How to Find and Use Land Records for Genealogy

Land records are some of the most underutilized, yet most useful, records available in genealogy. Often, they are the only records which state a direct relationship between family members. They can also be used to prove relationships indirectly by studying the land laws in force at the time. Sometimes they can even be used to locate an ancestor’s farm or original house, so that we can walk today where our family walked long ago.

Land records exist in the United States in abundance for most locations. Read on to learn how to find land records and how they can help you scale seemingly impossible brick walls in your genealogy research. Our guest blogger is Jaye Drummond, a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists.

how to find and use land records for genealogy

The History of Land Records

The search for new land is one of the main themes of American history, so it makes sense that land records would be an important part of researching that history.

The right to own real estate was not universal in most of the countries from which the majority of American immigrants came. And even when it was possible to own land legally, it was often too expensive and thus out of reach for most people.

As a result, the lure of vast expanses of relatively cheap and plentiful land has proved irresistible to millions of immigrants to American shores over the course of the past 400 years.

The land records created throughout those years to document ownership of all that real estate have accumulated in seemingly limitless amounts. Even in the face of catastrophic record loss in some locations, land records are generally plentiful. They usually exist from the date of formation of colonial, state, and county governments, where the records still exist.

Information Contained in Land Records

Due to the paramount importance of land ownership in what would become the United States, land records often are the only records in which you will find your ancestors mentioned in some areas.

And there’s good news! Land records often state relationships or provide other, indirect, evidence of family relationships. This makes them an invaluable resource for genealogists. 

Understanding what kinds of land records exist, where to find them, and how to use them is often critical to solving genealogical mysteries.

4 Types of Land Records and How to Use Them

There are four different types of land records that can play a vital role in your family history research. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how to use them. 

1. Land Deeds

The most essential land record is the deed. Deeds document the transfer or sale of title, or ownership, of a piece of land or other property from one party to another.

Deeds usually concern land, or “real” property, but they also often mention moveable or “chattel” property, such as household goods and even enslaved persons.

example of deed index familysearch

Example of deed index, courtesy of FamilySearch

They sometimes, but not always, contain explicit, direct statements of relationship between family members. Sometimes this can be a parent-child relationship, but deeds can also include a list of people who are children or heirs of a particular deceased person who owned the land being sold.

Sometimes the language in deeds involving heirs makes it clear that the heirs are children, sometimes not, so some care must be taken not to assume that all heirs are children. Research in other records sets such as probate, census, and church records may make the relationships of the heirs to the deceased land owner clearer.

In the early years of a settlement, and sometimes later, deeds books also often contained other types of transactions, including the sale of enslaved persons and sometimes even wills. These are often records for which no other copies survive. Thus, surviving deed books should always be checked for ancestors and their family members in every jurisdiction in which you do genealogy research.

Also, remember to check published abstracts of deeds if they exist, as witnesses to deeds were not included in most indexes to the original deed books. Witnessing a deed was one of many ways relatives assisted one another, and thus the presence of one of your ancestors as a witness for someone else suggests they had some kind of relationship, which might lead to the discovery of previously unknown ancestors.

Also keep in mind that not all states required the recording of deeds throughout their history, or did not require them to be recorded in a timely fashion.

Pennsylvania is an example of this lackadaisical attitude to record keeping that now seems foreign. When researching land records in Pennsylvania it is important to remember that deeds for an ancestor might have been recorded years, even decades, after the actual transaction took place. Therefore, always remember to check the indexes for deeds and other transactions many years after the person in question died or left the area.

In other states, such as New Jersey, land was sold at the colony and state level for longer than is typical in other areas and thus land records must be sought at the state or colony level up to that time.

In the case of New Jersey, deeds only began to be recorded in the various counties around 1785. Therefore, New Jersey real property research must be done at both the county and state or colonial level.

In the case of colonies and states with massive record loss, such as Virginia, land records recorded on the state level are often the only records that survive for some counties, and thus are critical for success in navigating such “burned” counties.

2. Land Grants and Patents

Land grants and patents issued by the various colonial, state and federal governments are also an important resource, including land lotteries in states like Georgia.

In many states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the original applications, warrants, surveys, and patents or grants still exist and can be searched at the state archives or online.

While these documents do not often state relationships, they sometimes do. That was the case with one of my ancestors whose father had applied for a land patent in Pennsylvania in 1787. He died before the patent was issued in 1800, and thus it was granted to his son by the same name. However, the land patent spelled out that the original applicant had died and his son was the person actually receiving the patent.

Land patents and grants, as well as deeds in general, can also document the dates in which an ancestor resided or at least owned land in a given location. This can assist the researcher in establishing timelines for ancestors. It can also help when it comes to differentiating between two or more individuals residing in a given area with the same name. Anyone dreading research on their Smith and Jones ancestors might just find the solution they seek in those old, musty deed books!

Land grants and land patents

3. Mortgages

Other land records that might prove essential in solving genealogy puzzles are mortgages.

In some states like New Jersey, mortgages were recorded locally earlier than deeds and sometimes survive for earlier years than do deeds.

A mortgage is a promise by a borrower to repay a loan using real estate as collateral—in effect deeding title to the real estate to the creditor if the loan is not repaid.

A similar instrument called a deed of trust, or trust deed, performs the same function with the exception that a third-party trustee takes title if the loan is not paid back in full. In the early years, mortgages and trust deeds were usually contracted with private individuals, but as the banking industry grew in the United States over the course of the nineteenth century, they began to be taken out with banks instead of private persons.

The two parties involved in a mortgage are the “mortgagor” and the “mortgagee.” Indexes can often be found for mortgages using those terms.

However, sometimes early mortgages and trust deeds were recorded in the same books as deeds, so keep an eye out for them.

And remember: the mortgagor is the borrower, while the mortgagee is the creditor.

Don’t be put off by their sometimes-confusing terminology. Old mortgages and trust deeds are some of the most underused land records in existence—yet they can sometimes be the key that unlocks the door to that next ancestor. Don’t overlook them!

4. Tax Records

One other land record that could crack the case is land tax records. Everyone who owned land had to pay taxes on it, at least in theory. Sometimes, land tax books include notations about one person inheriting land from another, or more commonly, the change in owner’s name from one year to the next can indicate inheritance of the land. The absence of a deed or will showing the transfer might be explained by checking the land tax books.

John Rodes L. Ds. Image courtesy of MyHeritage.

“14th Dec. 1786 Received of Mr. James Brooks Six pounds, Eighteen Shillings and four pence in full for the balance of Samuel Wood Estate Land Tax for 1784 & Half tax for 85.” John Rodes L. Ds. Image courtesy of MyHeritage.

The Law of the Land: Primogeniture and Genealogy

In some cases, the inheritance and real estate laws of the time might allow you to make a determination of parentage even without a will or deed stating the suspected relationship.

The legal concept of primogeniture, or inheritance of land by the first-born son, was in force in many parts of the Thirteen Colonies until soon after independence, especially in the southern and middle colonies. Thus, when a land owner died, his first-born son would often inherit all or most of his land if he died intestate, or without a will.

The emergence of one man as the owner of a given piece of land in place of the previous owner, either as the seller, or “grantor,” in a deed or in the land tax records, could indicate that the previous owner died and the land was inherited by his “heir-at-law,” the first-born son. There might not be any record of this transfer, so knowing the “law of the land” can prove to be instrumental in cracking the case.

In these and many other ways, land records can be used to find direct and indirect evidence of family and other types of relationships, often when no other record does—or even survives. It is for this reason that land records research must be part of any reasonably exhaustive genealogical investigation.

Where to Find Land Records

In some areas, land records are the only records that survive which state relationships or can be used to provide indirect evidence of them. 

They also are useful in establishing biographical timelines for ancestors, and to learn more about their lives. They can sometimes also be used to identify the location of ancestor’s farms and sometimes even their original homes, so that today’s genealogists can often literally walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. But where are those records now?

It used to be that if you wanted to do genealogy the right way, one of your first stops had to be at the county courthouse where your ancestors lived. This is still a good practice, as many treasures held within the walls of the hundreds of courthouses scattered across this land are not microfilmed, digitized, or abstracted, and likely never will be.

The Recorder of Deeds and the County Clerk are therefore often the genealogist’s best friends. So, planning a trip to the courthouse or archive where land records are held is still a good idea.

Smyth County courthouse records wills probate records genealogy courthouse research tips genealogists

Smyth County, VA courthouse records (Image credit: Margaret Linford.)

But many of us live far away from where our ancestors owned land and lived out their lives. How can we access these records if we don’t have the time or budget to travel to the areas in question?

Thankfully, the digital revolution has made researching land records and other types of documents much easier, but often still time consuming and at times overwhelming.

The land records held at the state level for “state land” states (the original thirteen colonies and the states formed from them such as Maine and Kentucky) are usually indexed. They can often be accessed digitally at the website for the state archives, commercial genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, or can be ordered via correspondence with the archive.

In states that were part of the old Northwest Territory, such as Ohio and Indiana, as well as the other public land states (any state formed under the Constitution that was not carved out of one of the original colonies), grants from the federal government to the first recorded owner of that land can be found at the Government Land Office site created by the Bureau of Land Management. Their website (available here) allows searches for names of individuals who purchased federal land in public land states. You can even view the digital images of the land grants, including the signature of the President of the United States at the time.

How to find land patents

Example of a land patent image.

Other types of records associated with federal land, include:

  • applications for public domain land grants,
  • Homestead Act applications,
  • Freedman’s Bureau land records,
  • and bounty land warrants and applications for veterans. 

These are all held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Many of these records also state relationships and add rich detail about the lives of ancestors. However, most of these records have never been digitized and must be searched in person or requested via the National Archives’ online order service.

(Editor’s note: Learn more about land records at the National Archives here.)

Land records at the county or town level are still held at the local county courthouse or archive, if they survive. Many jurisdictions have digitized their land records and made them available online, in many cases for free. This can sometimes include the entire run of a county’s land records, back to the formation of the county. County clerks and recorders will also sometimes do research via correspondence, though most are unable to do so due to time constraints.

Land Records at FamilySearch

Most importantly in the field of land records research from a genealogical perspective is the massive digitization project undertaken by FamilySearch, the website for the genealogical Society of Utah.

Millions of land records from all across the United States, and even some from other countries, are available at their website free of charge—and viewable either from the comfort of your own home or at a Family History Center or the Family History Library itself, depending on the license agreement FamilySearch has with the original repository.

This vast trove of land records is almost completely unindexed by FamilySearch and will thus not appear in results using their “Records” search page. They must instead be searched in the “Catalog” search page. (Editor’s note: learn how to search unindexed records at FamilySearch by reading our article: Browse-Only Databases at FamilySearch are Easy to Use.)

Despite not being indexed by FamilySearch, the digitized microfilms themselves usually have indexes, either in separate volumes or at the beginnings or ends of the digitized individual deed books.

Most of the digitized land records made available by FamilySearch date from 1900 or before, so a trip to the courthouse might still be warranted for most twentieth-century deeds and more recent land records research. If all else fails, don’t forget to ask the recorder or clerk for help if you have a limited research goal, such as one deed copy—you just might be surprised how eager and willing they are to help.

If the land records you need are unavailable online or are held in a remote location, consider hiring a professional genealogist to go to the courthouse in person on your behalf. Legacy Tree Genealogists has a worldwide network of onsite researchers who can obtain nearly any record that still exists in most areas. Learn more here about how we can assist you in the search for your ancestors and the records of their sometimes only tangible piece of the American dream—land!

(Editor’s note: Our links to Legacy Tree Genealogists are affiliate links and we’ll be compensated – at no cost to you – if you use it when you visit their website. This page includes a discount code for full service projects, or scroll to the bottom of the page for information about their 45-minute genealogy consultations. Thank you for helping to keep our articles and the Genealogy Gems Podcast free. )

Indeed, land ownership was more widespread in the Thirteen Colonies and the United States than most any other nation on earth. So the good news is that there’s a good chance that some of your ancestors were land owners. However you access them, land records are absolutely critical for success in genealogy and should be thoroughly examined whenever possible. You’ll be glad you did.

Jaye Drummond is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit their website here.

New and Updated Genealogical Records for Scottish Genealogy

Scottish genealogy records are as popular as plaid this fall. Deeds, paternity records, and censuses are just a sampling. Also this week, records for Ontario, New York State, Philadelphia, and the women’s suffrage movement!

New records for Scottish Genealogy

Scotland – Deeds

Findmypast offers Scotland Deeds Index 1769 with over 1,000 transcripts. This collection contains the details found in minute books kept by the Court of Session and includes a variety of different types of deeds including: assignations, discharges, bonds, obligations, protests, and leases. Each deed transcript will record the type of deed, the date it was recorded, and the two parties named in the original court document, their addresses, and occupations.

By understanding what each type of deed is, you may be able to glean additional clues to your research. For example, a discharge is granted once evidence is shown to a granter that a debt or payment has been paid in full. Discharges were also given to release an individual from specific tasks or duties. A heritable bond, however,  is in regard to land, property, or houses that pass to an heir or next of kin. In some of these cases, the records could be proof of parentage. For more details about the types of deeds in this collection, read here.

Scotland – Paternity Decrees

Containing over 25,000 records, Scotland, Paternity Decrees 1750-1922 will help you find out if your ancestor was involved in a paternity dispute that appeared before Scotland’s Sheriff Court. These records could identify illegitimate ancestors and break down brick walls in your research. You will find cases from jurisdictions across Scotland including: Kirkcudbrightshire, Lanarkshire, Midlothian, and Roxburghshire.

Each record offers a date of birth and sex of the child whose paternity is in question as well as the name, occupation, and residence of both the pursuer and defender.

Scotland – Census and Population List

Also at Findmypast, Scotland Pre-1841 Censuses and Population Lists now contains over 3,500 early census fragments and parish lists from Jedburgh, Greenlaw, Ladykirk, Melrose, Applegarth, and Sibbaldbie. Until 1845, these courts were for governing the local parish and overseeing parish relief. Many kept up-to-date lists of the parish residents, their occupations, and their birth places.

The details recorded in each transcript will vary, but most will include a birth place, occupation, and address.

Scotland – Registers & Records

Over 1,700 new records have been added to the collection titled Scotland Registers & Records at Findmypast. These additions include Written Histories of the Highland Clans & Highland Regiments.

Clans in Scottish genealogy

By Gsl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scotland Registers & Records contain images taken from 21 different publications related to Scottish parishes and families. The records vary and include parish records, topographical accounts, and memorial inscriptions.

Some of these records reach back as far as the year 1100! To see a list of each of the publications within this collection, click here, then scroll down to the subheading, “What can these records tell me?”

Canada – Ontario – Birth Index

Findmypast offers a collection titled Ontario Birth Index 1860-1920. It is comprised of 1.7 million civil registration records. Civil registration in Canada is the responsibility of the individual provinces and territories and it was not standard practice until the late 1800s.

Each record contains both a transcript and an image of the original document. Information should include:

  • Ancestor’s name and date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Parents’ names

In some cases, the record may also provide:

  • Parents’ occupations
  • Where the parents were married
  • Name of the attending physician
  • Address of residence

Special Savings for You

findmypast

If you are interested in subscribing to Findmypast, we want to let you  know about a special savings. Findmypast is now offering a year subscription for $34.95, a savings of $79.95. Click here for more details!

United States – New York – City Directories

New York Public Library is digitiznewyork_directory_pageing its collection of New York City Directories, 1786 through 1922/3, and sharing them for free through the NYPL Digital Collections portal.

The first batch—1849/50 through 1923—have already been scanned and the 1786–1849 directories are in the process of being scanned. The whole collection will be going online over the coming months.

See the digitized directories here.

City directories contain more than just names and addresses. You may be surprised to learn that they record the price of travel and postage, the kinds of occupations around the city, the layout of streets, and at what time the sun was predicted to rise and set!

City directories might also contain images, maps, illustrations of buildings, and advertisements.

United States – Massachusetts – Women’s Suffrage

The Massachusetts Historical Society has announced that seven collections relating to women in the public sphere have been digitized. A grant made it possible to create high resolution images that are accessible at the MHS website, as well as preservation microfilm created from the digital files. The seven collection titles and links are listed below.

Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society records, 1837-1838
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0427

Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, 1895-1920
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0121

New England Freedmen’s Aid Society records, 1862-1878
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0423

Rose Dabney Forbes papers, 1902-1932
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0212

Society for the Employment of the Female Poor trustees’ reports, 1827-1834
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0428

Twentieth Century Medical Club records, 1897-1911
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0411

Woman’s Education Association (Boston, Mass.) records, 1871-1935
http://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0393

United States – Pennsylvania – Newspapers

Check out the Philadelphia Inquirer on Newspapers.com. The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of the oldest surviving papers in the United States. The Philadelphia Inquirer was established in 1829 and originally titled the Pennsylvania Inquirer. It was originally a Democratic paper that supported President Jackson.

This collection covers the years of 1860-2016.

If you’re looking for specific mentions of an ancestor, you might find them in lists of death noticesmarriage licenses, local social news, the day’s fire record, or building permits issued. This newspaper is searchable by keyword or date.

United States – Nebraska – Marriages

New this week at FamilySearch are the Nebraska, Box Butte County Marriages, 1887-2015. Information found in these marriage records does vary, but you may find any of the following:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Estimated birth year
  • Birth city/town, county, state, and country
  • Marital status
  • Marriage date
  • Marriage city/town, county, and state
  • Parents’ names
  • Previous spouse

More Helpful Tips for Scottish Genealogy

Lisa’s Premium Member episode 116 is Genealogy Gems - Family History Podcast and Websitejust what you need. Marie Dougan, a professional genealogist specializing in Scottish research, joins Lisa in this episode to talk about how to research Scottish ancestors. If you haven’t taken that plunge and become a Premium Member, why not do so today! There are over 100 Premium Member podcast episodes and over 30 video classes on a wide variety of genealogy topics waiting to inspire and educate. Join today!

 

Search Canadian Passenger Lists for FREE at Library Archives Canada

Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian national archive, holds original passenger arrival records. You can search a massive index to them on their website for free.

 

Canadian Passenger Arrival Lists: The Good and Bad News

There’s good news and bad news for those searching for Canadian passenger arrival lists. 

The Bad News:

You won’t find a lot of Canadian passenger arrival lists before 1865. There are no comprehensive nominal lists of immigrants arriving prior to 1865 in Canada according to the Library and Archives Canada. Unfortunately, those lists didn’t generally survive.

Those that have can be scattered amongst various French and British collections.

French Passenger Lists to Canada

“Les passagers du Saint-André : la recrue de 1659” is among the French resources at the Library and Archives Canada.

Visit the Passenger Lists page at the Library and Archives Canada here for details lists, years and microfilm numbers.

Good news:

You will be able to find a lot of records after 1865.

And the news gets even better. These records can easily be found online!

“The passenger lists are the sole surviving official records of the arrival of the majority of people accepted as immigrants in Canada,” says a Library Archives Canada webpage. “The passenger list is a list of immigrants arriving at an official port of entry on a particular ship on a given date. 

Advertising attracting immigrants to Canada

Newspaper advertising was used to attract immigrants to Canada

Information Found in Canadian Passenger Lists

Generally speaking, each manifest provides the following information:

  • the name of the ship
  • port(s)
  • date(s) of departure and arrival in Canada
  • names
  • ages
  • sex
  • professions or occupations
  • nationalities
  • destinations 

The earlier lists aren’t always so detailed. But in some cases, other lists have information about the travelers’:

  • health
  • religion
  • previous travels to Canada
  • family members
  • and how much they carried in their wallets.

Where to Search for Canadian Passenger Lists 1865-1922

Start your search for free in the Passenger Lists, 1865-1922 collection at the Library and Archives Canada website. 

The city of Quebec, the major arrival port for many years, is covered for nearly that entire time span. 

Quebec City - Major Arrival Port in Canada

Quebec: Major Arrival Port in Canada

If you find it easier to search for these records in genealogy websites (so you can attach them to individuals in your tree), or if you’re specifically looking for passengers whose final destination was the U.S., check out these databases:

Canadian Passenger lists, 1881-1922 at FamilySearch. 

The database includes records for Canadian ports:

  • Quebec City,
  • Halifax,
  • St. John,
  • North Sydney,
  • Vancouver
  • Victoria
  • U.S. ports for passengers who reported Canada as their final destination.

Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935 at Ancestry.

Quebec ports are included for these time periods:

  • May 1865–Jun 1908,
  • Jun 1919–Jul 1921,
  • Apr 1925–Nov 1935.

U.S., Passenger and Crew Lists for U.S.-Bound Vessels Arriving in Canada, 1912-1939 and 1953-1962 at Ancestry.

Nearly 100,000 records of travelers to the U.S. via Canada are recorded for the ports of:

  • Montreal
  • Quebec
  • Saint John
  • New Brunswick
  • Halifax
  • Nova Scotia
  • Vancouver
  • British Columbia
  • Victoria
  • British Columbia
  • Toronto
  • Ontario
  • Quebec
Mixed group immigrants, Quebec

Mixed group immigrants, Quebec

More Great Canada Genealogy Resources

We have several more resources to assist you in your Canadian family history research. 

  • Click here to learn why Quebec Church Records are a Great Place to Look for Ancestors.

Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, Basse-Ville (Lower Town). Wikimedia Commons image; click to view.

 

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