County and Town Records

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United States Land and Property

When an individual received the patent or title to his land, he went to a local government office to have his ownership recorded and to obtain a deed. The physical deed represented the ownership of the land. And if the deed became lost, the county always held a copy of the recorded deed.

In the early days, recording a deed was sometimes expensive. So the actual recording may have been put off. After all, a deed was not really needed, unless ownership was contested. Therefore, the recording of the deed could be delayed until ownership of the land was transferred to someone else or somehow called into question.

These land records and all subsequent exchanges of land through sales, foreclosure, divorce, or inheritance were usually recorded by a county clerk, county recorder, or county register of deeds (except in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, where town clerks have kept the records). These officials also kept records of mortgages and leases.



Deed and Mortgage Books

When an individual presented a patent, deed, or other evidence of ownership, the clerk usually made a handwritten copy of the complete document in the deed books. In later years, deeds were often recopied, especially if the originals were lost, worn, or destroyed. Mortgage and lease information may have been kept in separate books. The individual retained his copy of the deed and other records. The clerks also added the information to their local plat maps.

Deed books will contain various types of documents. Common documents are indentures, bills of sale, mortgages, leases, leins, dower releases, quitclaim deeds, and deeds of gift.


There are usually indexes with the deed and mortgage books, and some indexes have been published. The indexes generally list the name of the seller (grantor or direct indexes) and the name of the buyer (grantee or indirect indexes). Other names that are found in the records are rarely indexed. Because there may have been many transactions over many years regarding one piece of property, search a wide range of years in the indexes. Some indexes (read more) require special instructions to be able to use.

Obtaining County and Town Records

To start a deed search, first figure out the town or county that covered the land when the deed was made. Then contact that recorders office.

The Family History Library has microfilm copies of the deed books and indexes (and sometimes the mortgage and lease records) of more than 1,500 county and town courthouses. While this is alot of information, there is over 4,000 counties in the US. See the state research outlines for additional information. The county and town records are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under one of the following:
You may also write to the courthouse or archives where the original records are located to request a search of the indexes and then request copies from the record books. Most recorders offices allow online access to the land records, sometimes with actual copies of deeds to download. See the county or city websites. But usually this is only for the more recent years. A visit to the recorders office may be the most sure way to find all the land records.

For further information about land records see:

  • Hone, E. Wade. Land and Property Research in the United States. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1997. (FHL book 973 R27h.)
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