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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Why Can't You Find Your Ancestor in Land Records?

Deed Books with title why you can't find your ancestor in land records

Have you searched American land records and not found your ancestor's name among the deed books? Before you declare that your ancestor was too poor to own land, discover why you are not finding your ancestor's in land record collections.

Property research can offer much information about your ancestor, particularly placing them in a specific place and time.

Search the Correct Land Record Type

Your ancestor's county clerk's office or courthouse recorded deeds. Deeds record the transfer between two individuals or between individuals and organizations. But if your ancestor purchased land from the government, you need to look at deeds and instead look at Land Grants and Patents from the federal general land office.

Land grants and patents are transfers of land from a colonial, state, or federal government to an individual. Other federal land records include:

  • Public domain land grants applications

  • Homestead Act applications

  • Freedman's Bureau land record

  • Bounty land warrants for veterans

For great tips on Colonial America Land Records, read this article from Family Tree Magazine.

Now, some of these early land patents and other records can be challenging to find and read. My friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help you trace your family history and ancestors' land ownership history in the United States.

Research Land Records in the Correct County

Depending on when your ancestor owned land, the county boundaries may have changed. A landowner may have purchased the land in one county and sold it in another without the property changing locations. Often land purchases remain with the original county while sales appear in the newly formed county.

A great tool to discover boundary changes in the US is the website

Additionally, your ancestor might have sold land inherited in the location they originally lived to obtain money to move to a second location. Research all the counties your ancestors lived in, along with locations their parents lived. You never know what your family may or may not have inherited.

A Deed Was Never Recorded

If you can't find the US property's original purchase at the county level, check federal government land records. Many property owners never recorded their land purchases with the county courthouse because they had the ownership papers from the federal government.

Sometimes your ancestor may have skipped the cost of recording a deed if they didn't need it to prove transfers.

For instance, you may have an ancestor who purchased land from the federal government. They might not have the county government transcribe the documents into deed books. Since a will can transfer ownership of land, the land was never formally transferred by deed.

You may only find a deed for the original owner's property through land sales by their descendants. This is why you should also do descendancy research in genealogy.

"Et al." Includes Your Ancestor

Deed indexes often do not list every person who bought or sold as a group. I've found entries like John Townley "Et al." or Samuel Cochrane "etc." in the index.

When browsing online deed indexes via the card catalog on FamilySearch or another website, trace the transactions between your ancestor's siblings and children. Heck, I often use a spreadsheet to list all of the individuals with the same surname in the area I'm researching. I will then search for the original document and often find many key names useful for my investigation.

Video How to Research Land Records on FamilySearch

Watch this video to see how to access the land records for genealogy on FamilySearch.

Someone Else Is Selling the Land

Additionally, if an executor or administrator sold property from an estate, their name often appears in the deed book indexes rather than the property owner. You may discover the names of the executors through wills and probate files.

You might also have to research your ancestor's extended network. Look for deeds associated with their siblings, business associates, neighbors, and extended family members.

Your Ancestor's Lost the Right to Sell Their Land

Along with an executor or an administrator selling your ancestor's land, perhaps your ancestor had debts they could not repay. If your ancestor encountered financial trouble, the bank or the county sheriff may have sold the property on their behalf.

While your ancestor likely didn't enjoy the loss of their property, such circumstances generated many records. Land records involving a sheriff's sale or a bank often mention court cases and other documentation with rich details about how your ancestor lost their claim to their property.

Use city directories or county histories to find the sheriffs' names. Then explore land transactions that often have the notation "Sheriff" for such cases.

It's also possible that a bank reclaimed the land as collateral to settle a defaulted loan. In such cases, you might have better luck looking for a geographic index, or range book, to the county's deeds. If you find one of these books, you can follow the transactions about a specific parcel of land back to your ancestor. Yipee!

The Sale Happened After Your Ancestors Death

Sometimes descendants didn't estate lands until long after their parents. Therefore, don't limit a property transfer search to 2 years after your ancestors' death. If you know they owned property, search years and decades after their death for a deed transfer.

If you find such a sale, research court records for your ancestor and their descendants because there might be a story full of details about this property and the fighting relatives.

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The United States Land Record Research Strategy All Genealogists Should Use

To ensure I find all of the possible land transactions for my ancestors, I would follow the following steps.

  1. Search the county deed grantor and grantee indexes for my ancestor, descendants, siblings, and estate executors or administrators, without limiting the years t my ancestor's life span.

  2. Search county deed indexes for all land transactions using the same surname.

  3. Search geographic indexes for property transaction histories.

  4. Look in newspapers for land transaction notices, especially Sheriff Sales and Bank Sales.

  5. Research tax records, especially for areas that taxed real estate. Such records identify the property by legal descriptions. When your ancestor no longer appears in the tax records, search the tax books page by page. When you find a new individual paying taxes for your ancestor's property, research that person's land transaction.

Okay, Perhaps Your Ancestor Did Not Own Land

After you exhaust the above research strategies, you could now conclude that your ancestor was likely never a landowner. Many people rented their homes, particularly urban dwellers.

In that case, you can still research in land collections, but you want to ignore deeds and look for the following types of records:

  • Mortgages

  • Tenant Farming Records

  • Share Cropping Agreements

If that's the case, you will want to look for city directories to identify where your ancestors lived. Then trace the house history for that property using county tax records and real estate transactions. While this won't necessarily help you identify your ancestor as the owner, you can learn their landlord's identity. You may also discover the valuation of the property your ancestor leased.

If you can identify the property owner when your ancestor lived in the home, you might search archives for business papers to identify the property's rental history. This one is a long shot, but you never know unless you search.

You Might Also Like

Continue learning about land record research for your genealogy god through the following blog posts and videos.

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