What You Might Be Missing in Land Records

fieldLand records can be hard to wrestle with, and not just because of their size. There are a lot of details. But when we’re careful, we can get so many clues. Here are five things that you might be missing in land records.

1. All of the Names

There are two basic names in a deed – the grantor and the grantee. The grantor is the one selling the land; the grantee is the one buying it. There could be other people named in those deeds as well. It’s not uncommon for the wife of the grantor to be named, because depending on the state and time period, she also had to release her dower rights. She had to acknowledge that she understood that in selling this land, she was giving up her rights and claims that she would have had to it later.

Other names that you find in deeds include the names of adjoining landowners. The legal description of the land could mention that this land adjoins the property of such and so. It helps you pick up some of those neighbors and put those people into perspective with each other.

Don’t forget about the witnesses, but be careful. Sometimes the witnesses are people at the courthouse and not people that your ancestor typically interacted with. One way to check is to look at other deeds in that time period. Is the same person constantly acting as a witness, regardless of who is buying and selling the land? He might be the clerk.

2. Residences

You don’t need to live where you own land and our ancestors didn’t have to, either. Just because they owned the land, doesn’t necessarily mean they lived there. Pay attention to the residence that is listed with them in the deed. It could be in a different county or in a completely different state.

BONUS TIP: It was common for people to buy land in a new location before they migrated there. The first deed in the new location can show that previous residence.

3. The Legal Description of the Land

I know that anytime we start talking about looking at legal things in our research, it can be a little scary. However, take the time to go through and record the legal description of the land, because that’s going to tell you exactly the property that is being bought and sold.

It was common for our ancestors to have started with one big piece of land and then sell off little pieces of it later. With the legal description of the land, we can account for everything. One thing you want to do when you’re working in land records is to be able to account for the person acquiring all of the land they sell and selling all of the land they acquire. The only way that you’re going to be able to do that is if you have a legal description to be able to track that particular piece of property.

4. Consideration

Consideration is just a fancy way of saying how much that land was sold for. More accurately, it’s how much that land was exchanged for because consideration isn’t always money. Consideration can be “for love and affection.” If someone is transferring 100 acres of land for love and affection, that’s a pretty good clue that there’s some sort of relationship between the grantor and the grantee. It could be a family relationship. They could just be really good friends. (Although, how many of your friends would you give 100 acres of land to for love and affection? I’m guessing not many.)

Take a look at token amounts. Say you have that 100 acres of land and it’s being sold for $1. True, land was cheap back in the day, but $1 for 100 acres of land is really a token amount. In those cases, that could be a clue that there’s some sort of relationship between the grantor and the grantee.

5. The Type of Transaction

There are different types of land transactions. One type is called a warranty deed, where the person who is selling the land is basically giving a warranty or guarantee that they really do have clear title to this land and they have the right to sell it.

Another type of deed is what’s called a quitclaim deed. It’s just like it sounds. This person is quitting their claim to the land. Technically, they’re not selling the land itself; they’re just selling their claim to it. Quitclaims are often used when there are several people who actually own the land, which is often a sign that someone has died (usually without a will) and that land has passed to all of the heirs.

Let’s say that John Smith died without a will. The land that he owned is going to pass down to his heirs, which are his five children. Somebody buying John’s land can’t just buy it from one of the heirs; he has to buy it from all of them. It’s usually done in a series of quitclaim deeds. When you go through those deeds and you see that your ancestor is selling, for example, a 1/5 claim or 1/5 part to the land, take a look at the other legalese, and it’ll often turn out to be a quitclaim deed. That’s your clue that there are other deeds that you need to look at that pertain to the same piece of land. That can open up all sorts of avenues for us to research.

What cool things have you found in land records?

What You Might Be Missing in Land Records

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  • Several deeds which were the only proof of marriage, being a “gift” from the father-in-law to daughter and son-in-law.

    New married name of a widow when she “gifts” property to her son

    A prenuptial agreement between a widow and her 2nd husband, also naming all of her children

    A declaration of the source of any wealth by the widow (2nd) wife, stating her father’s name and, hence, her birth name, and place of birth.

  • Am I correct in understanding that some deeds were only registered after the land had been paid for in full – so the grantee may have been living on the land while paying off a mortgage to it (and paying taxes on it), but the actual deed would not have been recorded until the land was fully paid for?

    • That’s true even today. You can’t record a deed showing a transfer of the land until the transfer is complete, which would mean that the land is paid for. So, yes, a person could have been using the land (including living on it) long before they paid for it. You might want to take a look at other records in whatever office takes care of land transactions in that county. There could be records of mortgages, liens, etc.

      • An Agreement For Sale provides for making payments so one can purchase the land over time. Based on the terms of this agreement a deed will be registered upon completion of payments or when the buyer can qualify for financing and obtain his own mortgage to complete the transaction in paying out the registered owner.

      • Thanks, this response and your original post helps! I’ve looked at a few land records but not enough to really understand it all. I do know they are valuable!

  • I found a “lease of lives” dated 1743 in Mountmellick Ireland for my Irish Quaker ancestor William Nevill. This lease named my 5-greatgrandfather leasing 20 crofts for his apprentices. A lease of lives names three people and as long as they lived the rent could not be raised. Think of it as early rent control.

    I then found an 1808 lease naming a grandson, James Neville of Wigam England. This was another lease of lives when he named his three children. These two documents named 4 generations of the family.

  • I found proof of my great grandfather’s death “about the year 1860” in an 1885 quit claim deed of his oldest son for two parcels of property his father had purchased in 1856 from his brother-in-law and another party in Adams County, Iowa.

  • I was able to prove a brother for my third great grandfather using the witnesses on the sale of his land. One witness was his sister in-law and the other was her Justice of the Peace first cousin. The cousin was also married to a first cousin of my third great grandmother.

  • I wasn’t able to find a record of where an ancestor was buried, and then on an 1869 deed, I found he had sold “100 acres more or less save and except one and one half square rods known as the Grave yard”. Now I got to find someone willing to go look for it.

    • You need to find out what county office is in charge of deeds. In many places in the US, it’s the County Recorder. There, they have indexes based on grantor (the seller) and grantee (the buyer). Look for the name of someone you know owned the property. The description in the deed will tell you what property it is (to make sure you have the right one).

  • I had an ancestor, that the parents were unknown, and no real connection to any other known family in the area. My 4th great grandfather moved from TN to IL when he was about 25, (in 1829) raised his family and so on. Long story, but the land records (not the record itself, but the book/index in which they are contained that is) gave me a clue. The index revealed that there were early land records on 4 consective pages, all filed on the same day – as that of my ancestor. All had matching Surnames, except 1, this other Surname lead me to where the family came from in TN.