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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other types of records associated with federal land, include:
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.
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.
Do you like finding new stuff about your family history? Well, then you’re in the right place because today that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this episode of Elevenses with Lisa.
If you’re looking for new information about your family history, an important website to add to your research list is the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a free website that attempts to archive the web, and that includes online genealogy!
One of the best ways to approach your search at the Internet Archive is by focusing on a particular type of record. Here are 10 genealogy records that every genealogist needs that can be found at this free website.
You are free to search for and access records without an account, but there’s so much more you can do with a free account. Here are just a few advantages of having an Internet Archive account:
Getting a free account is easy. Simply click on the Sign Up link in the upper right corner of the home page.
There’s a surprisingly wide variety of content available on the website including:
A great way to discover all that the Internet Archive has to offer is to think in terms of categories of records. I’m going to share with you ten genealogy record categories that include several specific types of records.
Start your search for each category using just a few keywords such as:
Next try applying some of the filters found in the column on the left side of the screen. I try several combinations of searches to ensure that I’ve found all that the Internet Archive has to offer. Let’s get started:
In Elevenses with Lisa episode 41 we discussed how to find and use church records for your family history. Here are just a few of the specific types of church records you can find at the Internet Archive:
Learn more about finding and using family bibles for genealogy in Elevenses with Lisa episode 29.
Elevenses with Lisa episode 31 features the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library which hosts much of their content on the Internet Archive. Tip: If you find a collection difficult to navigate, visit the website of the sponsoring organization (such as the Allen County Public Library) which may have a better user interface for searching the records.
From the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Keep in mind that your ancestor may be mentioned in a patent even though they did not file it.
Although there doesn’t currently appear to be a large number of probate records, the Internet Archive does have some. Try searching by location to see if it includes a probate record for others from the same community. For example, a prominent shopkeeper might list many in the town who owed them money.
Audio records include:
Genealogy Gems Premium Members: Listen to episode 176 of the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast for more on the Great 78 Project at the Internet Archive. (Learn more about joining us as a Premium Member.)
Video records can include:
I searched for the small town where my husband’s ancestors lived for several generations and found a great video from 1954. It featured a parade float sponsored by his great grandfather’s business and several faces I recognized! Watch Winthrop Days.
A collection is a group of records submitted by a user. Often times these will be organizations, libraries and archives.
You’ll find the most popular collections listed on the Internet Archive home page. You can also search collections from the Advanced Search.
Here are just a few examples of collections that may be of interest to you as a genealogist:
Visit the Books to Borrow collection. You will need to be logged into your free Internet Archive account in order to borrow books. You can borrow the book in 1 hour increments. In some cases, you can choose a 14-day loan. If there is only one copy of the book available, the 1 hour load will be the only option. If there are no copies available you can join a waitlist. No waitlist is necessary for one hour loan ebooks.
Learn more about creating your own collection at the Internet Archive.
Scroll down below the individual item for:
Also, when you find an Item of interest, click the Contributor link to see all of the items uploaded by the user. It’s very likely they will have additional similar items.
One advantage to using the Advanced Search is when you are searching for items from a specific timeframe. It’s much more efficient than clicking the box for very year in the range in the filter.
Download the full cover version of the PDF when available. Images will likely be clearer and more accurate.
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
Question from Sue: What does metadata mean?
Lisa’s Answer: Metadata is data that describes other data. For example, the date of upload is metadata for a digital file that you find online. Metadata is often added by the person or institution doing the uploading to the Internet Archive. I like to search both “Metadata” and “text contents”.
Question from CA: Date filter really applies to date posted not date of item u r looking for….correct?
Lisa’s Answer: In the case of genealogical documents, the date typically refers to the date of original publication rather than the date posted. You will find dates back into the 19th century in the filters.
Question from Mary: is there a print icon? I don’t see it.
Lisa’s Answer: Instead of printing, look for the download options. Once downloaded to your computer, then you can print.
Question from Susie: Would this site have membership of Rotary clubs and such type groups?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely! Search for “rotary club” and perhaps the name of the town or locality.
Question from Sally: Is broadest search METADATA? Does it catch everything?
Lisa’s Answer: No. Metadata is the default. I would strongly advise running both Metadata and text context searches for your search terms.
Question from Amy: Lisa, do you know of a way to correct records that are incorrectly or in sufficiently tagged?
Lisa’s Answer: To the best of my knowledge, you can only do that if you were the one who uploaded the item. If anyone else reading this has found a way to edit or tag other user’s items, please leave a comment below.
Question from John: You may have mentioned this but what is the difference between searching metadata or searching text?
Lisa’s Answer: Searching metadata is only searching the data (like tags) that were added to provide more information about the item. A text context search will search all the text that was typed including the title and description. I recommend searching both ways. Keep in mind that not all user’s include detailed descriptions, which is why metadata is very important.
Question from K M: Why does Allen County Library have this archive?
Lisa’s Answer: I think it may be because the Internet Archive provides affordable cloud storage which can be a big expense when offering online records.
Question from Karen: Lisa will you explain the download options?
Lisa’s Answer: Options are based on the type of item. For print publications you will often find you can download the item as an EPUB, PDF, Full Text, etc. Download options can be found by scrolling down just below the item near the description and Views. You can also found download options for Adobe files while viewing the item in the viewer. Click the three dots in a circle icon just below the search icon.
Question from Barbara: Would audio include old local radio programs?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely!
Question from Rita: Can you share info about how to upload something?
Lisa’s Answer: Learn more about creating your own collection at the Internet Archive.
Question from Margaret: What about information on the Mayflower?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes. Search Mayflower and then use the filters to narrow your results by Topic & Subject and by Year.
Question from Jeremy: Any pointers on Swiss Mennonites, Lisa?
Lisa’s Answer: A search of Swiss Mennonites brings up 21 items, some of which look rather interesting. Otherwise, like with all genealogy research, formulating a more specific question can help you craft a better search query at the Internet Archive.