Ancestor Searching Newsletter, Volume 1, # 6
Land and Property
According to E. Wade Hone in his book Land & Property Research, there are 3 important reasons for land records.
First, land records are available much further back in time than any other record. This allows researchers the ability to place individuals and families as residents of a particular area in a specific time period.
Secondly, more people have had ties to land and property records. By the middle of the 19th century indications are that almost 90% of adult white males owned property in the country. This fact makes county deed indexes an extremely valuable source for locating residency in a county, even more so than census records where individuals or families may not have been enumerated.
Third, land and property records have suffered the least number of losses than any other type record. Sale records of public lands by the U.S. government are almost 100% intact from 1787 through the present. Even in counties where records have been burned, land records have been re-constructed either in part or in whole. In many cases, deeds have been re-recorded after courthouse damage from water, fires or other random acts of nature such as lightning, tornados and hurricanes.
A prime example of the importance of land records can be seen in the earliest English tax records (circa 1066 to 1096 A.D.) which are contained in a volume known as the ‘Domesday Book’. These date back to the time period of the Norman Conquest and are a valuable resource when tracing ancestors who lived during that time period in England. For more information, there are several web sites that give excellent historical background on the subject. If you would like to search a listing of close to 200 of the landowners, go to...
This is by no means a complete list of all of the property owners. More information on the book and property owners for those who are interested can be found at http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/guide/dom.shtml.
The Dower Rights system was an English common law practice which made its appearance during the time of William the Conqueror. It provided for widows to receive 1/3 of the deceased husband’s estate. The same practice was used by the colonists and on into the 19th century. Often, the widow’s given name is recorded in deeds making them potentially an important source of information for maiden names. Even though wives weren’t allowed to own land in their own name, they were allowed "veto power" over land sales due to the dower and/or community property rights. Along a similar line of interest, land records may also hold the key to finding out a wife’s maiden name when she’s inherited property from her deceased father. However, any land bequeathed through family estate settlements was awarded to the husband as owner. In the way of a side note, under Spanish law, the wife was entitled to ½ of the estate.
Public land records under the jurisdiction of the federal government will usually contain such information as cash and credit sales, land donations and homesteads. An excellent resource online for these federal records is the Bureau of Land Management at http://www.blm.gov/nhp/index.htm.
Another valuable source of information is the National Archives page at http://www.archives.gov/genealogy/land/.
And be sure to check out these sites concerning legal land descriptions…
It’s interesting to note that even with the abundance of land and property records available, they are the least utilized. The biggest reasons are 1) many researchers don’t understand the various records and how they’re organized and 2) not having taken time to really learn about all of the types of records available.
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Fact: Following land records, the next most recorded available records are the marriage records.
Tip: When researching deeds in courthouse records, be sure to utilize both the Grantor as well as the Grantee indexes. Many researchers may surmise that since there is no record of land being bought that there will be no record of land being sold by an individual. Not so. The original ownership of a tract of land could initially be due to its being a grant or patent from a state or the federal government. It could also have been inherited from a family member, overlooked during indexing of the records, or simply never recorded as an acquisition. Look in BOTH indexes to be sure!