Are you ready to make new discoveries in land records for your ancestors? In Part 1 of our series on land records, I shared several reasons to research the land. A land record may reveal the following: a family relationship, clues to past or present residence, associates, evidence of migration, and more.
I also explained the differences between “state land states” and “federal land states” in the United States system of land distribution. We looked at the metes and bounds system of land measurement as well as the grid system.
Now it’s time to dive into the various types of land records and where to find them. This article will discuss deeds: what they are and how to find them for your ancestors.
We’re going to start with deeds, because this is likely where you’ll spend most of your research time in the land records. Once a parcel of land in the United States was granted by either the state or federal government, all other transactions for that land were carried out within the township or county. Each time ownership of the property was transferred, a deed was drawn up. The original document was given to the new land owner and could have been preserved by the family.
County clerks recorded a transcription of the deed into a deed book at the recorder’s office. A symbol of the sealing wax used on the original deed was drawn in the book. The letters L.S. stand for “Locus sigilli,” Latin for “the place of the seal.”
Deed books contain a variety of records relating to any transfer of property, not just land. You might find mortgages, leases, sale or manumission of enslaved individuals, bills of sale, powers of attorney, indentures, adoptions, livestock brands, wills, apprentice papers, tax lists, and other miscellaneous documents. As you can see, the county deed books are rich with historical information and could very well hold the key to your ancestor’s actions.
Finding your Ancestor in the Deed Indexes
The original deed books are generally held at the county courthouse and a large number have been microfilmed and are now available to view on FamilySearch. Whether you visit the courthouse in person or want to search the digitized microfilm, understanding the process will help you find success.
The first step is to find your ancestor in the index. Each county has their own method of indexing. Some have general index books covering all the deed books for a large range of years for the county. Other counties don’t have general index books, instead an index is included at the beginning or end of each deed book. It will be up to you as the researcher to discover the method employed by your county of interest.
My grandfather, Edward Raymond Kelsey homesteaded in my home county of Cassia County, Idaho, in the early 1900s. I wanted to find a deed for his land, so I went to the FamilySearch Catalog. The place search found 12 different collections under the subheading of “United States, Idaho, Cassia – Land and property.” The year range and the types of records in each collection varied. Some of the records dealt with water claims and benefits, others with mining claims, and others were for deeds and homestead records.
I always look for “index” first, so I clicked on “Deeds, 1879-1902; general index, 1878-1901.” Note that this index only goes to 1901 – too early for my grandfather who first went to Idaho about 1913. I’m not going to waste time looking here. Before you start looking through the indexes for your ancestors, put their records into a timeline to narrow down the year range to search.
Be aware that you’ll have to be a detective when it comes to tracking down the deeds for your ancestor. If you’re not sure when your ancestor might be listed in the deeds check several years before and after your estimated dates. You never know what you’ll find.
In the image above, notice that under the “General index 1878-1901,” the actual deeds books are listed. If I found my grandfather in the index, I could take note of the specific volume, page, and year for the deed, then look in the appropriate microfilm for that deed book. In this case the camera icon indicates that the microfilm has been digitized and is available for me to view from my home computer. If it had a key over the top of the camera, I would have to view the microfilm at my local Family History Center.
Notice that this index only goes to 1901, so it probably would have no listing for my grandfather who didn’t homestead until about 1913 in Cassia County. Viewing another collection, I found the listing of “Idaho, Cassia County, deeds records, 1879-1992.” This collection is more likely to have my grandfather’s deed and an excellent place to begin a search.
In the following screenshot, note the many indexes that can be searched within the collection of deeds from 1879-1941, both direct and indirect indexes. A direct index is organized alphabetically by the grantor (person selling the property). An indirect index is organized alphabetically by the grantee (person purchasing the property).
I like to view indexes that have a section for both. That way you can get hits for both scenarios of your ancestor buying or selling land. If this option isn’t available, be sure to check both sets of indexes for the period of time your ancestor would have been in the area.
Each county will have the deed books and indexes organized differently. Take the time to familiarize yourself both with how the record books are organized and how the microfilming was done.
Looking in the direct and indirect index to deeds, 1910-1921, I found an entry for my grandfather, Edward Raymond Kelsey. He received his land from the State of Idaho (a state land state) on 15 October 1917 and the land record was filed in the county courthouse on 18 October 1917, just three days later.
The second half of the information in the deed index for E.R. Kelsey was the location of the actual deed. As I’m researching, all of this information goes into my electronic research log in Google sheets. I create a source citation while looking at the record, copy a link into the log in case I need to return to the record, and abstract the details for finding the deed.
How would you interpret the numbers in the above image? I originally thought this was volume 24, page 415, but going to that page in the deed book, I discovered I was wrong. It is actually 4 & 5!
In this case my corrected abstract reads: Book 24: 4 & 5 ; Section 4, Township 11, Range 24, Lot 3. To get this information, I had to examine the headings of the document to make sure I understood each column. Always take the time to thoroughly extract each piece of information from a document the first time you look at it.
Finding the Deed in the Deed Book
The next step is to go find the actual deed using the information from the index. You’ll know right away if you read or copied the indexed information correctly because either you’ll see the deed for your ancestor or not. If I’m not successful, I try viewing the index again then trying a variety of numbers if the writing is difficult to read.
Once I determined my grandfather’s deed was on pages 4 & 5, I easily located the correct place in the microfilm. The post 1900 record was typed, the information having been taken from the original deed. This is generally the most original form of the deed that we’ll discover unless the family has preserved a deed.
At the bottom of page 4 of the deed book I found my grandfather’s name, E. R. Kelsey. Reading the deed, I learned that he had paid $842.35 for a tract of land first granted to W. L. Yaumans and then assigned to E. R. Kelsey. How much is that in current day dollars? According to online currency converters, between $15,000 – 17,000. That is a tidy sum for a young man. He had recently married my grandmother, and now they had their own piece of land to make a home.
The remainder of the deed was recorded on page 5 and gave the complete land description.
Lot Three (3) ( or NE 1/4 NW 1/4) of Section Four (4) Township Eleven (11) South of Range Twenty-four (24) East Boise Meridian, containing forty-one and nine hundredths (41.09) acres more or less.
I abstracted the deed information into my research log, downloaded the two images, renamed them, and saved them to my grandfather’s folder in Google Drive. Although I visited my grandparent’s farm every Sunday as a young girl, seeing the purchase of this land recorded in the official deed book provided another piece of the story.
The more you work with land records, the more you’ll learn about this valuable record set. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series where we’ll explore the ways our ancestors received the first title to the land from the state or federal government.
Best of luck in your genealogical endeavors!