Deeds for Useful Clues
- Newsletter of the BCG
Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Analyzing Deeds for
Useful Clues," OnBoard 1 (January 1995): 8.
Analyzing documents, extracting clues, and developing research
plans are crucial skills for every genealogist.
How does one properly analyze a deed? Sure, we know to
copy all the relevant data; but how do we harvest nuances,
implications, and indirect connections that move beyond
the realm of fact to the more-nebulous world of clues worth
To analyze a deed, we ask questions and probe for answers.
Who else is named in this document? Does this person
appear in any other record created by your individual? If
so, odds are that person should be pursued as a possible
connection. However, there are nuances to consider. For
- was this an elected or appointed official? If
so, consider the nature of his action in this case; does
he appear to be merely performing a duty rather than assisting
a friend or relative?
- if not an elected official, was he a clerical employee
of a public office? If so, you are likely to find
him witnessing many unrelated records in that series where
your deed appears.
- is this person a merchant, doctor, lawyer or minister?
Such public figures often left account books or other
business or personal papers that may now be in an archive
- where did this person live? If this is a community-based
official (i.e., a justice of the peace rather than a county
clerk, a marshal rather than county sheriff), or if he
is a merchant, doctor, or minister, then your individual's
place of residence is likely to be within five or so miles
of this community leader.
- Are those other individuals cited as adjacent landowners?
If so, their deeds may name your individual as their neighbor-and
perhaps give additional detail.
Does the document include more than one person of the
same surname? If so, are they acting jointly with your
individual or in a more-peripheral capacity or adversarial
role? (Even foes cannot be eliminated as relatives, of course.)
Is the legal description given for the land? If
so, plat it. Find its precise location on a contemporary
map. Identify nearby landmarks and terrain. Churches and
burial sites are likely to be nearby.
What type of deed is this, specifically?
- a sheriff's deed? If so, was the property seized for
taxes or to satisfy someone's judgment against your individual?
Legal suits and tax rolls should be sought.
- a quitclaim? Then, someone else has an interest in the
property also. You may need to read all deeds of that
era, searching for an identical legal description in order
to identify the other potential kin.
- a deed of trust? If so, a debt is involved. Is there
an added note or a later deed, stating that the debt was
paid? If not, tax rolls (if extant) should settle the
question. Who serves as surety? Anyone who "guarantees"
payment of your individual's debt is a prime candidate
for kith or kin.
Is there a wife's dower release? If not
- did the law of that colony or state require one? Legal
statutes should be checked.
- was a release filed months or years later? The deed
series may have to be searched long after the actual date
of the deed.
How much time elapsed between the draft of the document
and its filing? If there is a significant delay, an
explanation should be sought.
If your individual is selling property, how did he acquire
it? Answering this question is imperative. If the property
- was it purchased it from the government? Another file
should exist at colony, state, or federal level.
- if not and the purchase does not seem to be recorded
in local deeds, you may have to comb all index entries
for sheriff, tax collector, state of ...,
or county of.... or read earlier tax rolls for
land description to identify prior owner. An inheritance
could be at stake.
Is slave property involved? The names, ages, occupations,
and other personal data on those slaves are important clues
for tracking inheritances and for identifying owners when
working with multiple people of the same name.
Posing questions such as these, to every deed we find,
will always suggest new possibilities to add to our research
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright.
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