August 18, 2023
Land records tend to be lesser-used genealogical resources. They have a reputation as being difficult to find and hard to use once found. All that handwritten legalese is just too tough to decipher and understand. As a result, some genealogists tend to neglect land records. That’s too bad.
Deeds, particularly those from metes and bounds states in the Eastern United States, have helped me solve some of my knottiest genealogical problems. I once found a single deed for one of my husband’s great grandfathers from Gloucester County, New Jersey. That deed gave me the names of four generations of that ancestor’s antecedents. The piece of land being sold had belonged in turn to each of them. Their names were included to explain how the ancestor had gotten the land and why he had the right to sell it. My best discovery ever!
It’s true that until recently locating deeds was a little tricky. Deeds are generally kept at the county level and can be accessed at the county courthouse. If you live in Colorado and you need a deed from New Jersey, getting a copy may prove difficult. However, many deeds were microfilmed by the Family History Library and subsequently digitized. To the joy of genealogists everywhere, those digitized records are now available on the Family Search website.
The Family Search website is free, but you should create an account with them. It’s quick and easy to do – just enter your name and birthdate. Then choose a user name and password. It’s worth the trouble since it gains you access to many more records than you could access otherwise. For example, all those records I found for Gloucester County, New Jersey would have been locked to me without an account. Don’t forget to log in each time you search. Otherwise, you may be excluded from the records you want.
Family Search makes it easy to find land records on their website. Search the catalog for the county your ancestor lived in. An alphabetical list of record types will appear. Land records will be among them. Not all land records for a particular county were microfilmed. For later records you may need to contact the county directly.
Once you’ve found a deed, it’s a matter of deciphering it. While deeds rely on legal language, much of it is common to all deeds, which makes it easier to figure out. Unfortunately, the handwriting on many deeds is not easy to read. Patience and persistence can usually help you get the gist of the record.
If you’ve been avoiding land records, now is a good time to dig into them. The rewards can be great. Without a deed I never would have known my husband’s third great grandmother’s maiden name!