Some of the earliest, largest, and most complete types of genealogical records used in research are land documents. Along with showing legal proof of ownership, land records provide a plethora of information such as:
- a person’s age
- name of their spouse
- their heir’s
- their parent’s, relatives, and neighbors
- location of where they previously lived
- military services
- if they were a naturalized citizen
- if the land was acquired from the government
If land was acquired from the government, it is called a grant. This can be found on all levels of the government: federal, state, and county.
If land has been acquired from another person, it is a deed.
There are 2-different types of indexes to look up land records of your ancestors, direct and indirect.
- A direct index has you searching by the grantor, or the seller of the land.
- An indirect index has you searching by the grantee, or the buyer of the land.
Both indexes include the warranty, deed, quit claim, trust, description of the property, date of the sale, recordings and page number of the sale. An important tip is that surnames are often lumped together and are not found alphabetically. For example you may find a grouping of Smith’s on the S page in the beginning of the index with the name Saunders listed well after.
Below is a Direct Index from Potter County, Pennsylvania. Though you do not see any other “W” last names, you can see how the entire sheet is filled with Warner’s. Many of these are my relatives, with Winfield and Orienta Warner being my 3rd-Great-Grandparents.
Where to Find
Land records can be found using the FamilySearch Wiki, Google, Ancestry, USGenWeb, and sometimes records can be found online through the county governments (I know this is the case for several counties in Pennsylvania). Just remember it is important to search for the documents where the land was at the time of the sale. If your tract of land was originally done in Bedford County, Pennsylvania in 1835, but today it is found in Blair County, Pennsylvania, you will need to look in Bedford County for the documents.
What to Find
You never know what other bit of information you may find within your land document:
- Livestock brands
- Apprentice papers
- Value of the land
- County Changes
- Sale or Manumission of Slaves
- Tax lists
- Power of Attorney
- Deed of gifts
Below is a lawful agreement of a land sale from David Ritchey to my 3rd-Great-Grandparents, George Ritchey and his wife, Anna (Annie) Cypher. I like how the paperwork includes a drawing of the land in question and the neighbors and relatives surrounding the area.
When you are looking at older records, reading the handwriting can be a challenge. Sometimes you may need to get a feel of the older handwriting and possibly do some analysis to figure out all that is being said. Sometimes you will get lucky and some of your documents may be from the same time period and you may get the same person doing more than one.
This was just a brief glimpse at what all goes into land documents. The types of measurements and such are all different wherever you go, from state to state and country to country. (States tend to be grouped with states that earned their statehood at the same time, for example, the 13 original colonies have similar measurement methods).
To discover if your ancestor received bounties from the government for military service you can go to the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records Automation Website (https://glorecords.blm.gov/default.aspx). Not only does it give you information on what the website provides but you can search for your ancestor’s land documents as well.