Importance of Land Records

Those who know me figured that sooner or later I'd be telling you about land records. I love deeds, because they are such a valuable resource-often called the backbone of Genealogy Research.

These records almost always exist because they are in the possession of the land owner. If, for example, the courthouse, burned people simply, or maybe not so simply, had them re-recorded. Owners needed to have proof of title, and the government was anxious to help so they knew from whom to collect taxes.

Immigrants often came to America for the opportunity to purchase their own land. The majority of men in the early United States were farmers and since most were not famous, or notorious, they left few records, but the majority did leave land records. Before the Civil War, 9 of every 10 men in the United States owned land, making it more likely that you will find your ancestor in land records than any other type of record. After the 1860s, the figure drops to 50% but it is still significant. A county-wide surname index exists to virtually every landowner in America since the early 1600s.

Deeds vary in information but great clues can be found in them.

• Deeds pinpoint an individual at a certain location on a certain date. If Oliver Woodward bought land in Ohio in 1864 he was probably living in Ohio in 1864 or moved there about that time.

• Land records fill in for the 10 years between the censuses. If your ancestor is on the 1850 census in Ohio but missing in 1860 he may not have died. Maybe he moved. A check of land records will reveal if he sold land and if he did the date of the sale which is probably the time he left the area.

• You can often find women's names in deeds. A married woman owned 1/3 interest in her husband's lands, though she did not have title. Because of this dower law, the selling of property, in most states, required that the wife be separately interviewed to make sure she was willing to let the property be sold. The record of this interview along with her name will be in the deed.

• Relationships are sometimes stated in deeds. When each of the children of a David Shepherd sold land, the deeds always included the phrase: "...property given to me by my beloved father David Shepherd."

• When someone dies you will often find a sale of land. Sometimes this was to pay debts, and sometimes to record dower land being set aside for the widow.

• If there were minor children when their father died, a guardian would need to be appointed. These guardianship papers are usually found with land records. Even if a mother was the guardian, she would need to be appointed by the court.

• Bounty land was given in lieu of payment for military service during time of war. Bounty land could be moved on to, or it could be sold, which it often was, leaving another record.

• Transfer of slaves, recorded by name, is also found in Deed Books, as slaves were considered property until after the Civil War

• Census records before 1850 name only head of household. John Smith Sr. who owns land now lives with his son John Smith Jr. In the 1840 census only John Jr. would be listed because he is the head of the household. Land records would list both men.

• Neighboring property owners more often than not relatives, as families tended to own land near each other.

Land records can also help determine a person's wealth, standing in the community, list children and/or relationships. The witnesses were often family members. However, you can't point and click your way into these records.

You will have to locate them through a deed index. Many of these have been microfilmed, but if you can't find microfilmed copies, the records will need to be searched at the location where they were recorded.

Your local Family History Center can help you locate the indexes to these valuable deed indexes.

Enjoy the journey!

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