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Beginning Research in United States Land Records

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What are United States land records?[edit | edit source]

  • A deed is a written legal document transferring ownership of property from one person to another person. Deeds are kept at the county level except for Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island, where deeds are recorded at the town level. The first sale of land from the government to a person is called a grant. Thereafter, the sale of that land from person to person is recorded in a deed.
  • Deeds were usually written up by a county clerk, a lawyer, a justice of the peace, or someone else familiar with the needed legalities of a deed. The person selling the land, his wife, and two witnesses needed to be present at the time the deed was written.
  • The buyer kept the original deed and the county clerk wrote a copy of the deed into the deed book. The clerk also added the land location to local plat maps.
  • The parts of a deed include:
    • The type of legal instrument it is (warranty deed, quit claim, mortgage, trust, tax sale, sheriff’s sale)
    • The date of the sale
    • The date of recording
    • Names of the grantee (buyer) and the grantor (seller)
    • The county and state of residence
    • The amount of money for the sale
    • The property description
    • The nature, conditions, and considerations (such as an acknowledgment that the seller has been paid; a statement that the property can be sold or inherited; a statement that the title on the land is valid, etc.)
    • A dower release (which is an acknowledgment that the wife is letting the land be sold of her own free will) or a courtesy right (where a husband has agreed to the sale of the property)
    • Signatures (copied into the deed book)
    • Names of witnesses.

What time periods and locations do they cover?[edit | edit source]

  • Deeds are public records and exist from the date the county was formed. Some land records are available as early as the 1600's in the Colonial states. If the county was formed by dividing another county, deeds may be found in the records of the earlier county.

What can I find in them?[edit | edit source]

  • Deeds can provide many clues about your ancestor and their family. An individual may have sold land to their children or siblings. A deed may show the distribution of land of a deceased parent to their children as an inheritance (then check probate records, also).
  • The sale of a piece of property may give the first name of the wife (then look for marriage records).
  • A deed may mention the previous county and state of residence or a new county or state of residence.
  • Deeds often give the names of adjacent property owners, who might be parents, cousins, children, or family friends.
  • Land records may also show if he had served in the military, or if he was a naturalized citizen.
  • A deed could show the settlement of a probate decree, a sale by court order, a separation between two individuals, or may mention different types of relationships.
  • Many civil suits are found in deeds—over half of the lawsuits in America before 1850 had something to do with land (check court records). Federal land patents may also be found recorded in county deed books.
  • Land records can help separate individuals or families with the same surname.
  • Information from land records will lead to other types of records to search, such as probate or court records, marriage records, military records, or immigration and naturalization records.

How do I access them?[edit | edit source]

To find online land records:[edit | edit source]

  • Do a Google search by typing your county and state with the words “online land records” after the name of the state being searched.
  • If the U S Government purchased a property from an individual, the purchase may not be registered with the county. Contact the U S Government to obtain a copy of the deed.

To find land records at the Family History Library:[edit | edit source]

Look in the FamilySearch Catalog to find the microfilm number of the deed books and indexes of more than 1,500 county and town courthouses of the 3,144 counties and county-equivalents in the United States. The county and town land records are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under "Land and Property" of the county being researched or "Land and Property" of the town in the case of Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

For counties which have not been microfilmed or are not online:[edit | edit source]

Call or write the County Clerk or Recorder’s Office to find the correct department that will tell you how to access the deed indexes and records for the particular county you are searching. A county might offer searches and document copies for a fee. You may have to physically visit the county recorder’s office to learn about the land you are researching, or hire an agent to do it for you.

Search strategies[edit | edit source]

  • Deed books will have one index for grantees and another for grantors. It is important to search both the grantee and grantor index, as much can be learned by looking at both the purchases and the sales.
  • Study the index system carefully to see how it is organized. Sometimes, surnames are grouped together by the first letter of the last name and are not in strict alphabetical order after that. In some deed indexes, names are also indexed by the first letter of the first name. Some records begin with a grid chart showing the page number fro a particular three letter combination in the
  • Take note about whether or not a landowner sold the same amount of acreage he originally purchased. If he sold more land than he purchased, he may have inherited some land or acquired land through marriage. If he purchased more land than he sold, find out what happened to the rest of the land.
  • Look carefully at deeds of people with the same surnames in the county you are searching, as these people may be related.