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The Compleat Genealogical Database: Property Ownership

Property ownership holds special meaning for genealogists beyond just knowing where Aunt Sally lived. Judy Rosella Edwards takes you on a land search like you've never seen.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Ownership matters, especially in the United States. A consistent question on U .S. Census enumerations is whether a resident owns or rents their property. This information tells us a lot. For one thing, it establishes who is head of the household. A family who is living with Grandma, in her house, will be enumerated with Grandma as the head of household. If Grandma is listed after other family members, then she is not the property owner. Also, we can probably assume that property owners were more affluent. They either inherited property or they earned enough to buy a home in a particular neighborhood.

Means of Ownership

Most of us assume that people who want to buy a house simply find a property and buy it, or take out a mortgage. Historically, there are other ways to own property. Soldiers, for instance, were rewarded for service with grants of acreage in areas that were sparsely populated in the United States, and maybe not so sparsely populated in Europe.

Ownership does not necessarily mean the property was the family home on census day. Not everyone piled into the wagon and moved to the property, sight unseen. Men often built at least a rudimentary dwelling before moving the rest of the family, which can lead to some confusing genealogical puzzles. I have a relative whose child was born on the East Coast, while he was enumerated in Kentucky. After much debate among family members, it seems that his pregnant wife didn't move to Kentucky until after the child was born, when she brought all their children along. Fortunately, there are records of land grants documenting the soldier's name and the property. Search for a land grant, even if your soldier died on the battlefield.

Paper Trail

Regardless of how someone came to purchase their home, there will be a paper trail. There will be a deed – and a will. Someone inherited the property your ancestor owned at the time of their death. Now, that doesn't mean someone else didn't live there. Your ancestor may have inherited the property and rented it to someone else because they already had a home of their own.

Some families also owned multiple homes. If they happened to be living at their vacation home for the summer – including census day – the family could rightfully have been enumerated at their vacation home, rather than at their other residence.

There will also be tax records in your ancestor's name. If the property sold, there will be a record of the sale. Tax records can be found in the county courthouse. They are often published in the local newspaper at tax time. Sales, too, are usually recorded in the local newspaper, as a legal notice in the classified advertising section. A sale is followed by a change in the property deed, which will also be found in the county courthouse.

Property Changes

Things happen to property. If there was a fire or if lightning struck the old homeplace, it probably made the local newspaper. Look for a story. It may include other little tidbits about the family. The home of one of my ancestors burned to the ground, and they went to live with someone who turned out to be a relative I hadn't been aware of.

Other things happen to property that put the owners in the news. Surely it made the paper when Aunt Sally's vacant lot, adjacent to her house, was taken via eminent domain by the city council to create a park. It might have made even more news if Aunt Sally donated the land to become a park. It may have been her request that the park be named after her family. Park names, and even street names, can be clues to locating family. The same goes for schools, libraries, and other institutions.

Commercial and Other Property

Tax lists include commercial and rental property. Commercial property may include a business your ancestor owned. Google Books is a great online source for locating information about businesses.

Commercial property is fascinating to research. Businesses are always looking for free publicity. Business owners appear frequently in newspapers and at annual celebrations. Photographs of business owners and managers may appear in newspapers, and some larger companies published company biographies every ten years or so.

Vacant rental properties, both commercial and residential, advertise for new tenants creating more of a paper trail. Look for advertisements in the newspaper. Who is the rental contact? It could just be that cousin you've been researching.


Add as much property detail to your database as possible. It is all part of the fabric of your family. If necessary, create additional fields for things like fire!

Coming soon...
  • Legal events
  • Marital status
  • Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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