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Digging for Deeds

How to Trace Your Family Tree in U.S. Land Records


Most Americans owned at least some land prior to the twentieth century, making individual land records a treasure trove for genealogists. Deeds, legal records for transferring land or property from one individual to another, are the most prevalent and widely used of the U.S. land records, and can provide a fairly reliable method of tracking ancestors when no other record can be found. Deeds are relatively easy to locate and often provide a wealth of information on the family members, social status, occupation, and neighbors of the named individuals. Early land deeds are especially detailed and predate most other record sources, increasing the importance of land records the further back a researcher goes.

Why Land Deeds?
Land records are an especially powerful genealogical resource, especially when used in conjunction with other records, for breaching brick walls or in building a case where no one record provides a record of relationship. Deeds are an important genealogical resource because:

  • U.S. land deeds often involve more people than other genealogical sources - providing a potential source for information on family members, neighbors, and even friends.

  • Land deeds help to locate a person in a particular area at a particular time.

  • Deed books at the county courthouse are only copies of the original land deeds, so land records are especially useful in areas where a courthouse fire has destroyed most of the records prior to a certain date. Because property was valuable, most people would bring their original deeds back to the courthouse following a fire or other catastrophe so that they could be re-recorded.

  • Deeds can be used to distinguish two men with identical names by locating one or both on a particular piece of property.

  • Deeds that transfer property by will or estate may name all children and their spouses

  • Deeds, in conjunction with tax lists, can often help to reconstruct an entire neighborhood - making it easier to find potential migration patterns

Deed versus Grant
When researching land deeds it is important to understand the difference between a grant or patent, and a deed. A grant is the first transfer of a piece of property from some government entity into the hands of an individual, so if your ancestor acquired land by grant or patent then he was the original private land owner. A deed, however, is the transfer of property from one individual to another, and covers pretty much all land transactions following the original grant of land.

Types of Deeds
Deed books, records of property transfers for a particular county, are usually under the jurisdiction of the Registrar of Deeds and can be found at the local county courthouse. In the New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, land deeds are kept by the town clerks. In Alaska, deeds are registered at the district level and, in Louisiana, deed records are kept by the parish. Deed books contain records of a variety of land sales and transfers:

  • Deed of Sale
  • Deed of Gift
  • Strawman Sale
  • Lease & Release
  • Mortgage Sale
  • Estate Settlement

Next > How to Locate Land Deeds

Terms Found in Land Records

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