Deeds and other land records are an important part of building any family tree. Outside of telling you what land your ancestors may have owned, and where it was located, deeds are also a potential source of information on family members, family relationships, and other locations in which your ancestor lived. Each time you read a deed for your ancestor, ask yourself the following questions.
1. Is your ancestor selling property?
If so, how did he acquire it? Trace your way back through the grantee deed indexes to learn when and from whom your ancestor first acquired or purchased the land that he’s selling. If you are unable to find an official record of land transfer in the deed indexes, search land grants and warrants at the colony, state, or federal level to see if he was perhaps the original owner? If that also fails, follow the property instead of the owner; use the legal land description to try to identify the property through tax rolls and other land records. Ownership of land without a record of purchase or transfer from the prior owner may provide evidence of inheritance.
2. Where is the property located?
Get a good topographic map covering the area where your ancestor lived and locate your ancestor’s property on the map. In the United States you’ll need a map that shows watercourses for the State Land States and Range/Township lines in the Public Land States – USGS topographic maps are generally excellent for this purpose. Platting the deed can help you to place it on a map with precision, and explore its relationship to the surrounding community. Identifying your ancestor with a particular tract or parcel of land may also provide necessary evidence for distinguishing him from contemporaries with the same name.
Once you’ve pinpointed the location of your ancestor’s property, explore the neighborhood. Identify the nearest town, as well as the local churches, schools and cemeteries. Some may be marked on the map, while others may take some research to identify and locate on the map. With this information you can better understand the daily life of your ancestor, and possibly locate additional records.
3. What is the date?
The date a deed was written is not always the date it was recorded at the courthouse. It’s actually not that unusual to find a deed recorded many years or even decades after it was written, and the delay between the two dates may indicate a change in the family such as the coming of age of a minor child or the death or remarriage of a surviving parent. Deeds which were recorded long after the fact can also indicate land that passed down directly through generations of a family, since in some states and time periods a recorded deed was not required unless/until the land was actually sold. In certain situations old deeds may have been brought into the courthouse for re-recording following destruction of local records by fire or flood.
4. What was the purchase price?
Is the purchase price of the land in line with the amount of acreage and location? Compare the transaction details with those of other deeds in the area and time period. Land granted “for love and affection” or for a token purchase price such as $1 or $25 may sometimes, but not always, indicate a family relationship. Land sold for amounts significantly less than the going rate may also bear further investigation for a possible family relationship or additional financial dealings between the two parties. These associates, even if ultimately unrelated, may turn out to provide clues to family migration or additional records.
5. Are there multiple grantors (sellers)?
Deeds with multiple grantors, or sellers, other than husband and wife, may be “estate sales.” This is especially likely when many of the grantors share the same surname. Not all sales of land by “heirs” will necessarily indicate that the individuals are related, or even that they are heirs to the estate, however. Look for related probate records, and also follow up each of the individuals in census and other records to determine their relationship, if any.
Many deed indexes name only a single grantor and a single grantee, even when multiple parties were involved in the transaction. Sometimes the index may identify that there are others involved with a notation such as et al (and others), et ux (and wife) and, occasionally, et vir (and husband), but this is not always the case.
6. Are adjacent landowners mentioned by name?
Neighbors of your ancestors can often be found mentioned in deeds. Some of these adjacent landowners may just be the typical neighbor next door. But it’s also possible that some could be parents, cousins, children or family friends. Whether or not these adjacent landowners are related, it’s always worth investigating their deeds for further clues. Their deeds may name your ancestor, or may provide a relationship or other additional detail that isn’t found in your ancestor’s own deeds. Even the landless (renters, squatters, etc.) are sometimes identified in deeds as neighbors, making land deeds a potential resource even for individuals who never owned land.
7. Who else is named?
All associates mentioned in a deed, whether the grantor or grantee, witnesses, etc. are a potential source of genealogical clues. Do any of these associates or even people with the same surnames as the associates, appear in other records with your ancestor? If so, they should be further researched for a possible connection. They may just hold the clue to your ancestor’s place of origin, religious affiliation, or wife’s maiden name. Associates such as the local storekeeper, doctor, or minister may also have left records that name your ancestor. You can also take this a step further by reading all deeds recorded on the same day, or for several pages both before and after, looking for other transactions in which any of the same associates are named, or for land located in the same general area.
8. Is there a release of dower rights?
If the grantor (seller) is a married man, did his wife also sign the deed or execute a separate release of her dower rights? Dower refers to a widow’s right to a lifetime interest in one-third of her husband’s lands. If the husband sold any land during their marriage, the deed usually included the wife’s relinquishment of this dower interest so the individual purchasing the land was guaranteed that she wouldn’t sue after her husband’s death to reclaim her dower interest. If nothing else, this provides evidence of a wife’s name, along with a time and place in which she was living.
In the United States, dower is found in areas where law was derived from the common law of England, particularly the eastern, southeastern (with the exception of Louisiana), and midwestern states. A separate release of dower is less commonly found in the public domain states; instead, the wife typically signed the deed to indicate her agreement to the sale. The way in which dower operated and was enforced varied by time period and locality, so don’t read anything into the absence of a wife’s signature or a separate dower release without first checking the local statutes in effect at the time.
9. Did he sign with an X?
Investigate the signatures of all interested parties to the deeds and make note of how each person signed, whether with their full name, initials, or an X or cross. Unless the deed is an original passed down through the family, marks and signatures found in deed books are generally copies, faithfully recorded by the county clerk. Marks, such as X or a sideways E, were usually copied by the recorder as exactly as possible. Full signatures, however, are of less use for identification, other than the fact that the individual was literate and could sign their name, as the recorded copies generally do not replicate the original handwriting.
If an individual used a mark other than an X, such as the first letter of their given name or surname, make note of the mark along with size, direction, and anything else that makes it distinctive. Even a cross, while fairly common, was used less often than the X. An individual’s mark or signature might provide necessary evidence for distinguishing individuals of the same name. Marks and signatures do change over time, however.
10. Have you read every word?
A working knowledge of legal terminology in the time and place in which you are researching, along with a good legal reference such as an older version of Black’s or Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, can reveal important distinctions between standard “boiler plate” language and words or phrases that may have significant implications for solving genealogical problems.1 For example, the fact that one of the parties “acknowledged” a deed in court implies that he was physically in the court room on the day that the deed was recorded. And a reference to “feme sole” denotes a single woman who had the right to own property and sign contracts in her own name.
1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1891). The 1891 and 1910 editions are also available on CD-ROM from Archive CD Books USA, and a free, digital version of the 1910 edition can be viewed through Google Books.
2. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of Several States of the American Union With References to the Civil and Other Systems of Foreign Law, Philadelphia: T. and J.W. Johnson, 1839). The revised sixth edition (1856) can be viewed as a plain text reprint on Constitution.org. Additional editions are available from Google Books.