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Overheard on the Message Boards: Researching Land Recors
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 30, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Where can I go to look up the land my ancestors owned? The time was around 1897-1900 in Hopland, Mendocino, California. The surname I am searching is Knight. -- Lyna

A: Land records are an often overlooked and maligned resource to many genealogists. Many people are too often put off by the dry legal descriptions so they think the records are of no use other than to establish that an ancestor did indeed purchase land. When working with an ancestor who has a common surname, things often get so tedious that many feel it is not worth the effort.

On the contrary, land records may hold the one clue that sends you merrily on your way with a line. I have had that happen frequently. Either the land description offered me a clue or there was something about a relative or the residence of a relative, such as a sibling, that offered me a new place to turn with my research. Of course, as with most of the other records we use, we should understand how to use these records and where to find them.

Land records — an overlooked treasure trove.

The Land Records Primer

Land records are more commonly known by another name — deeds. You may find references to someone having checked deeds or someone may have suggested at one point that you search through deed books. Another name that you may find from time to time is land patents. This is usually more common to those researching colonial American ancestors since early parcels of land were given by patent or grant from the king.

Land records, are legal documents. As such, the records are usually found in the courthouse, though you may also find that the records have been microfilmed. To the best of my knowledge, no one has begun to digitize these as some of the other records that genealogists traditionally use, such as the available census records.

You may have figured, based on the fact that I mentioned the courthouse, that these records are housed on the county level. This is true of most of the states in the United States. New England is an exception, as it is with so many of its other records. Each state is a little different and some keep these records at the county level and others at the town level. Likewise, when looking for microfilmed records through the Family History Library Catalog, you will need to concentrate on the appropriate jurisdiction for the state in question. You'll also want to remember that county boundary changes over the years may result in your research not actually being in the county you thought. Like other records used by genealogists, land records were recorded in the county that existed at the time the deed was recorded. Land originally owned by the federal government has its own set of rules, of course, and such records may be under the auspices of Bureau of Land Management.

Also, because the land records are legal documents they are often full of legalese. In general the land record documents the giving of the ownership of a piece of property, usually real estate, from the present owner to someone new for the specified consideration. So, the record may detail that John Smith, the lawful owner of the land is selling it to James Douglas for the sum of $250. Usually the only signatures on the document will be that of the seller, and his wife if he is married, as well as the witnesses. You will not find a signature for the purchaser of the land. Once in awhile the record may be more detailed than this. If you haven't done so already, you may want to see if you can buy a copy of Black's Law Dictionary so that you have a quick reference to the legal terms that you may be reading.

Like many other legal documents, the terms for the buyer and seller are not spelled out nearly as simply. The buyer of the land or property is the grantee. The seller is the grantor. These two terms are important not only because you may find reference to an ancestor being listed as one or the other and it would tell you if he was buying or selling the land, but also because of the indexes that are sometimes available to help you in locating those land records that deal with just your ancestor.

An Index for Easy Finding

Most of the time there are indexes generated to help the courthouses more easily lay their hands on a deed when it is needed. If you have a title search done when you purchase a new house, before signing the final papers someone has gone to the courthouse to trace the ownership of the property to make sure that the person selling it has the legal right and is the only owner. As a result, indexes are created. There are indexes based on the legal description of the land, but seldom do genealogists use these.

Genealogists naturally prefer the indexes that list the buyers and sellers in an alphabetical system. And there are plenty of different systems. Some are alphabetical only by the first letter of the surname, while others are alphabetically by the full surname. Regardless of the alphabetizing it is a good idea to take your time when looking at these indexes to make sure you understand the way in which the records have been listed. Many a researcher has missed an important entry because they didn't take enough time to fully understand the system used by the courthouse.

Earlier I mentioned that it was important for you to understand that a buyer is a grantee and a seller is a grantor and that these terms would help you in the indexes. That is because the indexes are often labeled as or arranged alphabetically by the name of the grantor or grantee. You may find that you have to check two separate volumes, though usually more than that if a family lived in the area for any given time, to be sure you find all the entries of your ancestor both buying and selling land.

Sometimes the grantor and grantee listings are done in the same volume, with the left page showing you the records listed alphabetically by the grantor and the right page showing the alphabetical listing by grantee. Other times you may find these indexes listed as "direct" (means grantor) and "indirect" (means grantee).

When searching for deeds in which your ancestor was the first person to purchase the land from the federal government, then you are usually looking for a patentee. The deed is known as a patent. The good news is that there is an impressive index of these patents available online at the Bureau of Land Management General Land Records Office Web site. This site will allow you to search a database of more than two million records issued between 1820 and 1908. Many of the final land patents have also been digitized and are viewable on this site.

Knights in Mendocino County, California

Your message specifically mentioned the Knight surname and that you suspect that your Knight ancestors purchased land in Hopland, Mendocino County, California somewhere around 1897 to 1900. This did make it easier to see what might be available for you to look at especially from the county courthouse. While it is not impossible, it is less likely that your Knights were purchasing previously un-owned land from the federal government at this time, at least in this area.

A search of the Family History Library Catalog, which lists the holdings of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and allows you to borrow microfilms to a local Family History Center, revealed the following collections that you should investigate further that deal specifically with Mendocino County.

  • Land Patents, 1852-1907; index 1858-1924
  • Homesteads, 1860-1925; includes index
  • Miscellaneous Records, 1862-1911; index 1865-1922

Homesteading was a way of earning the land when you couldn't afford to pay for it with cash. You agreed to develop the land and live on it for a certain number of years, usually five, and if you did all the government required, at the end of the five years, the land became yours. To find out more about land records in general as well as homestead records, you may want to see if you can find a copy of E. Wade Hone's Land & Property Research in the United States. It may be available at your local Family History Center or at your public library if they have a good genealogical collection.

By all means, be sure to check the Bureau of Land Management Web site to see what they have for Knights in Mendocino. You will find that after you click the Search link on the main page, that there is a Standard Search tab that will give you a more detailed search form. This standard search form allows you to include things like the county to narrow your search.

In Conclusion

Land records are truly a treasure trove. They show us relationships, migration, and marriage among other things. Finding them requires understanding the system used in the state where your ancestors were living at the time.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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