Beginning Lesson #33
United States genealogical research is greatly enhanced by reviewing records of land transactions involving your ancestors. Although the project sounds pretty cut and dry (who bought and sold a piece of land) you'll be surprised that family relationships are also mentioned from time to time.
"On February 21, 1693, John Beecher and his wife Edith, late widow of Christopher Gist, deceased, were living on 100 acres of the tract called Gist's Rest, formerly called Rebecca's Delight." (Baltimore County Maryland Deeds, RM No. RS p 417, Hall of Records Annapolis, reported in Christopher Gist of Maryland and Some of His Descendants, by Jean Muir and Maxwell Jay Dorsey, p 2).
From this we know that Christopher Gist (my original immigrant) died before 21 February 1693, the date of the deed. We know his wife's name was Edith and that she subsequently married John Beecher. This information would lead us to look for Christopher's will, which happens to list his heirs. We are alerted to look at documents for Edith (maiden name?) Gist Beecher's life also under the new name Beecher.
When we do locate her will, as Edith Beecher, it mentions her brother Richard Cromwell. If we had not looked at land records and learned of her subsequent marriage, we would never have found this will with the pointer to a possible sibling, or relative of sorts. I add "relative of sorts" because during the colonial period, definitions for brother, sister, in-laws and cousins were used differently than we use them now. (See Myrt's Beginning Genealogy Lesson #3 - Relationship Terms)
In fact, by reviewing more of the land records at the Hall of Records in Annapolis, I discovered that Edith (Cromwell) and Christopher Gist had one child named Richard, and they also sold land to another brother of Edith's named William Cromwell.
Logically, if I desired to locate the parents of Edith, William and Richard, I would look to records in England (perhaps a will) naming all three as heirs. Unfortunately, in this case, genealogists have tried for years to prove a relationship, to no avail.
Even Myrt's lines have brick walls!
Your ancestor may have received his land from a variety of sources and with a variety of methods for allotment, payment and improvement requirements including:
headright grants - VA, MD, GA, FL, TX, CA and British Colonies
crown charter or grant by colonial governor
US Revolutionary War military service on a state or continental line
Loyalist Claim after the Revolution
federal bounty lands
federal land patents
state land transactions
land company transactions
US approval of earlier Spanish or French settlements, including some squatters
surplus railroad or agricultural college land purchase
quit claim deed
donation land claim
Native American allotments
desert land claim
Canadian Refugee warrant
Understanding the type of land records available for your ancestor's locality requires the study of the history of the area. For instance, the Plymouth Colony lived communally, with town property and outlying fields assigned to each family. The records for this colony would differ greatly from the land records generated by Lord Fairfax in Colonial Virginia.
Indeed, Lord Fairfax granted settlement of the Shenandoah Valley to one of my ancestors, Hans Jost Hite and his associates. Then the good Lord Fairfax awarded much of the same land to another party. The court records pertaining to the subsequent lawsuit are voluminous. My ancestor's legal rights were not upheld until after his death. As a researcher you'd have a pretty glorified view of early valley settlement if you overlooked the court records of this well-known struggle.
Locating Land Records
There are numerous indexes to land records including grantee-grantor indexes which are usually chronicled in a good genealogical bibliography for your state or county. Remember to review Myrt's Beginning Genealogy Lesson #31 - Courthouse Research for a description of "indexes in progress." You wouldn't want to miss an entry for your Smith ancestor, if names beginning with that letter spilled over onto the index page for the letter Q.
Technology has had a profound impact of the preservation and indexing of the Eastern Division of what is now the Bureau of Land Management. Their automated retrieval system of General Land Office records involved scanning original deeds and providing the index on CD-ROM, and now online at:
Previous access to these early records required providing the exact legal description before viewing the documents on your ancestor.
American State Papers documents private land claims and preemptions including many denied applications. In describing this collection, E. Wade Hone states "References are also made to the refugees from Canada and Nova Scotia, military bounty lands and a fragment of Indian claims. (...) Petitions of inhabitants, discussions of litigation surrounding the validity of claims, documentation of arrivals into geographic areas, discussions of boundary disputes, land cessions and annexations, discussions of neighbors and associates, more detailed testimonies than land-entry case files." (see Land & Property Research, p. 157, listed below.)
This important American State Papers collection was published by Gales and Seaton and is available at larger state and university libraries, the LDS Family History Library and the National Archives. (See also the separate index called
Grassroots of America by Phillip W. McMullin.)
The LDS Family History in Salt Lake City has microfilm copies of land records. Check the FHLCatalog - locality section, to see what is available. They don't have everything, so check catalogs of holdings at state and county archives.
Ancestry's Red Book and
Everton's Handybook for Genealogists each list the repositories of land records in US states and counties and the time periods covered by each collection.
As you become more experienced researching land records, you'll discover all sorts of township plat maps, Sanborn fire maps, military bounty records and the like.
Its true that many of our ancestors were poor farmers, with little chance of tracing lineages back through ten generations of family owners to the original immigrant or royal appointee. However, land records that do remain one of the most valuable resources a genealogist can peruse. You can bet that when the courthouse burned down, the villagers stood in line to reconstruct the land records documenting their ownership!
For Further Reading:
Eichholz, Alice, PH.D., CD., Ancestry's Redbook: American State, County & Town Sources. 1989. Salt Lake: Ancestry Publishing.
Everton Publishers, The Handybook for Genealogists, 8th Edition, 1994. Logan, Utah:Everton Publishers, Inc. URL:
Greenwood, Val D., American Genealogy: The Researcher's Guide to. 1990, 1997 reprint. Baltimore: Available through the Genealogical Publishing Company web page located at URL:
Hone, E. Wade, Land & Property Research in the United States, 1997. Orem: Ancestry Incorporated.
LDS Family History Library, United States Research Outline. 1988. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
LDS Family History Library, (individual state) Research Outline. 1988 and various. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Wright, Norman, Building an American Pedigree: A Study in Genealogy. 1974. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 3rd printing, (out of print) pp. 233-278.
Other Beginning Genealogy Lessons: http://www.DearMYRTLE.com/lessons.htm
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