parents of Philip Reynolds and Sophia Hill.

This example of using deeds to establish the trail an ancestor followed is not a rare occurrence. Every deed will give you the residence of both the grantor and the grantee. If a man sold his land after leaving a county, you will learn the place he moved to. If a man bought land in another county before moving, you will learn which county he came from. If a man owned several parcels of land in a county, the first deed and the last deed may become important genealogical tools.


Why Not Look at Deeds First?
I used to check land records only after going through every published source for a county. I have discovered that deed records can provide the most important information we need in genealogical research: the place where a person lived. I now do deed research first, not last. Here are three (3) reasons why:

1. Deeds are usually indexed in cumulative form, sometimes spanning over decades. They may be listed in only a few large volumes, while marriages and other records may be spread across many, many volumes. Going through a Grantor/Grantee index does not take as long as other records.

2. For early periods, deed indexes act as a list of residents in a county to give you a good overview of who lived there, including neighbors you have noted from census or tax records. It is a way of getting a "yes" or "no" answer to the question of the right county where a person lived. It is an excellent way to retrace a trail your ancestor followed. This is based on a ninety percent chance that your ancestor owned land. If a man is not listed in a deed index, the chances are great that he did not live in that county.

3. Deed indexes sometimes make reference to a "case number" for some civil action regarding property or a probate court action. Probate and civil court case files are excellent sources of genealogical information -- but poorly indexed. Therefore, going through the deeds first may present the only clue that other records exist in another part of the courthouse.

Quit-claim Deeds and Deed Releases
Another type of deed is known as a "Quit-claim Deed". This type of conveyance is used for transferring property when an issue of ownership might not be clear. Essentially, a Quit-claim Deed says, "...I hereby relinquish (quit) any interest I may have in this property...."

There are actual examples of the Brooklyn Bridge being sold through the use of Quit-Claim Deeds. The deed is a legal document, but all it says is that a person is releasing his interest in property. A Quit-Claim Deed does not prove that a person actually owned the property.

In recorded land records, Quit-Claim Deeds often reveal genealogical information. They were often used by lawyers who were attempting to clear title on a piece of property, and to avoid the possibility of a claim against it. A common use was when a person died without a will and the probate court needed to establish the legal heirs of the deceased land owner. Quit-claim Deeds might be recorded for any person suspected of having an interest in the property. Here is where you may learn of a grandson, niece, or nephew of a deceased person. Some of the relatives may have filed a Quit-claim Deed relinquishing their interest in the property of the deceased.

A similar record is called a "Deed Release", which is used in about the same way as a Quit-Claim deed, but usually in cases where a deceased's written will specifies his heirs. During the probate process, the heirs may choose not to divide the property as specified in the will. A judge will allow modifications to the provisions of the will if all of the parties agree to a different method. Deed Releases are a method in which a person specified as an heir in a will can release his interest in the property to another person.

Both the Quit-claim Deeds and Deed Releases are normally indicated in the "Type of Conveyance" column in the Grantee/Grantor index. Although these types of deeds are not as common as the example of deeds for Philip Reynolds, Genealogists will find these two special types of deeds particularly interesting, because they very often provide you with relationships. A release of claim to property between brothers and sisters may not be an every-day occurrence in indexed deed records, but when you do find this type of transaction, you will be rewarded with specific genealogical relationships which may not be known from any other source. If you never check a deed index for evidence of land ownership for an ancestor, you will never discover these genealogical treasures.

Examples of Quit Claim Deeds In doing research on my Rumbaugh family of Fulton County, Indiana, the Grantee/Grantor index had a very simple line that read, "William Rumbaugh, et al". Going to the book and page in the deed book led me to eight (8) Quit-Claim Deeds, all for the same date in 1856, all in the same hand, and all starting with this type of phrase:

"...William Rumbaugh, heir of David Rumbaugh, Deceased, and Susan Holton (formerly Rumbaugh), of this County, does Quit any Claim to the land described as...."

"...Nancy Wiles, intermarried with William Wiles, and an heir of David Rumbaugh, Deceased, and Susan Holton (formerly Rumbaugh), of Union County, Iowa, does Quit any Claim to the land described as...." ...and another entry for each of the rest of the brothers and sisters...

The use of Quit-Claim deeds, in this case, was a convenient way for the heirs of David Rumbaugh to transfer their share of the inheritance to just one of the brothers. Even though David Rumbaugh's will devised the property to each of the heirs equally, the heirs decided later to combine the property back again for a home for one brother and his family.

Because of this land-swapping, a complete list of the heirs of David Rumbaugh was found, not in the probate office, and not even in the family bible. The list of children was taken from the Deed Books of Fulton County, Indiana!

After Finding a Deed
A deed can be the first step in confirming the correct county of jurisdiction for a family. Finding the place a family lived is the most important step, and the deeds provide that service very nicely. Deeds also provide proof of residence for a given period of time.

With a deed in hand, you always have a property description. That means that a map showing the exact location of that property could be found next. With a map as a guide, locate and mark the spot for the land. Now look for the nearest cemetery or church on the map and see if records exist for that particular cemetery or church.

Deed research is perceived by some people as boring and less appealing than other types of genealogical records -- but I hope we have shown here that deeds can provide breakthrough information to lead you to the other records.


William Dollarhide has been a genealogist since 1971. For eight years he was an Associate Architect at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. He began writing professionally about genealogy in 1984 and currently writes feature articles and acts as the executive editor for the Genealogy Bulletin, a bimonthly magazine he founded in 1984, published by Heritage Quest, a division of AGLL, Inc., of Bountiful, Utah.

He is the author of three books published by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. of Baltimore, Maryland: Managing a Genealogical Project; the Genealogy Starter Kit; and with William Thorndale, the Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. On his own, he developed and published Everyone's Family Tree genealogical software in 1989 and has designed numerous forms, maps, and charts for genealogists which are now published by Heritage Quest.

Since joining AGLL, Inc., he has helped thousands of beginning researchers on the World Wide Web through his renowned beginner's guide to genealogy entitled Seven Steps to a Family Tree, published by AGLL, Inc. in 1995. His most recent book prior to this publication was Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815, published by the Heritage Quest division in early 1997.

Since 1985, William Dollarhide has lectured to over 500 genealogical societies and has been an instructor at the annual Salt Lake Genealogical Institute. He received the American Society of Genealogists' Award of Merit in 1987 for the Map Guide book and an Award of Appreciation from the National Genealogical Society in 1989 for services to the genealogical community. In addition, he has received awards of appreciation from the state-wide genealogical societies of California, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington.


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