Property Records

What property did your ancestors own? Who (or what entity, such as a state) did they acquire it from? Where was it?  If land, how many acres was it and how did they acquire it? These are fascinating questions to pursue, especially if you are interested in tracing how land has been distributed, and who has or has not had access to buying land. By tracing property records such as land purchases and inheritance records, I have been able to draw links between dispossession of American Indians and wealth passed down to my generation.

Some census records include information about the value of a family’s real estate and other property. But you can track down a good deal more information about property records, although it may require ingenuity and persistence. This blog entry will help beginners get started; later entries will take on more complex issues.

You may be able to find some property records online. Resources that give a useful state-by-state overview of what is available include the Free Public Records Search Directory and Courthouse Direct

Wills in probate roomDeeds of sale of property are kept in county courthouses, often going back to the early 1800s. You can walk into a county courthouse and ask to see deeds (it helps to be prepared with years and names of potential deed-holders). When I first did this, I thought I would be questioned about my interest in records of specific people, but instead, I was shown to a room full of dusty old books, some of which were beginning to fall apart.

Hand-written deed

Hand-written Deed

The records were all hand-written, of course. They included information such as who sold what to whom on what date, and an exact description of what was sold. The image to the right is a photo I took of a deed recorded in Monroe County Tennessee, in 1812.

Small county courthouses have original records. Larger county courthouses are more likely to have records available on microfiche. And there is always the possibility that records are no longer available. For example, when I went into the San Francisco County Courthouse, a clerk reminded me that the earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906 had destroyed much of the city’s records.

Property records include more than land records. In Tennessee, I was shocked when I saw records of the buying and selling of slaves, although I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s one thing to read about this, another thing to see it. Property records may also reveal interesting things about people. For example, I found a record in which one of my ancestors had bought a horse and two cows from a neighbor. The animals stayed with the neighbor for care, and the neighbor promised by buy them back by the end of the year. It appeared that my ancestor was loaning his neighbor a sum of money, but the neighbor wanted to offer his animals as collateral.

Old newspapers often contained information about the buying and selling of property. When I have discovered digitized newspapers in counties where my ancestors lived, and have entered their names into searches, I have uncovered records of land buying and selling, complete with the price and occasionally a story to go with it.

The more you get into land records, especially records going back to the 1700s and 1800s, the more you’ll find yourself getting into a history of how land ownership has been organized, including how the U.S. government claimed ownership over land that was already inhabited by other people, and how the government distributed this land mainly to white people, once it had been appropriated and surveyed. 

The Bureau of Land Management provides access to millions of Federal land title records for Eastern Public Land States, issued between 1820 and 1908, as well as notes about the process of surveying, developing plat maps, and issuing land warrants. Township plat maps, for example, are based on surveyors’ maps, drawn to scale. They may show individual lots, with names of lot owners. I have found plat maps in both family history centers and county courthouses.

Plat Map, 1874

Plat Map from 1874

The plat map to the left is one of my more interesting finds, because it contains names of owners of plots of land in Blue Mound Township, Illinois in 1874, along with the number of acres of each plot, and other features such as churches, schools, rivers, and the railroad. This is an unusually useful plat map. Others I have seen show whole counties, but without the detail of this township map and without names of property owners shown.

These tools should get you started. More later!

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