Land records are some of the most underutilized, yet most useful, records available in genealogy. Often, they are the only records which state a direct relationship between family members. They can also be used to prove relationships indirectly by studying the land laws in force at the time. Sometimes they can even be used to locate an ancestor’s farm or original house, so that we can walk today where our family walked long ago.
Land records exist in the United States in abundance for most locations, yet they are an often overlooked resource for many genealogists. Don’t make the same mistake! Read on for more information about how land records can help you scale seemingly impossible brick walls in your genealogy research.
Land Ho! The Importance of Land Records
The search for new land is one of the main themes of American history, so it makes sense that land records would be an important part of researching that history. The right to own real estate was not universal in most of the countries from which the majority of American immigrants came. And even when it was possible to own land legally, it was often too expensive and thus out of reach for most people.
As a result, the lure of vast expanses of relatively cheap and plentiful land has proved irresistible to millions of immigrants to American shores over the course of the past 400 years. The land records created throughout those years to document ownership of all that real estate have accumulated in seemingly limitless amounts throughout the vast area that now comprises the United State of America, even in the face of catastrophic record loss in some locations.
Due to the paramount importance of land ownership in what would become the United States, land records often are the only records in which you will find your ancestors mentioned in some areas. They also usually exist from the date of formation of colonial, state, and county governments, where the records still exist. They often state relationships or provide other, indirect, evidence of family relationships. Understanding what kinds of land records exist, where to find them, and how to use them is often critical to solving genealogical mysteries.
Types of Land Records and How to Use Them
The most essential land record is the deed. Deeds document the transfer or sale of title, or ownership, of a piece of land or other property from one party to another. Deeds usually concern land, or “real” property, but they also often mention moveable or “chattel” property, such as household goods and even enslaved persons.
They sometimes, but not always, contain explicit, direct statements of relationship between family members. Sometimes this can be a parent-child relationship, but deeds can also include a list of people who are children or heirs of a particular deceased person who owned the land being sold. Sometimes the language in deeds involving heirs makes it clear that the heirs are children, sometimes not, so some care must be taken not to assume that all heirs are children. Research in other records sets such as probate, census, and church records may make the relationships of the heirs to the deceased land owner clearer.
In the early years of a settlement, and sometimes later, deeds books also often contained other types of transactions, including the sale of enslaved persons and sometimes even wills. These are often records for which no other copies survive. Thus, surviving deed books should always be checked for ancestors and their family members in every jurisdiction in which you do genealogy research.
Also, remember to check published abstracts of deeds if they exist, as witnesses to deeds were not included in most indexes to the original deed books. Witnessing a deed was one of many ways relatives assisted one another, and thus the presence of one of your ancestors as a witness for someone else suggests they had some kind of relationship, which might lead to the discovery of previously unknown ancestors.
Also keep in mind that not all states required the recording of deeds throughout their history, or did not require them to be recorded in a timely fashion. Pennsylvania is an example of this lackadaisical attitude to record keeping that now seems foreign. When researching land records in Pennsylvania it is important to remember that deeds for an ancestor might have been recorded years, even decades, after the actual transaction took place. Therefore, always remember to check the indexes for deeds and other transactions many years after the person in question died or left the area.
In other states, such as New Jersey, land was sold at the colony and state level for longer than is typical in other areas and thus land records must be sought at the state or colony level up to that time. In the case of New Jersey, deeds only began to be recorded in the various counties around 1785. Therefore, New Jersey real property research must be done at both the county and state or colonial level. In the case of colonies and states with massive record loss, such as Virginia, land records recorded on the state level are often the only records that survive for some counties, and thus are critical for success in navigating such “burned” counties.
Land Grants and Patents
Land grants and patents issued by the various colonial, state and federal governments are also an important resource, including land lotteries in states like Georgia. In many states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the original applications, warrants, surveys, and patents or grants still exist and can be searched at the state archives or online. While these documents do not often state relationships, they sometimes do, as in the case of one of my ancestors whose father had applied for a land patent in Pennsylvania in 1787 but had died before the patent was issued in 1800, and thus it was granted to his son by the same name. However, the land patent spelled out that the original applicant had died and his son was the person actually receiving the patent.
Land patents and grants, as well as deeds in general, can also document the dates in which an ancestor resided or at least owned land in a given location, assisting the researcher in establishing timelines for ancestors and for differentiating between two or more individuals residing in a given area with the same name. Anyone dreading research on their Smith and Jones ancestors might just find the solution they seek in those old, musty deed books!
Other land records that might prove essential in solving genealogy puzzles are mortgages, which in some states like New Jersey were recorded locally earlier than deeds and sometimes survive for earlier years than do deeds. A mortgage is a promise by a borrower to repay a loan using real estate as collateral—in effect deeding title to the real estate to the creditor if the loan is not repaid. A similar instrument called a deed of trust, or trust deed, performs the same function with the exception that a third-party trustee takes title if the loan is not paid back in full. In the early years, mortgages and trust deeds were usually contracted with private individuals, but as the banking industry grew in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, they began to be taken out with banks instead of private persons.
The two parties involved in a mortgage are the “mortgagor” and the “mortgagee,” and indexes can often be found for mortgages using those terms. However, sometimes early mortgages and trust deeds were recorded in the same books as deeds, so keep an eye out for them. And remember: the mortgagor is the borrower, while the mortgagee is the creditor. But don’t be put off by their sometimes-confusing terminology. Old mortgages and trust deeds are some of the most underused land records in existence—yet they can sometimes be the key that unlocks the door to that next ancestor. Don’t overlook them!
One other land record that could crack the case is land tax records. Everyone who owned land had to pay taxes on it, at least in theory. Sometimes, land tax books include notations about one person inheriting land from another, or more commonly, the change in owner’s name from one year to the next can indicate inheritance of the land. The absence of a deed or will showing the transfer might be explained by checking the land tax books.
The Law of the Land: Primogeniture and Genealogy
In some cases, the inheritance and real estate laws of the time might allow you to make a determination of parentage even without a will or deed stating the suspected relationship. The legal concept of primogeniture, or inheritance of land by the first-born son, was in force in many parts of the Thirteen Colonies until soon after independence, especially in the southern and middle colonies. Thus, when a land owner died, his first-born son would often inherit all or most of his land if he died intestate, or without a will.
The emergence of one man as the owner of a given piece of land in place of the previous owner, either as the seller, or “grantor,” in a deed or in the land tax records, could indicate that the previous owner died and the land was inherited by his “heir-at-law,” the first-born son. There might not be any record of this transfer, so knowing the “law of the land” can prove to be instrumental in cracking the case.
In these and many other ways, land records can be used to find direct and indirect evidence of family and other types of relationships, often when no other record does—or even survives. It is for this reason that land records research must be part of any reasonably exhaustive genealogical investigation.
Land Records: Where Are They Now?
In some areas, land records are the only records that survive which state relationships or can be used to provide indirect evidence of them. They also are useful in establishing biographical timelines for ancestors, and to learn more about their lives. They can sometimes also be used to identify the location of ancestor’s farms and sometimes even their original homes, so that today’s genealogists can often literally walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. But where are those records now?
It used to be that if you wanted to do genealogy the right way, one of your first stops had to be at the county courthouse where your ancestors lived. This is still a good practice, as many treasures held within the walls of the hundreds of courthouses scattered across this land are not microfilmed, digitized, or abstracted, and likely never will be. The Recorder of Deeds and the County Clerk are therefore often the genealogist’s best friends. So, planning a trip to the courthouse or archive where land records are held is still a good idea. But many of us live far away from where our ancestors owned land and lived out their lives. How can we access these records if we don’t have the time or budget to travel to the areas in question?
Thankfully, the digital revolution has made researching land records and other types of documents much easier, but often still time consuming and at times overwhelming. The land records held at the state level for “state land” states (the original thirteen colonies and the states formed from them such as Maine and Kentucky) are usually indexed and can often be accessed digitally at the website for the state archives, commercial genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, or can be ordered via correspondence with the archive.
In states that were part of the old Northwest Territory, such as Ohio and Indiana, as well as the other public land states (any state formed under the Constitution that was not carved out of one of the original colonies), grants from the federal government to the first recorded owner of that land can be found at the Government Land Office site created by the Bureau of Land Management. Their site allows searches for names of individuals who purchased federal land in public land states and even includes digital images of the land grants, including the signature of the President of the United States at the time.
Other types of records associated with federal land, including applications for public domain land grants, Homestead Act applications, Freedman’s Bureau land records, and bounty land warrants and applications for veterans are all held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Many of these records also state relationships and add rich detail about the lives of ancestors. However, most of these records have never been digitized and must be searched in person or requested via the National Archives’ online order service.
Land records at the county or town level are still held at the local county courthouse or archive, if they survive. Many jurisdictions have digitized their land records and made them available online, in many cases for free. This can sometimes include the entire run of a county’s land records, back to the formation of the county. County clerks and recorders will also sometimes do research via correspondence, though most are unable to do so due to time constraints.
Most importantly in the field of land records research from a genealogical perspective is the massive digitization project undertaken by FamilySearch, the website for the genealogical Society of Utah. Millions of land records from all across the United States, and even some from other countries, are available at their website free of charge—and viewable either from the comfort of your own home or at a Family History Center or the Family History Library itself, depending on the license agreement FamilySearch has with the original repository. This vast trove of land records is almost completely unindexed by FamilySearch and will thus not appear in results using their “Records” search page. They must instead be searched in the “Catalog” search page.
Despite not being indexed by FamilySearch, the digitized microfilms themselves usually have indexes, either in separate volumes or at the beginnings or ends of the digitized individual deed books. Most of the digitized land records made available by FamilySearch date from 1900 or before, so a trip to the courthouse might still be warranted for most twentieth-century deeds and more recent land records research. If all else fails, don’t forget to ask the recorder or clerk for help if you have a limited research goal, such as one deed copy—you just might be surprised how eager and willing they are to help.
If the land records you need are unavailable online or are held in a remote location, consider hiring a professional genealogist to go to the courthouse in person on your behalf. Legacy Tree Genealogists has a worldwide network of onsite researchers who can obtain nearly any record that still exists in most areas. Call or email us today so that we can assist you in the search for your ancestors and the records of their sometimes only tangible piece of the American dream—land!
Indeed, land ownership was more widespread in the Thirteen Colonies and the United States than most any other nation on earth. But what if your ancestors still didn’t own any land? How do you find those elusive family members who for whatever reason were unable or uninterested in owning land? Well, that’s a topic for another day.
In the meantime, however you access them, land records are absolutely critical for success in genealogy and should be thoroughly examined whenever possible. You’ll be glad you did.
Do you have a family history mystery or genealogy “brick wall” you can’t seem to break through? The experienced team at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help! Contact us today to request a free quote!
Jo Ruff says
I need help in discovering the parents of Ananias Archer from Martinsville, New York. Can you help? I’d also like to know if he was an immigrant or lived elsewhere. I have birthdates as 1769 or 1750. He was the husband of Elizabeth Jecocks & I know he had at least 2 children Amy and John. John had a son named , too and I believe Ananias’s father was a John. Would love to be able to trace this man back many generations.
Thanks so much,
Jo (Archer) Ruff
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Hi Jo. I will have a member of our Client Solutions team reach out to you to discuss your research goals.
Theresa Murphy says
I am searching for my mother’s paternal side. She was born in August 1921. There is no birth certificate. Is there land that a man by the last name of Simmons may have had in Fairfield S.C. or Charlotte.
Amber - Legacy Tree Genealogists says
Have you explored DNA research? This may be an additional avenue you can try.
saki komai says
Thank you for sharing this article.