Are you ready to take the genealogy research training wheels off and dive into US land records? FamilySearch makes the process somewhat simple.
Basic Facts About Deeds
In the United States, land deeds detail property transactions that take place AFTER the “first” transfer of real estate from a government entity to an individual. These legal documents record the transfer of land ownership from one person to another and typically are compiled in deed books.
Most county courthouses across America managed these property records. However, the states of Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island maintained land transaction documents at the town level.
These genealogy records are accessible to the public and date back to the time a county formed. Additionally, owning property was so important that landowners returned to the local officials to re-recorded their original deeds when a courthouse burned.
How to Access Land Records on FamilySearch
The FamilySearch.org website allows you to access all of the Family History Library's digitized records.
You’re generally not going to access the deeds through the search forms. Often, you will browse the images after accessing a collection from the FamilySearch CARD CATALOG.
Once on the Card Catalog, follow these steps:
Key in the county you're researching in the PLACE search box.
On the catalog page, search for an entry that includes the phrase "Land and Property."
Click on the drop-down arrow to expand to view the catalog's collections.
Find a collection that includes the title word "Deed."
In the video above, I searched for:
Essex County, New Jersey
I found the collection "Deeds, 1688-1901; index 1688-1909[ Essex County, New Jersey]"
Watch this video to see how to access the land records for genealogy on FamilySearch.
Does the Collection Cover the Relevant Time?
Review the collection to ensure that it covers the dates you need.
For example, I was searching for John Townley, born in 1801. This meant his father should be in Essex County in the late 1700s through the early to mid-1800s.
If a land record collection covers your target date range, continue searching.
Find the Land Record Index
Once you find a viable collection, the first recordset you need to find is the Deed Index.
On the FamilySearch Catalog Catalog Collection page, look for any entry with "INDEX" in the title.
Pay little attention to whether the finding aide says Grantor (buyer) or Grantee (seller). Those terms aren't necessarily used in the actual deed. However, I highly recommend searching both indexes.
Create a Land Records to Search Spreadsheet
Since you'll switch between various digitized deed books, create a table of the land documents you want to search.
My "Land Records to Search Table" includes the following column headings:
Name of Buyer (grantor)
Name of Seller (grantee)
Index book consulted*
Tips for Recording Names in the Land Records to Search Table
For the names of the buyers and sellers, you have several options. You can create two columns for the grantor name to have a first name and surname column. You can repeat this for the seller.
After trying the two-column method, I found it unnecessary work. Instead, I would make one column for the buyer and one column for the seller.
When you key in the names, type the surname first, then use a comma, and type the given names.
I can now sort by surname and then use digital spreadsheet filters to show only "Townley, Effingham" and hide the remaining possibilities.
Genealogy Pro Tip: As I research, I hyperlink the names of individuals relevant to my research to their FamilySearch profile. For instance, if I find a document for my John Townley ancestor. I insert a hyperlink of the relevant John Townley name in my spreadsheet to his profile. If I'm using an alternative online family tree, I could hyperlink John's name to that weblink.
Tips for the "Index Books Consulted" Column
Invariably I want to revisit the deed index book. Perhaps I wrote the wrong page number or volume in the respective columns. Perhaps I want to search the index for additional spelling variations.
For various reasons, I have found it imperative to capture the link to the index in my digital spreadsheet. I turn the volume number into a hyperlink rather than create a separate column.
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Searching For Your Ancestors in Deed Indexes on FamilySearch
As I said above, you will want to search both the grantor and grantee indexes. With your blank "Land Records to Search Table" prepared, it's time to find your deeds.
If you are new to searching unindexed records, read my post "Finding Elusive Records on FamilySearch By Browsing Unindexed Images."
The basics of searching in the deed indexes involves navigating to the first sheet with your ancestor's surname.
Depending on the arrangement of the deed index, you can navigate the pages for your ancestor's first name. Or, you have to review each page that contains your ancestor's surname as the first names are jumbled together or grouped by time blocks.
Be sure you scroll through the book looking for all the relevant spelling variations for your ancestor's surname.
Include all entries for your target ancestor and other potential relatives and neighbors.
When you have found all the potential deeds to explore, you can go to the Deed books.
Access Your Ancestor's Deeds on FamilySearch
Return to the Card Catalog List for Deeds in your ancestor's county. Now search for entries that include specific deed books.
Repeat the process to navigate browse only images. This time, you're searching for a specific page number. When you reach the specific page, then scroll the entire document to find where the deed begins.
Many deed books will end one transaction and start another on the same sheet. Many deed books have a quick 'reference' before the deed begins. It will read something like this "Townley, Richard to Meeker, David."
Save Your Ancestor's Land Records
When you find an entry that pertains to your ancestor, do a few things.
Copy the web URL in the browser web address bar.
Hyperlink the volume in your records to the search table or insert the link in the "Index Reference Book" column.
Attach the deed to your ancestor(s) profile on the FamilySearch Family Tree
If I can't identify everyone in the deed, or the people are more distantly related, I save this source to the FamilySearch Sourcebox.
Transcribe land record notes into your research plan.
One Trick for Transcribing Historic Records on FamilySearch
As shown in the land records video, I open the Notepad app on my windows computer to use while transcribing historical records online.
Minimize the Notepad and place it over the window with your document. Adjust the Notepad program's size until you can see both the record and your transcription space at the same.
Type all the details into Notepad. When finished, copy and paste the transcription into your research plan or the notes field after attaching the record to the FamilySearch Family Tree.
Record Your Findings In Your Research Plan
There are several ways you can include details about your ancestor's deeds in your genealogy research plan.
The first option is to copy the transcription of the deed and paste it into the research notes. You can then add paragraphs explaining the purchase or sale of each property.
Or, you can reformat your "Land Records to Search Table" or create an "Ancestor's Deed Table."
The Ancestor's Deed table will likely include the following columns:
Name of Buyer (grantor)
Residence of Buyer
Name of Seller (grantee)
Residence of Seller
Town of Property
You can use fewer columns if you choose, but these are the most common columns to help you compare your ancestor's land transactions.
After you create this table, you can then write the conclusions you develop following this research.
Land records contain a wealth of information. FamilySearch makes it possible to research land records from the comfort of your home. Good luck making discoveries about your ancestor's property ownership.
John Townley Brick Wall Research Series
Clues from land records (you are here)