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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: There's Treasure in Those Land Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

July 20, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Land records are often overlooked resources mostly because not everyone understands their importance. It is often assumed that land records will be full of dry descriptions about the acreage of a land parcel. To some degree this is accurate, but you'll often find some interesting tidbits hiding away in those dusty tomes.

Land records often hold the clues to family relationships, even when not stated, through the land descriptions themselves. Other times, they supply you with valuable information about where family members have relocated to or from.

Land records are often an overlooked treasure trove of information.

Coming and Going

One of the biggest reasons to search land records is to try to determine when your ancestor arrived in or left any given area. Often, upon purchasing land in a new county, a man would note where he was coming from. This information can help you to trace his migration pattern which may follow one of the many well-known migration routes that our ancestors took when going from the east to the west.

Many times a family would move on before being able to sell their property. In such cases, a land record may note where they went. This will let you know that you have a new county, possibly a new state, to begin searching. This can be extremely helpful if you've lost them from one census to another.

The Wife's Share

A major benefit found in many land records was the wife's release of dower. Laws afforded that the wife was entitled to 1/3 of her husband's estate. As such, whenever property was sold, the wife was questioned as to whether or not she was voluntarily giving up her right of dower. To be honest, I have never seen one that didn't, but because of this, the wife's name will appear in the deed.

While not done in all states, the release of dower is a useful tool in identifying ownership of land where two men have the same name. This happened more often than you might think, and by noting the names of the wives at the time the land was sold, you can often distinguish one person from another.

Count Those Acres

It is important when researching land records that you make sure that you have accounted for all the property. This isn't always easy because it requires that you determine when the ancestor arrived somewhere and when he purchased his first parcel of land. Then, you should track all of the deeds where the ancestor buys and sells land. You want to make sure that the same number of acres adds up under both his "bought" and "sold" columns. If the numbers don't add up, it is possible that a parcel of land was left for an heir to take care of.

Also, pay close attention to the wording of the acreage. If you see a term such as "Undivided Interest" this tells you that the individual is receiving only a portion of the land in question. Often, you'll find this in the case of children whose father died intestate. This can help you identify other children, especially in the years prior to the 1850 census, when the names of everyone in the household began to be listed.

In Conclusion

Other relationships are often recorded in land records as well. For instance, you may find record of a father selling land to a son. A mother selling to her children before she marries again. A man selling to his brother-in-law. There are also times when the descriptions of the land will include relationships. This was especially true when the description was done using chains and rods because it required including the names of the owners of adjacent properties. Even if relationships do not appear, the names themselves may prove very familiar to you.

So, don't scoff at the land records the next time you are researching. Take some time to dig into them. While they are indeed a meaty subject, they often give the best pay out where your research is concerned.

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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