Follow the Land
Finding and reading the deeds of our ancestors takes more effort than browsing the census. The records are usually on microfilm, available for borrowing through a local Family History Center. They are also available at the courthouse where the deed was recorded.
However, the internet age is also coming to a courthouse near you. More counties are putting indexes and deeds online and making them available to the public. Check your counties periodically to see if they've started sharing online deeds and indexes. I had a recent experience with online land records that led to answering a long-standing question.
Where did Thomas Allen Come From?
One of my ancestors is a Thomas Allen who was born in 1814 in North Carolina, the state where I now live. He lived in South Surry (now Yadkin) County, NC, in 1850, but had left the state before the next census. The 1850 census showed him being a farmer, but owning no land. Family legend said the family was from Beaufort County, NC. But there were a number of Allen families in Yadkin/Surry. The online debates with my cousins centered on whether the legend was right or wrong. Was Thomas Allen really from Surry County or Beaufort County?
The Allen family has been number one on my NC research list ever since I moved here in 2005. I'd reviewed probate abstracts and family history books, but nothing had revealed his parentage or family. It was time to get off the couch and follow the land, if he owned any.
A quick check of the online deed index for Yadkin County showed a sale by a Thomas Allen in 1851. A review of the 1850 census showed no other Thomas Allen in the area. Since Yadkin was carved from Surry County in 1850, that county was also important. An online index to slave sales in Surry County showed a Thomas Allen selling slaves in 1849. Surry did not have other deed indexes online and neither county had old deeds online at the time of my check.
However, just looking at the online indexes told me that there would be deeds available for review. The creation of such online indexes by government agencies is a wonderful gift.
Ordering microfilm via the FHC would have been one option, but these counties are not far and I had another reason to visit that area. I scheduled a couple of vacation days and hit the interstate for the two hour trip to Yadkinville.
The answer to the long-standing debate was in the Surry County deed books. Thomas Allen had been forced into the 1849 version of bankruptcy and had to sell his land and slaves. There was a long list of creditors, debts and assets, including land. Paging through the poorly-indexed deed books turned up mention of a bond held by Thomas Allen for $1700 from one C.S. Davis of Beaufort County.
Thomas Allen's wife was Majincy Davis. The inclusion of this bond confirmed that this was the right Thomas Allen, that their children did know her surname and confirmed familial ties to Beaufort County. We have no parents yet for this couple, but we now can follow the trail back to Beaufort County with the certainty that the family legend has a basis in reality.
I've studied the Allen and Davis families of Beaufort County and have found both surnames in close proximity near the community known as Leechville. The State Archives of North Carolina has placed a large number of maps online. Studying the maps of that area from the early 1800s shows men of both surnames holding property.
I hope Thomas Allen and C.S. Davis (whoever he was) will show up in the land or court records. With no index online from the Beaufort County Register of Deeds, I'm looking forward to another field trip, this time to the beach!
What else is in land records?
I've written before about proving parentage via deeds. That's an important reason to use land records. I've also learned:
- How another ancestor managed money poorly and that his older brother was skeptical of his money management ability (TN).
- The date that a Confederate soldier died and his sister's name (AR).
- That an ancestor signed his dead mother's name to a mortgage (WI).
- About an illegitimate child who died young (PA).
- Proper names for people listed by initials or nickname in the census.
Thoughts about Land Records
Most, but not all, land records are simple to search. I encountered one county in Wisconsin where the deeds were indexed and recorded not by grantee (buyer) and grantor (seller) name, but by the township/range where it was located and the type of legal document being recorded. Before looking at land records, read about the way the county indexes the deeds. That saved me from borrowing vast quantities of microfilm for that particular county. A field trip was the best way to do research there.
If you want to find your ancestor's land in the older states, you will need to learn about metes and bounds and possibly invest in a program such as Deed Mapper. The land sold by the federal government using the township/range system is much easier to work with and find. If you just want to find the genealogical nuggets, it helps to have an idea of where in the county the land is found, but an exact location is not critical. Beware of states like Ohio where both types of land sales were made.
Here's a little comparison of the irregular nature of metes and bounds versus the geometrical township/range system. On the left is an 1808 survey from Pennsylvania and on the right is an 1875 survey from Illinois.