Friday, November 18, 2016

Going to the Courthouse - Land Records

One of the most interesting things to research at a courthouse is the land records.  In the United States, land records are public; so they are made available for public inspection.  You can see and use the records for free, although you usually have to pay if you want copies.  Thus, anyone can walk into the courthouse during business hours and view them.

In the county clerk's office (the holder of the land records might be called something else in your state), you should tell them that you are doing family history research and when and where your family lived in the county.  Usually an employee in the clerk's office will briefly show you where the record books are and explain how they can be used.  There is not usually much hand-holding, although most employees are glad to answer a few questions; but they do have their own work to do and guiding researchers is not part of it.  Try to be a good citizen to smooth the way for future genealogists.

Typical shelves of deed books, from Renssellaer County, New York.  Source:

If you don't have a legal description of the land, then you should tell the employee where your family lived and ask them to show you on a map the township and range.  Or if you are looking for town lots, tell them the address, and they should show you where to look for those.

If you have a legal description, go to the tract book for that township and range.  Once you locate the township and range, then find the correct section.  Usually there is at least one page for each section.  Starting about the time your ancestor bought land, scan the list of grantors and grantees for the right name.  All types of transactions are listed together - warranty deeds, quit claim deeds, mineral leases and releases, mortgages and releases, etc.  Jot down the volume and page for the transactions that interest you.

Here is a snippet from a tract book from Texas County, Oklahoma.  Notice the section, township, and range numbers across the top.  Then there are columns for the grantor (seller, mortgagor, lessor, etc.) and grantee.  Next is an abbreviation for the type of instrument, such as WD for warranty deed and QCD for quit claim deed.  Next are columns with tick marks for each quarter-quarter this is involved in the transaction.  Finally, columns for the number of acres involved and most importantly the volume and page where you can find the recorded copy of the instrument.

Usually you can pull the books off the shelves yourself, but sometimes you have to ask an employee to get it for you.  You may have to ask about the organizational scheme of the books - sometimes they are shelved strictly by number but other times warranty deeds are together, mortgages are together, etc.  Sometimes the old books that are rarely used are in a vault somewhere.  When you find the instrument, enter all the data into your spreadsheet.  If you want a copy, ask an employee how it works and the cost.  They may make copies for you, or you may need to make them yourself.  Prices vary widely.  Digital photographs are usually forbidden.

Once you have all the transactions on the known tracts of land that your family owned, I like to check the grantor-grantee index to see if they owned land that I didn't know about.  This would also be the place to start if you don't know where they lived in the county.  This is an index for a period of years where all the transactions are indexed by last name.  So you might have a book for 1908-1920, 1921-1932, etc.  You should look in both the grantor and grantee sections in all the years that your family lived there.  It usually doesn't take too long because the book has many sections, for example, not just an F section but Fa, Fe, Fi, Fo, and Fu.  The grantor-grantee index is also called the direct-indirect index, with the direct portion being that indexed by grantor and the indirect by grantee.

Sometimes it may be hard to find the right tract of land.  My grandfather Cornelius K. Siemens #7529 (1884-1950) lived at Satanta, Kansas, with his family from 1916-1918.  When I went to the Haskell County courthouse, I knew approximately where they lived; so I searched in the tract book for that township but found nothing.  Then I went to the grantor-grantee index, but again I found so Siemens.  So I went back to the tract book and searched again.  Then it dawned on me - there was a Jacob L. Plett listed as an owner of half a section.  That was Cornelius' father-in-law!  Apparently, Jacob Plett had purchased two quarters, one for each of his daughters in the Kleine Gemeinde community there.  That was why there were no Siemens in the records.  But this added an interesting dimension to the family story that I had not known.

Before you leave the county clerk's office, you should do two things.  First, check that you have a purchase and a sale transaction for every piece of land that your family owned.  Do the same for mortgages and mineral leases if you are keeping track of those.  However, often if land is transferred to heirs by probate, an instrument is not recorded, so note those items to check for in the probate records that you are going to get.  Second, ask an employee if they have any other interesting records - this could include school records, cemetery records, city directories, and many other things.

Before leaving the county, I like to go see the land in person that my ancestors owned and take a picture of myself at the site.  It gives me an appreciation for the physical environment in which they lived.  If some or all of the original buildings are there, it is even more interesting.  I also try to go by the Mennonite church where they worshiped and the cemetery if family members are buried there.

By now you should have a good idea of the socioeconomic status of your ancestors from the land they owned.  You may also have gained some insight into family dynamics based on transfers of land between family members.  I hope you will find research on land record at county courthouses to be as valuable as I have.

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