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Genealogy: Deciphering a Family Deed

Learn how to decipher old handwritten deeds.

Genealogy: Deciphering a Family Deed

Success at Last!

You are now looking at the deed. What to do? First, you need to read through the document. Until you become familiar with old handwriting and terminology, this will be a slow process. However, it is through such readings that experience develops. You are seeking certain bits of information from the deed:

  • Name of the parties (grantors and grantees)
  • Residences of the parties
  • Occupations of the parties
  • Consideration “paid”
  • A description of the property being sold
  • Names of adjoining property owners mentioned
  • Any special wording that might help in identification of the parties or the property
  • Tree Tips

    Always carry a magnifying glass with you to the courthouse. The glass can help tremendously with the writing that is difficult to read.

  • Signatures or marks exactly as they appeared
  • Names of witnesses exactly as they appeared
  • Date and place the deed was acknowledged in court (or sometimes before a Notary Public if they moved to another area)
  • Who acknowledged the deed
  • Date of the deed, and date the deed was recorded

Copy names exactly as they appear (Chas., Rebeckah, and so on). Residences are important; they may even include mention of a former or later location: “John Gott, formerly of Lebanon, Connecticut” or “Richard Smith, now of Marion County, Indiana.” Occupations are not only of personal interest, but can be used to segregate the records of two people with the same name.

Lineage Lessons

The signatures in the transcribed deed books are not the original signatures of your ancestors. The clerk copied them and often tried to duplicate the appearance. If the seller signed with an X (or other mark), the clerk tried to duplicate that, too. This can be important. Two men with the same name who left records in the same area can be distinguished by their signatures or marks. One might be able to sign his name, while the other always signed with an X.

The “consideration,” (that is, what was given by the buyer to the seller to obtain the property), may be monetary. It might also be something else of value, such as “love and affection” (plus a token amount of 5 shillings or $1.00), or five horses, or anything else that the parties agreed upon.

The property description in the document will help you to locate the land. Additionally, it can provide clues through proximity. If someone of the same surname lived on the adjoining farm (mentioned in the property description within the deed), note it. Even if they did not have the same surname, neighbors might have been related, or they might have been former neighbors who moved with the family from another area and thus can provide clues to the family's original location.

I Saw It Myself

All deeds had to be acknowledged, either personally by the seller or by the witnesses who testified that they saw the seller sign the deed. (In some areas the term “proved” was used, though strictly speaking on deeds it is an acknowledgment.) If the seller moved and personally went into court to acknowledge the deed in another county or state, you have clues to a possible new residence.

Genie Jargon

The law usually allowed the widow a dower third (or some other portion, depending upon state, time period, and other factors) in the land. She not only received a dower third upon the death of her husband (he could not will it away from her), but if, during his life, he sold property, she usually had to sign a release of her dower interest. If she was unable to travel to the county seat, court-appointed representatives visited and questioned her, asking her whether the property was sold with her consent.

The date of the deed is important, as well as the date it was recorded. Often a deed is not recorded until years later. The delay can have special significance. Perhaps the father died and his widow received her dower third, with the remainder to go to the children. She continued to live on the property, undisturbed, and after her death 10 years later, the children sold the property. A document's recordation date many years after the date on the document should alert you to a possible change in the family status: the death of the mother, a parent's remarriage, or children coming of age. Watch, too, for special clauses in the deed that might help with relationships: “I give and convey … the land I inherited from my father Joseph Schneider ….” Important relationship clauses such as this are best quoted in your abstract so that there are no misinterpretations.

Moving On

Work with the land records for as long as your time allows. They are one of the most valuable resources you can use, often showing relationships and yielding clues. If you don't have time to finish abstracting, you will at least have the information from the deed index. You may find that the Family History Library has microfilmed some of the records you need, and after you return home you can order some of the film.

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