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Land records can reveal family lineages

Aug. 18, 2010 at 3:18 a.m.


By Martha Jones

Land records in America date back to the early 1600s. Even as late as the 1850s, nine out of 10 adult, white males owned land and today the figure is more than 50 percent. For genealogists, land records are one of their best resources for tracing ancestral lineages. There is a surname index to virtually every land owner back to the beginning of land sales and acquisition in the U.S. It is estimated that researchers have a 90 percent chance of finding their ancestor in a land-ownership index. This is surely a better percentage rate than searching census records, especially prior to 1850, when genealogical research starts getting more difficult. Land surname indexes are usually called "Grantee-Grantor" indexes and can be found in the courthouse of any of the 3,141 counties in the U.S. Most U.S. land records have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are available for viewing in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, or for rental viewing in local Family History Centers.

Another advantage land records have over census records for locating names is that every land owner is listed in Grantee-Grantor indexes, whereas in census records, especially prior to 1850, only the head of the household was listed and tick marks indicated the ages and sex of other members in the dwelling. An example would be the dwelling of John Jones Sr., who had two sons, but no names were listed in the 1840 census. The sons inherited portions of their father's land and were listed in the Grantee-Grantor index as John Jr. and John III. Thus, every name was listed and the proximity of the land records indicated adjoining property, which signified a strong probability of a familial relationship. To substantiate relationships, genealogists also look for other records, such as wills, letters, diaries, newspapers, church records and other documents to support their findings and theories.

Land records also help separate families with similar surnames who lived in the same county. For example, let's say Jeremiah Jones and John Jones Sr. both lived in Morgan County, Ala. It seems logical to assume they would be related. However, land records show that Jeremiah lived at the opposite end of Morgan County from John. This is a red flag in genealogical research because it indicates most likely they were not the same family of Joneses. Of course, this is just an example, but indicates lengths researchers must go to determine familial relationships, especially with common names, such as Jones. Without land records, grave errors can be made that will take fellow researchers years, if ever, to correct.

Finally, land records often reveal the wife's name. The English common law system of "dower rights" for a widow was followed in the American colonies. This entitled her to one-third of her husband's real estate upon his death. Therefore, dower rights and early land deeds, along with inherited land mention the name of the man's wife because she had a legal interest in any land being sold or purchased. She had "veto power" of the land sale by her husband. Under English law, she could not own land in her own name, but with her dower rights, she could veto the sale of the land. Many early deed transcripts include an affidavit in which a wife was interviewed privately by the court clerk to determine whether or not she was in favor of the sale. Remember to keep land records at the top of your research list.

Happy researching.

E-mail genealogy queries to mjones@vicad.com. VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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