Units of Measure
“Jerry” Smith, CGSM
Pole, Rod, Perch = 16 1⁄2 feet = 5 1⁄2
yards (linear measure)
= 30 1⁄4
square yards = 1 perch x 1 perch (area measure)
7.92 inches. The distance between joints in a Gunter’s
Chain, a one chain measure made up of one hundred
Acre = 10
square chains = 43,560 square feet = 1/640 square mile.
six miles square containing 36 sections (each one mile
square, 640 acres)
Why Use Land Records?
ownership has historically been a driving force in
American culture. As a result, land records are often
the earliest formal records seen in a
jurisdiction and land ownership is meticulously tracked
and recorded. Upon the death of a
land owner, records distributing his land to heirs often
name all heirs, not just the recipient of the land. Land records
document the passage of land through successive
generations and provide evidence for relationships.
Brief History of American Land
Colonial practices are varied and include, for example,
Virginia’s headrights; Proprietors, such as the Penn family in
Pennsylvania; and the New England town system.
states used a “metes and bounds” survey system – a
system that resulted in irregular shaped parcels. Land
was The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the
subsequent Acts of 18 May 1796 and 1 June 1798
established the Public Land
System as the method for future land disbursement. Land
was surveyed prior using a rectangular system.
Using the Deed Index
point for your deed search is the index. There are
several common approaches to indexing deeds.
Separate indexes for Grantor [seller] and Grantee
[buyer]. Both indexes record each transaction under the
names of the parties. There may be more
than one grantor and more than one grantee for a
Deed Index listing all parties in a single index and
indication of the role of the parties.
Devisee Index records conveyances of land to a
recipient (devisee) through probate proceeding. Devisee
indexes are not common, but are found in
North Carolina and occasionally other jurisdictions.
There will be a corresponding Devisor Index.
Block Indexes are
seen in some urban environments. To access deeds, you
must know the block where your ancestor
lived. Each block has a number, and all transactions for
the block are in a numbered Block Book.
Directories and period maps are important resources for
determining the block number.
a variety of indexing methods. Some are designed to deal
with phonetic spellings. Others serve to divide the index into
manageable “chunks” that can be rapidly scanned.
Two excellent (and portable!) resources for dealing
with the indexes you will encounter are Christine Rose,
Courthouse Indexes Illustrated; and the
index tutorial at the Maryland State Archives web site,
The often maligned Russell Index (l-m-n-r-t) does well
with phonetic spellings. And, once you locate your surname page
for given names starting with letter A, you can go
through the index incrementing the page numbers by 10
to locate the pages for given names beginning with B, C,
jurisdictions have computerized deed indexes. There are
instances when the old paper index is a better resource.
Very often the computer index matches exact spellings,
or match the exact leading letters that you provide.
misses phonetic spellings. Indexes such as the Russell
are designed to catch those situations.
Very often personal property transactions and other
incidental recordings are omitted from the computerized
index. They are, however, important resources for
genealogy. If your research jurisdiction omits the
personal property transactions from the computer index,
you will want to check the old paper index
Deed of Sale, Indenture. Conveyance of real property,
Warranty Deed. grantor guarantees clear title to the
Bill of Sale. Transfer of personal property. May
document the transfer of slaves.
Quitclaim. The grantor gives up any rights they may
have to property.
Dower Release. A wife consents to her husband’s sale
of land; usually recorded at time of sale, but may be
Lease. Grantee has right to use property for specified
time; does not own property; at end of term rights
revert to grantor.
Lease and Release. A two-part transfer of property.
The Grantor leases to the grantee (a first recorded document);
then the grantor releases any claim to title (a second
recorded document). May be used to ensure payment
or obscure the consideration.
Strawman Deeds. Two deeds filed successively where
property passes through an intermediary.
Power of Attorney. Appoints grantee to act legally on
grantors behalf in specified matters.
Fee simple. Absolute title to the property.
Undivided interest. Several individual hold a share in
the interest of the property. This often occurs upon the death of a
land owner; the heirs may hold undivided interest in his
Dower interest. Wife’s lifetime interest in her
husband’s property, usually 1/3. When the husband sells
property, the dower interest must be
released or the resulting title is encumbered.
Parts of a Deed
regardless of jurisdiction, follow a common format:
Preface. The Preface may indicate the type of deed and
give the date of execution The clerk may make an inset block to
separate this deed from the prior deed; there may be
additional clerk’s notations there.
Parties. Party of the first part is usually the
grantor; party of the second part the grantee.
Residences and occupations
may be given. There may be multiple grantors or
grantees. There may be indications of spouse, role
(administrator, executor, guardian, trustee). When
estates sell property, the recital of parties may
the name of the deceased and statements of relationship
or heirship. Understand women’s rights during the
time period and in the place you are researching. Dower
rights and femme covert are important.
Consideration (payment). Be attentive to low amounts
coupled with phrases such as “and for love and affection.”
Some deeds will include an obligation to provide the
grantor with food and lodging for the remainder of
their lives. This may indicate that an individual is
making provision for their upkeep. It may also indicate
that the individual is disposing of property to avoid
probate. Such a deed may exist for an individual who
leaves no probate records.
Property description. The description may be metes
& bounds or use Public Land Survey System nomenclature.
There may be reference to neighbors, waterways, roads,
or other geographic landmarks.
descriptions were often copied verbatim from prior
documents. If you suspect that something is amiss in the
description, compare with an earlier conveyance for the
property and check for scrivener’s errors.
this practice, property descriptions may name deceased
of Title. Following the description may be words such as
“being the same...” indicating a recitation of
title (history of ownership) for the property. Such
recitals may refer to prior unrecorded deeds, prior
recordings, or the warrant or patent for the first
private owner. Chain-of-title appears more commonly
Warranty Clause. States that the seller has rights to
convey the land.
Witnesses. Witnesses may, or may not, be related to
buyer or seller. If the transaction took place in a
legal setting (courthouse, attorney’s office)
then the witnesses may be unrelated. Appearance as a
witness indicates that the person was alive at
the date of execution and was of a minimum age.
Signatures. Deeds are recorded documents, transcribed
from the original. While they indicate whether the parties signed
or made mark, recorded deeds typically do not bear
original signatures. Clerks may attempt to copy marks
or unusual aspects of a signature (such as German Script
Receipt of Payment. The date and place appearing here
may differ from the date and place of execution.
Acknowledgement. The seller represents before an
official that he acknowledges a conveyance. If the
seller cannot appear, then witnesses attest
that the seller signed the deed. If the seller does not
appear, the circumstances
that prevent appearance may be significant.
Dower release. In many jurisdictions, a wife has a
lifetime interest in her husband’s property. She must
sign away this right for the purchaser to
have clear title. Typically the wife makes a statement
separate from her husband
acknowledging that the transfer is done of her own free
will. Lack of a dower release may indicate
Recording. The date of recording may be a considerable
period of time after the execution date. Particularly if property
remained in the family, the owners would chose not to
incur recording fees. At some later point a buyer may
insist that prior deeds be recorded.
Deed or Mortgage?
between deeds and mortgages can be confusing. Mortgages
are recorded as sales that become null and void upon
fulfillment of some condition (repayment of the loan).
Look for language such as “conditioned upon” or other
wording that states the sale is void when some condition
is fulfilled. There may be notations in the margin of
“satisfaction” indicating that the loan was repaid. If
it appears that your ancestor sold the same land several
times, look for language indicating that
several of the transactions were mortgages.
Abstracting a Deed
Note both the date executed and the date recorded.
Identify Grantor(s) and Grantee(s) and any identifying
particulars, such as residency or occupation.
Include the consideration (payment amount)
Include all other names seen in the deed, including
neighbors mentioned in the property description.
Include the land description (metes and bounds or
Public Land Survey System).
Note any exclusions (portion of the property;
waterway, mineral or other rights).
Note whether the grantor signed, made mark, or other
special attributes of the signature
Include any dower release that may follow the deed, or
note the lack thereof in a time and place where this
Carefully note any conditional language that indicates
the document is a mortgage.
Include any marginalia (such as satisfaction of
Read the several deeds preceding and following the
item of interest.
Can’t Find the Deed?
evidence of land ownership, but there’s no trace of your
ancestor in the Grantor/Grantee or Mortgage
Local collection of “unrecorded deeds.”
Variant spellings. Indexed under name of executor,
administrator, sheriff, party with power of attorney.
Sheriff deeds kept as separate record set.
Sale not recorded contemporaneously; recorded much
later in heir’s name.
Partition from estate probate in separate record set.
Other legal ways to record transfer of land: probate,
court action, legislative action.
Could ancestor be first private owner – that’s another
record set (state or federal).
Resources – General
Kyle. Researching American Land Records . Toronto,
Canada: Heritage Book Series, 2002.
Hiveley, Neal Otto. How to Plot Land Surveys: A Basic
Primer for Drawing Deeds, Surveys, and Other Land
Descriptions. No place, 2000.
Hone, E. Wade. Land & Property Research in the
United States. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 1997.
Hatcher, Patricia Law. Locating Your Roots: Discover
Your Ancestors Using Land Records. Cincinnati, Ohio:
Betterway Books, 2003.
Maryland Archives. “Identifying and Using Indexes.” http://guide.mdsa.net/viewer.cfm?page=using%20indexes
Rose, Christine. Courthouse Indexes Illustrated. San
Jose, California: CR Publications, 2006.
Deeds Index Chart
DEED ABSTRACT FORM
Source: Courthouse/office or Repository/microfilm
County ____________Book___ Page ____ Record Date
_________________ Execution Date ______________
Grantor(s) [Seller: name, residence]:
Grantee(s) [Buyer: name, residence]:
Location of real estate:
Mention of specific buildings:
Rights reserved (if any):
Property Description & acreage:
Recital (prior owner; underlying patent or warrant):
Conditions [indications document is mortgage]:
Seller’s wife relinquish dower right?
Any other unique information?
© 2015 Gerald Smith, CG