If He Owned Land, There’s a Deed

The following article is by my friend, William Dollarhide:

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule #23: Locating the county where your ancestor lived is the first step in finding records about the time he was hauled into court for shooting his neighbor’s dog; threatening the census taker with a shotgun; or making illegal corn whiskey behind the barn.

A Ninety Percent Chance
Since the first colonists came to this continent, land ownership has always been an important part of our American society. As an example, nine out of ten adult white males in America owned land before 1850. Even today the figure is over fifty percent.

With this nearly universal coverage before 1850 and since genealogical research starts getting more difficult about that time, it is a wonder that family historians are not using land ownership records more often to solve their genealogical puzzles.

For instance, did you know that there is a surname index to virtually every land-owner in America since the early 1600s – an index that is more complete than any head-of-household census index ever compiled? And did you know that you have a ninety percent chance of finding your ancestor in that land ownership index?

The land ownership index is not combined into a single name list. There are thousands of them. Usually called a “Grantee-Grantor” index, they can be found in the courthouse of any of the 3,143 counties in the United States. Together, they comprise the largest index which names residents of the United States, particularly for the period 1607-1850.

There are few indexes used by genealogists that offer a ninety percent chance of finding the right person. Even today, a modern telephone directory gives the names of only those households with a publicly listed telephone number. A recent study in Marin County, California revealed that about twenty-five percent of the telephone numbers issued there are for unlisted numbers. And, there are virtually no phone number listings for people using cell phones in Marin County, California. Since there is a trend for people to go to cell phones only, the number of phone directory listings will continue to go down, even though the number of users may be going up.

If you are searching for Marin County residents before 1880, there are no phone books. Yet, there are Grantee-Grantor surname indexes located at the courthouse in San Rafael that gives the names of many of the heads of household of that county from the date of its creation in February 1850, and continuing in book form through December 1972. As it turns out, Marin County is one of a handful of American counties that is currently digitizing its Grantee-Grantor Indexes and placing them online. As an example, to see the names recorded on Marin Co CA deeds from January 1973 through 2012 (updated daily and may have names recorded as little as 24 hours before your search). See: http://www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/AR/RiiMs/index.asp

Head of Household Censuses vs Grantee/Grantor Indexes
As a comparison between census lists and deed indexes, the 1840 census is a good example. In 1840, the names of the heads of household are all that are shown within any county – but if you were to look at the Grantee-Grantor index for the same county, you may discover that one household could have more than one landowner. Say you find in the census that the head of household is John Smith, Jr. But, what you don’t know is that living in the same household is John Smith, Sr., and maybe even John Smith, III; and each of them own a piece of property. Only John Smith, Jr. is listed in the 1840 head of household census, but the Grantee/Grantor index lists all three landowners.

Genealogists eventually recognize the significance of land ownership as we attempt to locate records of our ancestors. But, at first look, we may not see the importance of land records because they do not seem to give us the vital genealogical facts we are after, i.e., names of parents, dates, children, and so on.

But genealogists who dig into the land records deeper will discover that land grants and deeds can provide evidence of the places where an ancestor lived and for how long; when he moved into or moved out of a county; and, in many cases, a surprising amount of even more detailed information about a person.

Why Land Records?
Here are three good reasons why land records are valuable for genealogical research:

1. The odds are good. Since 90% of the adult white male population owned land before 1850, land grants and deeds provide an excellent way of finding an ancestor in local records. Deeds are recorded at the county level; and when property is sold a deed is recorded at the local courthouse. It is a protection to both the buyer and seller that the land being transferred is properly recorded. There are exceptions, such as a deed held by a private party and never recorded – which is every title insurance agent’s worst nightmare. But, deeds are almost always recorded at the courthouse of the county wherein the land is located.

2. Land records are more complete than other records. Land records such as property tax lists, deeds and deed indexes, and the written transcripts of real estate transactions all go back further in time than any other type of record we use in genealogical research. The earliest records in Europe, other than those recorded for the Royal Courts, are land records. For example, the Domesday Books — which are property tax lists – were first gathered for William the Conqueror in the 11th Century and are the earliest English records in which a common farmer or tradesman may be listed by name. Certain Scandinavian land records date back to 950 AD. In America, land ownership has always been important, so much so that if a courthouse were to be destroyed by fire or natural disaster, the deed records – proof of land ownership – were reconstructed by local authorities soon after. For example, deed records were reconstructed for several counties after General Sherman’s troops burned courthouse after courthouse during the Civil War.

3. Land records often reveal the name of a man’s wife. The English common law system of “dower rights” for a widow was followed in the American colonies and continued well into the 19th Century. Dower rights entitled a widow to 1/3 of her husband’s estate upon his death. No written will had to specify that amount. As a result of the dower rights of a married woman, early land deeds will almost always mention the given name of a man’s wife because she had a legal interest in any land being sold or purchased. In fact, a woman had “veto power” over the sale of land by her husband. Under the English system, a married woman could not own land in her own name; but with her dower rights, she could veto the sale of the land. Many early deed transcripts will include an affidavit in which a wife was interviewed privately by the court clerk to determine if she was in favor of the sale or not.

For Further Reading:
We recommend E. Wade Hone’s Land and Property Research in the United States.

3 thoughts on “If He Owned Land, There’s a Deed

  1. I agree with the column’s author that if a person owned land, there must be a deed. However, he fails to point out that the deed to a tract of real estate may not have been recorded until it had passed through a couple of generations or more and therefore never entered into the indices until subdivided among heirs or sold. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions, especially in the latter 1800’s.

  2. The author did not fail to point this out. Read the article again, Mr. Land, and note the following, “There are exceptions, such as a deed held by a private party and never recorded – which is every title insurance agent’s worst nightmare. But, deeds are almost always recorded at the courthouse of the county wherein the land is located.” How about reading the whole article before critizing it — I could go back to doing other things in my life, I certainly don’t have to write about genealogy any more. Any more unwarranted comments like this one, and I may do it tommorrow. -bill$hide

  3. I did read the entire article and it is excellent. Oh I don’t think that is much of a criticism, but I let that pass. I think the gentleman was referring to those cases where such cross-indices are poor or non-existent. I will only add that the statement that “deeds are almost always recorded at the courthouse of the county wherein the land is located ” is of course, almost always accurate, but I have found deeds recorded in all type of court records that were not specifically deed books. I also find that in many cases, where one party is of one location and the other party is of another, it may be recorded in either county book for these locations, but not always duplicated, and not always in the county where the land is. It may have been duplicated, but one courthouse may have burned down, or the dog ate it, etc. The Grantee-Grantor books are great where they have been maintained, but there are some very poor (economic) counties out there.

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