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Early County Boundaries Can Cause Headaches For Genealogists

As the American population grew and flexed its local political muscles, many of these original counties split to form two or more counties.


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County boundary lines can and have caused genealogists headaches as they try to research their ancestors. In 1776, when our forefathers founded this country, they formed counties, in many cases, based on land grants. As the population grew and flexed its local political muscles, many of these original counties split to form two or more counties.

If an ancestor lived on a county boundary line, it's possible that records may exist in both counties. If he purchased property only in one county to start with, but then the county boundary moved or the county was divided, his estate or property line may have changed. In addition, the property may have later been sold in several other counties.

In the past, county boundaries changed often. For instance, in the late 18th century Chester and Delaware Counties in Pennsylvania were originally one county called Olde Chester County. In the early 19th century, this county became Chester and Delaware Counties. To research records here, a genealogist would have to go to both county seats, since neither present town was the county seat in the original county.

An even more bizarre situation occurs in Iowa. In 1836, there were only two counties in the entire state–Dubuque (the northern half) and Des Moines (the southern half). Today, there are 99 counties in Iowa. If a person lived in Dubuque County in 1836 and bought land there, that person's deed would be recorded in the Dubuque County Courthouse. However, if a person bought the same land in 1859, the deed might be recorded in Des Moines County. To locate the correct courthouse for a search, a genealogist must check old maps and find out where the county boundaries were drawn at that time.

If a person owned land within a town boundary, his or her deed would be listed in a separate index called Town/City Lots. Most Town/City Lots indexes span only a few years–anywhere from one to ten. A genealogist may have to search several books before finding the correct entry. Town lot deeds can also give information about a person's occupation. Be certain to check with the Treasurer's Office for licenses for certain types of establishments. For instance, if an ancestor owned a hotel, he or she may have had to buy a license to run it.

The office of the Secretary of State in each state keeps track books, listing the grants of property by section in each township of a county. These give the original grantee's names and patent numbers. The bulk of land in the U.S. is identified by this system.

Land wasn't always transferred in squares or sections as it was later. Founders laid out townships and counties differently in the eastern and southern states. In New England and New York, townships are called towns. Title records are different in these regions, also.

Kentucky and Tennessee have records which are similar to those of their parent states, Virginia and North Carolina, respectively. Many of the mid-western and western states adopted land divisions similar to those of states from which the majority of their settlers hailed. The governments of Spain and France granted much of the land in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana before they became states in the Union. So, even though all states are now part of the United States, the method of land divisions and the records of them can vary from state to state.

By learning the format and methods of land transfer, beginning genealogists can more easily search through old county land records.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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