Family Trails: Land Records and Brick Walls

By Valerie LaRobardier

Courthouses provide genealogists with a rich source of records tailor-made to break down the worst research “brick walls.”

Because they are difficult to understand and find online, these records are often looked at last, or ignored. But keep in mind that, before 1850, some 90 percent of the male population owned land, making this an excellent way to learn about your ancestors.

Before you can research land records, you must select a geographical target. By composing a brief profile of your earliest known ancestor, you can make some deductions about where his parents likely lived when he was born.

Detail from an 1854 map of Putnam County that shows property ownership

Census records are a good place to start. If you are fortunate enough to have ancestors who lived in New York, its census records for 1825 through 1875 identified land ownership of the head of household.

Tax lists also are a valuable resource, provided they separately identify real and personal property. Even if they do not break it out, finding your ancestor on a tax list points to the likelihood he owned or leased land.

Don’t overlook newspaper notices of foreclosures and auctions. Don’t take it too hard — it was quite common at various periods of history and does not necessarily speak to failure of character.

While researching newspaper databases, copy any references that do not relate to land transactions. They will be helpful as your research progresses, and it may not be easy to find the same clipping a second time.

To ensure you are looking in the correct jurisdiction, refer to Alice Eichholz’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources, which is online at bit.ly/HC-red-book. It has tables for each state that show when each county was formed; its parent county, if any (e.g., Putnam County was taken from Dutchess); and how far back its records go. For New England states, the listing is by town, rather than county. The table is keyed to a map so you can spot neighboring areas.

It is always a good idea to delve into the history of an area using Google, USGenWeb.org or the American Local History Network (sites.rootsweb.com/~usalhn). The more you know about your target and the region, the better equipped you will be to find records.

Land records are not the easiest records to research. Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary:

Grantee: Buyer, person to whom property is transferred. Party of the second part.
Grantor: Seller, person transferring ownership to another. Party of the first part.
Quitclaim: A statement that the person signing relinquishes claim on the property, nothing more.
Deed of trust: A notice that a debt is involved.
Surety: One who guarantees payment of the debt.
Dower: A wife’s interest in her husband’s property, inheritable at his death.

An excellent resource for these type of records is Christine Rose’s Courthouse Research for Family Historians. Much of it will not make a lot of sense until you have gone through the process of finding and analyzing a few deeds. Use it as a reference and learn as you go — it will get easier with each trip.

I would also recommend that you practice reading the handwriting of whichever clerk made the entries. When researching names such as Lawson, for example, you may find that the name appears as “Loffing.” (Happened to me!)

A Graves Tabular index table

When you arrive at the courthouse, make a beeline to the indices. For deeds, there will be two for each “chunk” of the alphabet, a grantee and a grantor index. Finding the page for your target surname can be a bit of a challenge. Let’s say you are looking for your Bigalo ancestor who arrived in Putnam County around 1830. First consult the grantee index A-D for 1812-1869.

These books use what is called a Graves Tabular index, so we want to look at the B table; go down the side to the I rows; and then look across in the row that includes G to find that the page number is 120. Easy, right?

The tables are usually found on the inside cover or near the front of the book. Make a list of the volume and page number of any deeds that look promising and repeat the process with the other indexes. When you locate the deeds, make copies of those that appear relevant because you will likely need to study them carefully later to glean all the information.

Because we live in the digital age, you don’t need to visit the courthouse or records office: The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has posted scans of New York records at familysearch.org, organized by county. See bit.ly/HC-land-records. The original deeds in Putnam are housed at the County Archives in Brewster.

This will all seem far less daunting when a deed uncovered this way gives you a boost over your brick wall.

LaRobardier is a professional genealogist and president of the Dutchess County Genealogical Society. Questions? Email genealogy@highlandscurrent.org.

3 Responses to "Family Trails: Land Records and Brick Walls"

  1. Aaron Wolfe   April 3, 2019 at 2:05 pm

    I think you mean “white male population” here: “But keep in mind that, before 1850, some 90 percent of the male population owned land, making this an excellent way to learn about your ancestors.”

    • mm
      Site Editor   April 3, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      Not necessarily, says Valerie. In Dutchess County, there are records of at least a few black former slaves who owned land in the early 1800s.

      Chip Rowe
      Managing Editor

  2. Thomas Cerchiara   April 4, 2019 at 9:48 am

    Searching land records back to the early 1800s was also the daily job of many land surveyors. When we re-trace property lines (especially in rural areas) we often have to trace chains of title back over 200 years. Finding old names, following family relationship trails, utilizing old atlases, researching at New York State Archives, historical societies and more are important parts of our jobs. We just finished one project where we traced a road in Dutchess County to pre-colonial times and applied a colonial law from the early 1700s to determine the road width.

    While the majority of the records do deal with the “white male population” for sure, we find lots of old records of land ownership by freed slaves, including entire communities founded and made up almost entirely of freed slaves in Dutchess County, some dating to before the Civil War. There may well be good information there for someone searching.

    Cerchiara is the president of TEC Land Surveying in Beacon.