In order to fully understand land and property records, some research into the history of an area is required. It helps to know if the land that became private property was distributed by the state, as is the case with twenty states in the United States, or if the federal government gave out the land. Many different methods were used for land distribution. Once a lot of land left public (state or federal) hands, it became private land.
When researching property records, it is also helpful to know the methods used to define boundaries and to transfer property in the area you are researching. Most of the land measurement in the states that distributed the land is known technically as "metes and bounds." This means that reference points were usually physical features, such as streams, trees, or rocks. The basic unit of measure was the surveyor's chain. These conversions may be found in reference books or on the internet.
Due to these early surveying methods, land usually had to be surveyed again when transferred. Natural boundaries changed, and if stakes were used to mark lines, it was often found that the stakes had been destroyed or moved. In the earliest land records, you will often find a picture of the property recorded in the public record.
Land and property records can be located in many different places. Often land records will still be in possession of the family. This is often the case with original bounty grants. In Georgia, many families still have the original land lottery documents and seals from the land lotteries in the early 1800's.
Most property documents will be found in county courthouses. They may be in many different places. Recorders of deeds are called by different names in different parts of the country. Tax assessors may have records, although after a period of years many of the tax records, especially the poll tax records, have been removed. Sometimes registrars' offices will have records owing to the fact that land ownership had to be proven. Probate records provide a treasure trove of information about property.
Other places to look for property records include local genealogical collections (it is amazing what can be found in local libraries), the state archives, and the internet. Undertaking a state, then county search on the internet will often turn up many interesting property documents that may help with your ancestor search.
Property transferred through deeds are from grantor to the grantees. Deeds often contain clues within the document that will help with your search. When looking at a deed, see if any of the neighbors are mentioned. They may be relatives. Also, be sure to record the names of the witnesses, especially if you cannot have a copy printed. The witnesses are often family or close friends. The names may provide a clue.
One gem of information that is often found in a deed is the name of the county or area from which your ancestor moved. This may provide the link you need to get back to another state or another generation. It will at least point you in the general direction to begin another search.
Deeds may also contain tantalizing clues about your ancestor's lives. In my family, there has always been the tradition that my great-great-grandmother Nancy Hart was part Native American. This has never been proven. In a deed dated 1866, her husband, Henry Fowler, gives her property to be held in trust by a Francis Brunett. This Francis Brunett has no relationship to family—at least none that has been proven. Subsequent searching through the years reveals that she held on to this land until 1895 when she sold it to a paper company. One possible explanation to have it held in trust is that she was a Native American, and it was less than thirty years since the Trail of Tears in Georgia. The trust may have been for her protection.
The type of deed mentioned in above is a deed of gift because no compensation was given for the property. Often deeds may be used to determine the death of an ancestor by giving the year the property was transferred. This assumption must be followed with verification. In many families, a person may have died years earlier before any transfer of ownership was recorded in the local public office. Several generations may have passed.
These are only a few of the many property records that can be utilized in your genealogical search. The types and uses of land and property documents is vast, and it is an area that must be explored to get all the information available about a family.