A deed is just a document that conveys a piece of land from one person to another. True? Yes.
But to a family historian, it also offers clues to solving a family mystery, or directs the next step in a genealogical journey.
Few ancestors were land barons, but most owned a piece of early America. In the 19th century as much as 90 percent of the male population owned land. So odds are good that an ancestor created a land record.
One reason land records often are ignored by inexperienced family historians is that few of them are online. Old land records languish in deed books stashed in corners, attics or basements of courthouses.
In Colonial days, land initially was owned by the English king, who put it in the hands of proprietors with authority to grant properties to individuals. After the Revolution, individual states or the new federal government owned land that had not already been given to private citizens. When land passes from government ownership to an individual, the transaction is called a grant. After that, land is transferred from one person to another through a deed.
If a state granted the land, a researcher will find the record at the state's archives. If the federal government granted the land, a researcher should look for the record at the National Archives (www.archives .gov) or at the Bureau of Land Management ( www.glorecords.blm.gov).
Most state archives also house microfilm of county land records. Check with the state archives to see whether any of the microfilm is available through interlibrary loan. Most county land records have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are available in Salt Lake City or can be ordered through one of the church's local Family History Centers.
Because getting to these records requires a bit of effort, researchers may require some evidence of the genealogical treasures that await. And I have some.
In 1746 in Isle of Wight County, Va., John Frizzel sold a property to John Lawrence. The deed gave a history of the land by showing that it had been granted to Anthony Branch in 1665 and that Branch had left it to Mary Prise when he died. Mary Prise then married Ralph Bozman and, after his death, married Stephen Powell. After his death she married Robert Hooks. While she was married to Hooks, the two deeded the land to her son, Samuel Bozeman.
Experienced researchers know that it often is difficult or impossible to find 18th century marriage records. Certainly this deed would be evidence of all three of Mary Prise's marriages. It also identifies one of her children by her first husband.
These records might also help black Americans searching for ancestors who lived as slaves. The sales of slaves, considered property, often were recorded in deed books.
In 1807 in Jackson County, Ga., John Farrow sold "a parcel of Negroes" to Brittain Farrow. The deed described the group as Milley, about 45, and her four children: Charlotte, about 22; Peter, about 20; Abraham, about 16; and Hannah, about 14. Clearly, this deed is a treasure for someone researching slave ancestors in Jackson County.
Deeds also can give insight into family emotions and problems not often found in other records.
In 1818 in Jackson County, Jerome Miller deeded a piece of property to his daughter, Rachel Edwards, wife of Isaac Edwards. The deed revealed that Isaac had abandoned Rachel and her father wanted to provide for her keep. The deed was a gift, but the land was placed under the control of a trustee so that Edward could not reappear and claim it.
Motivated to start the hunt? Next week, learn how.