Genealogy Mystery Series to Die For: Genealogy Gems Book Club

May is Mystery Month, so the Genealogy Gems Book Club is spotlighting a favorite genealogical mystery series writer: Nathan Dylan Goodwin. In his latest, forensic researcher Morton Farrier finally confronts his own past.

We first met British novelist Nathan Dylan Goodwin when we featured his novel The Lost Ancestor in the Genealogy Gems Book Club. The hero, Morton Farrier, is a forensic genealogist. He’s dogged, thorough and totally likeable. Morton now appears in an entire series about his research adventures–both his professional ones and his personal ones. We think they’re all worth reading! Enjoy them individually–or grab the value bundle on Kindle.

Here’s the lowdown on the full series or Morton Farrier mysteries, in order:

Hiding the Past. In this debut novel, we meet British genealogist Morton Farrier. He’s tenacious and thorough, qualities that make him an excellent investigator–but put him in danger when he starts investigating the mysterious identity of Peter Coldrick. Despite the clear danger to himself and his tough-and-adorable fiance Juliet (a police officer), Morton won’t back off. Meanwhile, he learns a startling truth about his own roots.the lost ancestor genealogy gems book club

The Lost AncestorMorton is hired to find out what happened to his client’s great-aunt Mary, who disappeared without a trace a century ago while working as a maid at a grand English estate (gotta love the Downtown Abbey-style drama!). This is the book we featured in the Genealogy Gems Book Club, which Nathan talked about in the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180 (free excerpt) and the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast #124 (subscriber-only).

The Orange Lilies: A Morton Farrier novellaMorton confronts a long-standing mystery in his own family–one that leads him just a little closer to the truth about his personal origins. This Christmas-time tale flashes back to Christmas 1914: World War I, to a turning point in his relatives’ lives. Don’t miss it!

The America Ground. A no-man’s piece of land–formed from the sea as Hasting Harbor silted in–became home to a lawless neighborhood where a woman was killed more than 180 years ago. It falls to Morton Farrier to uncover her story. Distracted by the unfolding mystery of his own parentage, he doesn’t realize the danger he’s unwittingly stumbled into until it’s almost too late.

The Spyglass File: A Morton Farrier novellaA client’s unknown past leads Morton to a young woman’s secret mission during World War II. Her name ends up in the mysterious Spyglass File, a subject so dangerous that Morton has bad guys after him as soon as he starts prying. He may or may not get kidnapped right before he’s supposed to marry the lovely Juliette. Meanwhile, Morton anguishes over the continuing mystery of his own roots.

The Missing Man. Morton Farrier can’t wait any longer: he must unravel the mystery of his own past. Who is his American father and why did he disappear from his mother’s life, despite letters evidencing his devotion? What, if any, role did a devastating house fire play in his disappearance? Morton and Juliet head to the east coast in the United States to confront surviving relatives, learn what they can about Harley Jacklin and help Morton come to terms with whatever he discovers.

Nathan joined us for a great conversation on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #124. Click here to learn more about joining Genealogy Gems Premium website membership or click here to hear a free excerpt in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180).

What does Nathan Dylan Goodwin read?

On his must-read list of genealogical fiction are two we’ve mentioned on the Genealogy Gems Book Club page:

The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux. Peter, a genealogy buff, buys a marriage certificate on display at an antiques gallery. He begins researching the couple with an idea of returning the certificate to them. Eventually he uncovers several secrets, one with some money attached to it, but others are also chasing this money. Surprise twists bring the story into the present day and Peter has a chance to become a hero.

genealogy gems book clubThe Forgotten Garden, a novel by Kate Morton. Recommended by a Gems fan. The premise was inspired by Kate’s own family history: “A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, ‘Nell’ sets out to trace her real identity.”

genealogy book club family history readingKeep up with great reading recommendations like these ones! Follow the Genealogy Gems Book Club. Click here to see what else we’ve recommended.

5 Times When You Should Be Listening to Genealogy Gems

It was a daunting thought! I had over 1650 miles to drive last weekend to make the move from California to Texas. And I’m notorious for getting sleepy on car rides.

My husband was driving the moving van, so I needed to drive the suburban on my own. How was I going to keep myself alert and occupied?

And then it hit me (the podcaster): Listen to podcasts! <SMACK> I coulda had a V8!

I loaded my iPad and smart phone with dozens of various podcast episodes. I ended up learning a ton, and having a grand time, with no zzzzzs!

I often hear from folks “I just can’t seem to find time to listen, or do half the other things I need to do.” But you don’t have to drive 1650 miles to make time to listen to podcasts.

(By the way, I’ve heard from many of you asking if my cat Ginger survived the trip since in our last Genealogy Gems e-newsletter you saw how she had packed herself. Not only did she survive it, she became queen of the car. Here she is perched on the front passenger seat taking in the New Mexico landscape!)

How to ListenThink You Don’t Have Time to Listen to the Genealogy Podcasts?  Here are 5 Occasions When You Can, and Should, Listen:

1. When you are exercising
Many of my listeners are shedding pounds and getting fit while listening to the show. One listener told me she lost over 100 pounds listening to genealogy podcasts thanks to a waterproof mp3 player and her local swimming pool! And like many listeners, Roger in Utah takes the show on his daily walks, enjoying two of his favorite activities simultaneously: walking and genealogy.

2. When you are driving
Here’s an example of how one Genealogy Gems listener, gets into gear: “I recently stumbled upon your podcasts and I must say wow! They were awesome. I listened to episode 1-56 in 10 days. I drive a truck for a living so I have plenty of time to listen.

I was on a genealogy message board and someone mentioned genealogy podcast. I knew my wife had a ipod shuffle lying around so I said hey, let me see if I can find some genealogy podcasts on iTunes. I typed in ‘genealogy’ and up popped a few different choices. I downloaded most of them but yours just caught my attention. Your enthusiasm for genealogy clearly shows through in your podcasts. Your “bubbley” attitude, if I may, is pleasant to listen to and your podcasts are full of history.

I found myself enthralled with the story of the Lennon sisters and their tragic loss of their father and the lady talking about the quilts.  Please don’t tell anyone I said that as my truck driving colleagues would razz me to no end if they heard me say that. I can’t count how many times I had to pull my truck over to write down a web site you mentions or a tip you gave. Then I get home and check out the show notes for photos and other goodies.  So, just a note to say thanks for helping my day go by and for the great gems that I can’t wait to use when I get home.”

3. When you are cleaning and organizing your home office / genealogy space
If you sit down just once a week and sort and clean while you listen to one episode (usually about 45 mintes) you not only be well-informed but your genealogy space will be ready for greater success! (Come on, you know you need to!)

4. When you are scanning old family photos
We all have piles of old photos and documents that need scanning. Do double duty by scanning while you listen.  Check out Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 57 for more on photo scanning and preservation with Sally Jacobs, the Practical Archivist.

When you are doing housework, yard work, or working at the office
Genealogy Gems listener Bryan writes: “Whenever I am doing housework, yard work or driving in the car I am listening to you. I have been listening to you for weeks and I am still 3 years behind…I am enjoying these podcast as they are entertaining and informative. I am eagerly trying to listen at every opportunity so that I can get current.”

And Line in Denmark writes: “I recently stumbled over one of your Podcasts, and after listening to just a few episodes I was hooked.I listen to them every day at work. Some times even twice. Extra benefit: I´m shaping up my English!

And where there’s a will, there’s a way! Here are 5 Ways to Listen:

  1. On your computer (through this website)
  2. On your iPad or Tablet (via the Genealogy Gems App)
  3. On your smartphone (via the Genealogy Gems App)
  4. MP3 Player (Load it up with downloaded episodes from the website, or through iTunes)
  5. Burned CD (Use iTunes to burn the downloaded MP3 files to CD and play it on your stereo)

Next read: Just How Many (and Who) are Subscribing to Podcasts?

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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.

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