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Overheard in GenForum: How Do I Search for Land Records?
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.

March 22, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am trying to find any documentation showing the purchase/claim and later transfer of a family farm in the early 1900s Arkansas. Where do I start? I'm not sure if the farm was purchased outright or as a homestead claim. Where do I begin looking to find out which? Also, there seems to be conflicting stories on what happened to the farm after the death of the father. Some say his second wife got it, others say the older children took it from her and others have no idea. Do I need to go to a state records archive or to the actual county where the farm was located? I have fairly close access to both, but need to know where I would probably find the most information. Thanks. -- Sheila

A: Land records offer us more than just information about the buying and selling of the land. In some instances they may hold clues to the whereabouts of family members. In other cases they may allude to past military service.

Many people, if they do look at land records, stop with the land records found in the county courthouse. Depending on how a given family came into possession of the land originally, the whole story may not appear in the county's land records.

Don't stop just at the county when looking for land records.

County Courthouse

The first stop in most land research, and in yours specifically, is the county courthouse. You will need to look in the grantor and grantee indexes. One shows who was selling the land the other shows who was purchasing land.

Some counties have combined indexes of both grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer), but more often than not you will find that you must look in several different volumes to be sure you have exhausted all possibilities with the land records for that county.

Once you have gathered information from the indexes, you will then need to turn your attention to the actual land records. These will be found in a number of different volumes depending on the number of entries in the indexes you found.

Once you have found all of the actual land records, sit down and add up the amount of acreage that was bought and the amount that was sold. If you do not come up with the same number, then you will know that some land was either purchased or acquired elsewhere or that it was distributed differently, perhaps through probate records.

Looking Elsewhere

The first step is to see what changes the county has gone through over the years. It could be that the records you need are housed in the parent county. As new counties were created, they did not take any records with them. Therefore as your research goes further back you must look in different counties.

If indeed it turns out that your ancestor acquired land through the Homestead Act, then you will need to turn to the National Archives in Washington, DC Unlike many of the other records genealogists use such as passenger lists and census records, the Homestead records have not been microfilmed and they are not available anywhere else.

To request a copy of the homestead file, you would need to first request the NATF Form 84 "Land Entry Files," which you would then need to fill out. In order to fill this out you would need to know the land office and the final certificate number. You may find this information in the land records when the land was being sold. For more information on Homestead records, you will want to check Chapter 9 "Records Generated by Federal Lands" found in E. Wade Hone's Land & Property Research in the United States.

If you have more acres bought than were sold, you need to turn your attention to the probate records. There are instances where the land was distributed through probate records, and it sounds like the probate records should be checked anyway in your case, based on your questions.

Probate Records

Like the land records, probate records are generally found in the county courthouse. Again, the county as it was at the time of the event.

You will want to be sure to ask for more than just the will. Wills were often filed separately and the probate cases are where you will find any disagreements over the division of the property, both real and personal. There may or may not be an index to these records. You may want to check the Family History Library Catalog, online through FamilySearch.org, to see what is available for the county in question. Even if you go there in person, you will know what to ask for when you get there.

In Conclusion

While your research may eventually take you beyond the county courthouse, that should be your first stop with this research. Remember to be flexible with your research. Don't assume that because you can't find something in the county's indexes that it doesn't exist. See if the deed volumes have their own individual indexes and check those as well.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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