Unlike regular vital records, you never know exactly what information you will find on a deed. But because a person needed to be identified as completely as possible, there were often many pieces of information included. Several members of a person’s family might be mentioned (parents, spouse, children) as well as neighbour’s names. This will most definitely be the case when property is willed in an estate. You may also find a birth date, occupation or place of birth.
If nothing else, these land documents can help pin down where your ancestors lived at any point of time. This may help you narrow your search for other kinds of documents, once you know for certain where the family lived.
Where are deed records?
Because property ownership was so important in early America, these are one of the few records stored only as copies at the local courthouse. The originals were held by the property owners. You will need to visit the courthouse or land registry office for the area where your ancestors lived and ask to see the deed books. All the information on each deed was recorded by clerks into books. There may be indexes, but be prepared for some searching. The index format can be varied, either organized by seller (Grantor) or buyer (Grantee).
Metes and bounds
Land boundary descriptions can be far from precise, depending on what state you are doing your research in. Early southern states (State-land states) are likely to use the somewhat confusing metes and bounds system. The other states (Public-land states) used more logical measured township system. Metes and bounds will define a property with a series of landmarks and distances, with descriptions like “50 poles to the fallen oak, then 200 poles along the creek bed” and so on. Poles, rods or chains are old units of measurements. So if you are trying to establish the limits of the old family homestead, you may have your work cut out for you.
Once you have the details of the land, you should be able to find where the property is today on a local survey map. There are even software programs available to help you map out property based on old land deed information. It can be a nice way to touch history, to visit the very spot where your ancestor once walked and lived.