Basics of Land Record Research

by Ruby Coleman

The acquisition of land had an effect upon the colonization and settlement of the United States. On the personal side, people depended upon land for all their material needs and sustenance. Land is human history. Your research should always include land records.

There are basically two types of records. First ownership records were created when the government transferred the title of land to the state, to a company or to an individual. Second or other ownership records transfer the title between individuals, companies or states.

Always begin land record research on a county level. Determine the county or counties where your ancestor resided. In this case it is helpful to do a timeline showing places your ancestor lived. Census is helpful in determining his or her location. Census records that began in 1860 contain more detailed information about personal and real estate values. These figures provide significant clues.

If you cannot visit the county courthouse where your ancestor's land records may be recorded, there are other options. It is possible to write to the courthouse, but in most cases their staff will not have time to do extensive research. Many county land records have been microfilmed by the LDS Church and are available on microfilm through Family History Centers. Check out their Family History Library Catalog online at

Begin your research by using the index to land records. This will usually be compiled by grantee and grantor. The grantee is the person buying the property and the grantor is the person selling the property. The type of record keeping varies between states and counties. In many cases they are bound by years. You should look for surname(s) and also keep in mind the year(s) your ancestor was in the county. With the index information you will be able to locate the actual land record by volume and page number.

Depending upon the area you are researching there may also be numerical indexing of property. In this case you will need to know the township, range and section. This type of indexing will provide you with significant information on who owned the property prior to your ancestor and who bought or inherited it from your ancestor, as well as current owners. This type of indexing is found in the public domain states.

Land records provide clues in determining a former residence. Not always, but in many cases the former residence of the grantee will be shown in the first land record in the “new” county. If the land is conveyed through inheritance, there will be clues pertaining to the parents and perhaps siblings. Migration patterns can be established through the use of land records.

The land records showing a person as a grantee will normally not show the name of the spouse. Once the land is sold, a wife will exert her dower rights and is shown on the document. If the grantor (person selling the property) is not married, he or she will be shown as a single person. A theory among genealogists is that the witnesses were relatives. Their names should always be noted, but in many cases they may have been acquaintances and not relatives.

Typical land records will show the following information. All of this should be copied and compared as your research progresses:

  • type of instrument
  • date of instrument
  • names and places of residence (both grantee and grantor)
  • consideration (amount)
  • location and description of the land
  • special considerations or limitations
  • names of witnesses
  • signature of grantor(s)
  • dower release (where applicable)
  • date of recording

Not everybody had cash to buy land outright. Always look at the mortgage indexes and files. Pay close attention to the signature of witnesses and cosigners. In the 1800s a woman’s father would sometimes sign the mortgage to cover the loan or carry the note in order to protect her dowry.

Researching land records takes time. It is helpful to have maps, particularly plat maps available to see where the land was located. The clues that are found in land records, particularly over a span of time are valuable in genealogical research.

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