Tracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

To demonstrate the power of deeds in retracing the trail of an ancestor, I will present a case study of one of my own ancestors. This is a real example of the use of deeds to solve a difficult genealogical problem. If you have the problem of knowing that an ancestor was from Virginia, but do not know in which county he lived, then this example may give you an idea of how deeds can help you locate the right county. Remember, we are basing this research on the fact that there is a ninety percent chance that your ancestor owned land. Let’s see if we can solve a “needle in the haystack” search for an ancestor when all we know is that he was born in Virginia in about 1788.

The steps I followed to locate the right county using deeds has been repeated several times. My first success was for an ancestor named Philip Reynolds. To follow along, I will have to give you some of my own genealogy — but any genealogist should be able to relate his own situation to this example.

The problem:

Where exactly did Philip Reynolds live before 1830? In Indiana? In Ohio? In Virginia? Where was he married? Who were his parents?… Does this problem sound familiar?

Facts known, in the order they were found:

1. John Dollarhide, and family living in Jasper County, Indiana, per 1850 census. Apparent wife, Lucy, born in Ohio about 1821. A Philip Reynolds living with them, born c1788 in Virginia. (I had only a guess about who Philip Reynolds might be…)

2. John Dollarhide head of household, 1840 census of Tippecanoe County, Indiana.

3. John Dollarhide married a Lucy Reynolds, 1836, in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, based on a copy of their marriage record. This was the first confirmation that her maiden name was Reynolds. I returned to the 1850 census to look at Philip Reynolds with renewed interest.

4. Philip Reynolds head of household, 1840 census of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, not too far from John Dollarhide household.

5. Philip Reynolds, head of household, 1830 census of Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Several females of right age to be Lucy Reynolds.

6. 1820 Ohio Census Index: only two (2) heads of households with the name Philip Reynolds — one in Trumbull County, the other in Miami County. The Miami County family seemed most promising, but no way to prove which was the right family.

7. Obituary from a Corvallis, Oregon newspaper, dated 1878, stated, “Philip Reynolds was born in Virginia . . . he married Sophia Hill . . . they lived in Ohio a number of years . . . and were the parents of nine children”. This obit also mentioned a surviving daughter, one Lucy Dollarhide, living in California.

8. Philip Reynolds was living with a daughter in Oregon, per 1870 census, born c1788 in Virginia.

9. Philip Reynolds living with another daughter in Iowa, per 1860 census, born c1788 in Virginia.
I might mention that Philip Reynolds has become one my favorite ancestors. It appears that after his wife died in about 1843, the man never worked again — he just moved in with a daughter until she couldn’t stand it any more and then moved to another daughter’s home. I found him living with three different daughters in census records, and since he had nine daughters, his average stay with each lasted only three to four years. In all, he managed to live off his kids for nearly thirty-five years. I have decided that this is a man I would like to emulate.

Confirmation needed:

Was Miami County the place to start? Or perhaps Trumbull County first?

Course of Action:

– Checked library sources for Trumbull and Miami County, Ohio, for any reference to a Philip Reynolds family about 1820. Nothing found for Philip.

– Checked printed court records for both counties. No Philip.

– Checked county histories for both counties. Philip not mentioned.

– Borrowed Family History Library microfilm for Deeds (Grantee/Grantor books) for Miami County, Ohio, for the period 1810-1830. This was based on my knowledge that Lucy (Reynolds) Dollarhide was born in Ohio about 1821.

NOTE: I decided to go through the deeds from Miami County first. This seemed logical because the Philip Reynolds in Trumbull County appeared in the 1820, 1830, and 1840 censuses (and my Philip was in Indiana in 1830). The Philip Reynolds listed in Miami County was there in 1820 but not in the 1830 or 1840 censuses.

After thoroughly reading the Miami County Grantor/Grantee index, I found that the only Philip Reynolds mentioned was in a single transaction that took place in 1837. Since I knew that Philip was in Indiana by 1830, I stopped here. From the index, I obtained the following:

Miami County, Ohio
Deed Book 15, page 355 — Date deed recorded: 22 Sep 1837
Grantor: Philip Reynolds
Grantee: Joseph R. John

There were two things wrong with the deed. First, I expected a deed in which Sophia’s name was mentioned, since dower rights were still in play in Ohio in the 1830’s. I expected to see, “Philip Reynolds and wife Sophia . . .” as a grantor or grantee in the deeds. Second, the date was all wrong. I knew that my Philip Reynolds was in Indiana in 1837 and here was a deed in Ohio for well after the time Philip Reynolds moved to Indiana. But, as I was to learn later, I was not paying attention.

First Breakthrough!

On a trip through Salt Lake City, I decided to visit the Family History Library look up that same Reynolds deed just for the fun of it. Book 15 of the Miami county deeds had been microfilmed. On page 355, I found the following deed recorded:

“. . . Philip Reynolds, of Indiana, to Joseph R. John, of Troy, Miami County, Ohio, lot 151, for $60.00….”

The deed gave Philip Reynolds’ residence! I was now convinced that this was indeed my Philip Reynolds of Tippecanoe County, Indiana. But why wasn’t Sophia’s name mentioned? I have since learned that the dower rights for a wife did not apply to small parcels of land (under one acre or so), so there was no need for Sophia’s name to be part of the deed. It was also clear that Philip Reynolds had owned land in Miami County, Ohio, but did not get around to selling his lot in the town of Troy until some years after moving to Indiana.

Since I had several census records giving Philip Reynolds’s birth as Virginia about 1788, I wondered if it were possible to use this same technique to find the right county in Virginia to search for the Reynolds family. I canceled everything else on my agenda, booked five more days in Salt Lake City, and headed for the microfilmed Virginia deed records. It was now “needle in a haystack” time, but which county first?

Second Breakthrough!

I needed to narrow down the number of counties of Virginia to start my search for Philip Reynolds. There were 135 counties in Virginia in 1820, which included present-day West Virginia. So, I first went through the 1800 and 1810 censuses (actually, reconstructed tax lists) for Virginia looking for the name Reynolds. None of the heads of household had the name Philip Reynolds. But, there were eighteen (18) different counties with both the surname Reynolds and Hill. (Sophia’s maiden name was Hill. I decided to look in just those counties which had evidence of both of these surnames.)

I decided to check the Grantor-Grantee index to all eighteen counties, for the period 1790-1830. I began in alphabetical order and discovered that I could go through a whole county in a matter of minutes to determine if a Philip Reynolds ever owned land there. I was in the Bedford County, Virginia, Grantor-Grantee index and found this information:

Bedford County, Virginia
Deed Book 18, page 359
Date: 15 May 1824
Grantor: Philip and Sophia Reynolds
Grantee: Charles Bayman

I was immediately out of my chair to get the microfilmed Bedford County deeds to read the complete transcript. Here is how the deed transcript began:

“…This Indenture made this 15th day of May A.D. 1824 between Philip Reynolds and Sophia his wife of the County of Miami, and the state of Ohio of the one part and Charles Bayman of the County of Bedford, Virginia….”

No doubt about it! This was the right couple, and the right county in Virginia! Once I had established Bedford County, Virginia, as the county were Philip and Sophia Reynolds lived, less than thirty minutes later I was in Bedford County marriage records, where I found the following entry:

“Philip Reynolds to Sophia Hill, 20 Dec 1806”


Without using deeds, it would have been possible to find Philip Reynolds in Miami County, Ohio, or Bedford County, Virginia — but using the deed indexes as a finding tool, it was quicker and easier to get to the right place. Other records soon became apparent, and the research task was a huge success. What I was able to do with the deeds was retrace the trail Philip Reynolds followed from Virginia to Ohio, and to Indiana.. Without the deed in Ohio, I would not have been able to confirm that the deed in Virginia was for the same man.

This example of using deeds to establish the trail an ancestor followed is not a rare occurrence. Every deed will give you the residence of both the grantor and grantee. If a man sold his land after leaving a county, you may learn of the place he moved to. If a man bought land in another county before moving, you may learn of the county he left. If a man owned several parcels of land in a county, the first deed and the last deed may provide important evidence of the exact dates of a person’s residence in a particular place.

9 thoughts on “Tracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed Records

  1. Thank you for this. Gave me some ideas and relit my enthusiasm for researching a similar situation in my own family. And, I really enjoyed your writing.

  2. Excellent article! Very helpful and I will go back to check out some of my lost causes. Interesting Joseph John of troy, Ohio is a person from my database.

  3. Bill,
    Another possibility for Sophia not being mentioned in the deed in Ohio is that her consent was recorded separate from the actual deed. I’ve certainly seen that multiple times in Virginia records, and in one instance, the “consent” was recorded 25 years after the deed (actually, the “recording” was a suit brought by the widow of Thomas Chester because she had not consented!). In addition to a consent being recorded in the deed books, at least in Virginia, it can also be recorded in the order books, but the problem with that is that order books are often unindexed, so generally one must good to the court for the date when the deed was recorded to find either a consent or the order for someone to take the wife’s “privy examination”. I seem to recall Ohio has something similar to order books.

  4. Bill, this is a dandy post. I do, however, agree with Michael Elwood Pollock about dower interests’ not being necessarily disposed of simultaneously with the husband’s sale. In some instances the husband either did not know the law or did not feel bound by it, which sometimes resulted in a partition of the dower interest in sold land to a widow after the husband’s death. In other instances I have wondered if women held onto their dower right as “money in the bank” that they could recover for their own use by separate sale if they survived the husband-grantor.

    You also say “Every deed will give you the residence of both the grantor and grantee.” Alas, while this is very common, it is not universally true. I have seen many annoying instruments where at least as recorded the grantor declined to provide this information for her/his own residence and/or for that of the grantee. Yet such information is indeed present often enough to help a lot with establishing life-paths.

  5. Jade: Thanks for pointing out that “Every deed . . .” should have been “Most every deed . . .” I should have known better.

  6. hello Bill, This was a great search clue for Virginia. Do you have suggestions when the only mention is listed on the Fairfax disputed lands? several in a fairly large group of us are trying for Balthasar Khun prior to 1746 with no luck. we have tried on line deed index, newspapers,publications, church records ect. I know you can’ t do the research for us,but can you suggest sources?
    Thanks for any help you can give.

  7. Hattie, you might contact Michael Elwood Pollock, a professional genealogist of Richmond, Virginia, who comments on these blogs regularly. His last comment gave his email as -bill$hide

  8. Wow, thanks. I was beginning the research for my husbands family and was tracking Philip Reynolds as father to Elisabeth [Reynolds] Freel. I think this might be the right track. Amos and Elizabeth were married in Tippecanoe in 1825.

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