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Land records can turn up data


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2001

William Essick didn't leave a will when he died in the late 1700s, but he did pass on a parcel of land that helped his descendants prove important family ties two centuries later.

William Essick didn't leave a will when he died in the late 1700s, but he did pass on a parcel of land that helped his descendants prove important family ties two centuries later.

The land, bought by Essick in 1763, was sold in 1805 by his grandson, John Murray. Before he could sell the land on behalf of all of Essick's heirs, Murray had to acquire power-of-attorney documents from his three siblings, five cousins, an aunt and one of Essick's sons-in-law.

This was no small feat. Most of the family was scattered across four Pennsylvania counties. Two lived in Virginia.

Murray spent five years getting his kin to sign on the proverbial dotted line. Much to the delight of this researcher, the paperwork spelled out the relationships among all involved. In an era when written records are scarce, such a find is priceless.

Land records are seldom so complex. Most contain the date the instrument was drawn up, the date it was filed or recorded and the names of witnesses. The legal description of the parcel usually gives the names of adjacent property owners.

Up through the mid to late 19th century, documents pertaining to the sale of land often contain a clause stating that the wife relinquished her dowers rights to the property. By law, married women could not sell, buy or own property. Conversely, a wife had a legal right to one-third of any land owned by her husband during their marriage. He could not sell her inheritance without her permission. That's why the wife's name seldom appears on documents involving the purchase of land but is always on those used to sell it.

Since the prospect of owning land was one of the main reasons our ancestors immigrated to this country, it's quite likely you can unearth at least a few of these valuable genealogical records.

Start by checking the deed indexes kept by the pertinent county courthouse. There are generally two indexes, one for the grantor and one for the grantee.

If you can't make a personal visit, you can borrow those deed indexes that have been microfilmed through inter-library loan at your public library or Mormon Family History Center.

You can also write to the recorder of deeds at the courthouse and request both grantor and grantee deed indexes for a specific time period such as 1840 to 1865. (It's unlikely the staff will copy both indexes in their entirety.) Stick a few bucks and a self-addressed, stamped envelope in with your letter and asked to be billed for any excess.

Deed indexes vary by county even within the same state. They may list only the grantor and grantee, date of instrument, deed book and page number. Some include the specific type of deed and a description of the land.

If you get a hit, write to the same office and request copies of the documents. Base the cost on what you pay per page for the index.

Most land documents run two to three pages. Wise researchers don't get greedy. They scan the indexes and order a few documents at a time. They know the bigger the order, the longer the wait.

A quitclaim deed is a rare jewel. Similar to an estate settlement, it may name the widow and children, giving the surnames of married daughters and the names of their husbands. Deceased children and grandchildren may also be named, since the purpose is to ensure that no one later files a claim for the property.

Road construction files offer another potential source. If you know your ancestor owned land, check to see if some of that land was sold or given to the local government for road construction. Those files are usually kept separately.

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Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Home & Garden, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at

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