Land Deeds and Grants and Patents—Oh My! Utilizing Often-Overlooked Record Collections to Find Your Ancestors
Deeds, and land records in general, can provide helpful pieces to the puzzle you are trying to solve about your United States ancestor. They are especially helpful in areas or time periods where few records of other types are available, like the southern United States before 1850.
Most counties and some towns in the United States kept deed books, recording the ownership of land in their jurisdiction. A person would present a land grant patent or title to the county or town clerk, who would record it in the books and issue a deed. Subsequent deeds were recorded when that land, or part of that land, was transferred to someone else through sale, inheritance, etc. When searching for deed records, be aware that many county boundaries have changed over time.
Indexes to deed books often exist and are usually split into two parts: the grantor (or direct) index for sellers, and the grantee (or indirect/reverse/inverted) index for buyers. They are generally organized by the first letter of the person’s last name and then chronologically, from earliest to latest. Therefore, if you want to find all references to John Campbell, for example, you must look through all the C’s. Pay special attention to “et al.” when looking in a grantor index; this means more than one person sold the land and often these were joint heirs to a property (siblings). The index will often give you the names of the buyer and seller, the date this occurred, the date it was recorded (which could be years after the transfer actually occurred), the location of the property, the price, and the book and page number of the actual deed. The actual deed will also describe the boundaries of the land in question and may contain additional valuable information, such as the name of the grantor’s spouse (especially when a wife is waiving her dower rights), the nature of the relationship between the grantor and grantee, and/or the previous residence of the parties involved. To be sure to glean all of the information you can about your ancestor from deed records, look at each record involving him as either the grantor or grantee (there may be many).
Keep track of all the other people involved in these land transactions. Even if relationships aren’t spelled out, you can get clues about who other family members might be since people often bought land from and sold land to relatives. Deeds for land being sold or transferred after a person’s death can be especially helpful since all of their heirs may be listed as the grantors.
Deed records for many U.S. counties are available on microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Local courthouses, libraries, and historical societies are also good sources for deed records.
We recently helped a client discover more about an ancestor who lived in North Carolina in the mid- to late-1700s. We were pleased to discover that this particular ancestor had received a state land grant from North Carolina so we could obtain additional information about him as we searched for the link to his parents.
Where deeds between private individuals generally involve only one document registered with the county, state land grants usually generate four separate documents. First, an entry was made to the state or county office by an individual who wanted to claim a parcel of land. Next, a survey would be ordered and performed to ensure that the land being claimed was available. Then a warrant (order) would be issued granting that parcel of land to the individual after the appropriate fees had been paid. All of these documents can help provide additional details about an ancestor.
You can use the patent number and the Manuscript and State Archives System (or MARS) of the North Carolina State Archives to obtain these additional documents. These often contain a map of the exact location of the land along with other information.
Locating your Ancestor’s Land
In the original thirteen colonies, plus Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and parts of Ohio, land is described by “metes and bounds.” To identify the boundaries of a piece of land, landmarks such as a tree or large rock were used. This makes it difficult to locate exactly where the land was, but the plus side is that it generally gave the names of neighbors whose land bordered the piece being sold. These could have been relatives.
The other states used a “Section, Township, and Range” system to identify the location of land.
- Section: a square mile containing 640 acres; the basic unit in township and range measuring.
- Township: Each township was made up of 36 sections, with six sections in each row (so a township was a square of six sections by six sections, or six miles by six miles).
- Township Lines: These lines are counted north or south from the base line in a state, so T2N (Township 2 North) is the second section north of the base line.
- Range: These lines are counted east or west from the principal meridian in a state, so R2E (Range 2 East) is the second section east of the principal meridian.
Thus, T2N R2E would be two sections north of the base line and two sections east of the principal meridian.
You can get a map of meridians and base lines from the Bureau of Land Management, and Jay Andriot’s Township Atlas of the United States also includes very helpful maps of where each Township was in a county. Some maps with the sections already numbered can be found in the Family History Library. Find your place (either Township or County) in the Family History Library Catalog and look under “Land and Property – Maps.”
Other important terms you should be familiar with include:
- Deed of Sale: Evidence of a purchaser’s acquisition of land.
- Land Patent: The transfer of title from a government to the first private owner of a piece of property.
- Grantor: Seller of a piece of property.
- Grantee: Receiver of a piece of property.
- Et ux.: “and wife”
- Et al.: “and others”
If your genealogy research involves an elusive ancestor, utilizing less-obvious record collections such as land records, grants, and patents may be the key to uncovering additional details and extending your family history.
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