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Overheard on the Message Boards: Tenements?
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.

November 21, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My great-great-grandfather's will orders that his tenements be sold and the proceeds distributed among his heirs. Since he lived in rural New Jersey in the 1850s, am I correct in assuming that this really referred to tenant farms (instead of crowded buildings of recent immigrants)? In an earlier census, which doesn't list individual names, he has something like 73 people in his household. This greatly exceeds the size of his family at the time and I suspect that this suggested something more like tenant farms. I would appreciate any insight anyone else has. -- Carol Ann

A: Genealogy is an interesting hobby. In addition to having to know how to research a family tree, a researcher must also have a working knowledge of many bizarre (often outdated) terms. As a result, in addition to the many how-to books that line our shelves, we also need to add a few dictionaries.

It is always a good idea to have a dictionary of genealogical terms, such as A to Zax. In addition to this, though, we often find we need legal and medical dictionaries to help us. This is not such a surprise when you consider that we are working with death records, where causes of death are listed. We also work with many different court records, especially those relating to probate.

Genealogists need to know a little about everything it seems.

Where to Turn

I think that it is a good idea for genealogists to invest in copies of Black's Law Dictionary as well as Tabor's Medical Dictionary. These books offer all the terms we are likely to find when working in any type of medical record or legal document, including probate and land records. Of course, we often need a regular dictionary to understand what we are reading but generally we understand enough, especially of the legal terms, to get the gist of the meaning.

There are also some online dictionaries that you will want to add to your list of Favorites or Bookmarks, for when you are online and find these terms.

There are also many good translators and foreign language dictionaries.

What Does Tenement Mean?

In searching both and's Dictionary site, I found the following definitions: Law. Property, such as land, rents, or franchises, held by one person leasing it from another.

1. (Feud. Law) That which is held of another by service; property which one holds of a lord or proprietor in consideration of some military or pecuniary service; fief; fee.

2. (Common Law) Any species of permanent property that may be held, so as to create a tenancy, as lands, houses, rents, commons, an office, an advowson, a franchise, a right of common, a peerage, and the like; called also free or frank tenements. Dictionary: n. 1) a term found in older deeds or in boiler-plate deed language which means any structure on real property. 2) old run-down urban apartment buildings with several floors reached by stairways.

So, What is a Tenement?

It would appear that a tenement is any real property including land and buildings. So it would appear in your ancestor's will that he was authorizing the sale of all of his holdings, which may have been tenant farms as you suspected or it could be just real property that he has acquired in his lifetime.

Regardless of what type, it looks like you will want to spend some time in the land records to find the disbursements of the land, and then see if you can find the probate packet or estate file for your ancestor to see how the monies made on the sales were disbursed.

In Conclusion

Genealogy requires us to search in many different types of records from easy-to-read family letters to the more difficult legal documents such as deeds and probate records. Armed with a few good dictionaries, you should be able to find the answer to most questions about words.

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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