Most American land records are in the form of deeds. Generally, researches can easily find deed records and they are recorded in a fairly standard format. County offices usually hold deed records for each county. There are a lot of legal terms used in deeds because they make up an important part of workaday civil law. An explanation of legal terms relating to land and deeds can be found in the Genealogy Encyclopedia.

A narrow definition of the word "deed" is a warranty, or guarantee of land title, provided by the seller of the land. However, "deed" can be more broadly defined as a contract, bargain, or legal transfer document as well. Some of the types of deeds and documents included in deed books are:

  • Absolute Ownership Deeds
  • Mortgages Transferring Property As Debt Payment
  • Dower Releases (Removing A Wife’s Land Rights)
  • Quitclaim Deeds (Releasing Valid Or Invalid Rights Or Titles
  • Deeds Of Gift (Giving Land With No Reciprocal Payment Or Compensation)
  • Spousal Marriage Property Settlements
  • Bills Of Sale For Non-Land Property
  • Power Of Attorney Documents

Deed books may also contain leases, indenture papers, performance bonds, and partnership paperwork. Although, they were not commonly recorded. Probate bonds, however, were often recorded in specific volumes.

Deed books that predate the Civil War were not as uniform as post-Civil War deed books. Older deed books could contain a wide variety of information. Some of that information may have included tax lists, depositions, petitions, slave manumissions, animal brands and wills. It was up to each clerk to determine what to record and how to record it. So, things were often jotted down on whatever paper was handy at the time, making older deed books somewhat disorganized.

One of the traditions carried over to the colonies from Europe was that the government was the initial owner of all land. They had to pass the title to each piece of land down to a private owner. Otherwise, the land could not be privately owned. Therefore, each piece of land should have a first-title deed. Often, those are noted as patents or grants.

The Indians had a communal view of land ownership. Therefore, the European concept of individual land ownership was foreign to them. Nevertheless, the authorities purchased a lot of Indian land, or otherwise gained cession of Indian titles. The government then took the land and distributed it to states, corporations, or individual land owners. From that point forward, all land could only be transferred by analogous conveyance, inheritance, or deed.

The seller and buyer of a given piece of property are responsible for making sure that the legal title to that property is guaranteed as valid. That typically involves the hiring of lawyers and professional title searchers, who attempt to track the land ownership back to the first-title grant and make sure that it was transferred properly throughout its history. The government supplies rules regarding land transfers and records the results of each transfer. However, they only enforce land transfer rules officially in cases where courts must handle disputes.

Insurance companies and title abstract companies are now in existence to help simplify the title search process. Insurance can also offer protection in cases where titles may not be valid. Those companies generally have title transfer indexes for their local lands and businesses. For a fairly sizable fee, most of those sorts of companies are willing to gather all land records pertaining to a certain ancestor for those who are interested in family history. Private companies may also hold abstracts of deeds in cases where originals no longer exist. So, they can be valuable sources of information.

Most deed records are typically organized by the surname of either the seller or the buyer. That can be problematic if there is a missing record. For example, one record may say that John Smith owned land at a given time and a record from 10 years prior might say that Mary Smith owned the land, but there may be no explanation of how the land got from Mary Smith to John Smith. The only record of that may exist in probate records, or there may be no record whatsoever because the land was passed down intestate from mother to son.

Cases also exist where land is passed from one person to another and the two people are not related at all. For example, assume that Mary Smith sold land to Paul Williams, and then he sold it to John Smith. If neither deed was recorded, that can be quite confusing for genealogists trying to do research.

Sometimes tax payments were delinquent. In such cases, a sheriff’s sale may have taken place. If the sheriff’s name was listed as the seller of the land, that might also complicate genealogical research. A lawsuit pertaining to bankruptcy may have been filed in a different county, but tax foreclosure records may be found in the county where the property was sold.

In the late 1850s, a South Australian legislator named Robert Richard Torrens developed something called the Torrens system, which helps to combat some of the problems associated with researching land records. The system, in an ideal situation, lists all liens, interests, and rights associated with a given property, as well as all former owners of that property. Using the Torrens system, the government can guarantee the ownership of certain land and safely give the new land owner the titles and certificates associated with that land. The Torrens system is only available in about 20 U.S. states. There have been problems with the system, which have prevented its use on a nation-wide scale. Some of those problems are:

  • Registration Expenses
  • Appeals Courts Questions
  • Inadequate Insurance Funds For Title Guarantees
  • Statutory Exclusions

Some people also say that the nation-wide institution of the Torrens system is being sabotaged by lawyers and privately-owned title companies. The assumption is that those companies and lawyers dislike the Torrens system because it may cause them to experience a drop in clients.

Sometimes, particularly in Iowa, deed indexes are not organized by seller or buyer name. Instead, they are organized according to tract information and numbers, which makes the Torrens system impossible to use properly. However, there are often two different indexes, one according to land tract and one according to seller and buyer. If no buyer-seller index is available, all tract records need to be searched for a particular county in order to fully discern the land transactions of a given person in that county. However, researchers are unlikely to come across that particular issue often, since the Torrens system is not widely used in the United States.

Researchers must hone certain abstracting and searching skills, when it comes to deed book research. There can be forty, fifty, or even over one-hundred deed volumes just for one county. That can be impossible to go through page by page, which is why it’s important to research indexes, first. Buyer indexes are also known as grantee or indirect indexes, while seller indexes are often known as grantor or direct indexes. In some cases, a county may only have a seller index. That requires that the research read every single entry in order to find the buyer that they are seeking information on, if they don’t know the seller.

There may be some information, such as wills and other documentation, included in the deed volumes. That information may not be part of probate indexes or deed indexes. So, it’s a good idea for the researcher to glance at the deed volumes themselves and assess the types of information available, rather than just relying on the information in the deed index.

Generally, cumulative deed indexes are listed in alphabetical order. However, some indexes are running, meaning that new entries are always being added. Those indexes may be listed in such a way that all surnames starting with A are in one group, but not alphabetically organized within that group. The same goes for B, C and the other letters. However, there may also be extra pages for names beginning with "Mc," "Mac," or "O’," which might include "O’Carroll" or "McDonald." However, some clerks alphabetized the names ignoring prefixes. So, "O’Carroll" might be with the "C" listings, for example.

Several companies have invented and attempted to sell more unique running index systems. Some of them can be quite elaborate and tricky for researchers to master. The front volume of most indexes lists instructions for accessing information within the indexes. Some indexes list each vowel under a certain consonant on a separate page. For example, "Ba" names would be on one page, while "Be" names would be on another. Others use unique systems, such as the l-m-n-r-t system. Using that system, the names Chalkley, Cullison and Czeskleba, which all contain the "key" letter of "L," would all be listed on the same page. Another method for organizing running indexes uses the surnames of each person, but subdivides according to the first letter of each person’s first name. That would mean, for instance, that Gary Ball, Gertrude Brown, and Gregory Buck would all be listed on one page together.

Some indexes can also be problematic because certain information has been omitted. For example, names may be missing, or non-deed items may not be included. In certain cases, grantee indexes may not even exist. There may only be grantor indexes available. Ignoring non-deed items is a fairly common problem, especially in deed indexes that cover one-hundred or two-hundred years worth of information. Some information was simply not considered to be relevant or important because it was too old or inconsequential. That’s why it is up to the researcher to decide whether to go through the deed books themselves, or trust the information contained in the indexes. Also, keep in mind that deeds that have had multiple buyers and sellers may only be indexed under the name of the first. So, it may be necessary to go through the deed books page by page in those cases. Some deeds may also list surnames other than the buyer’s or the seller’s.

Once you have used page-by-page scanning or index research to locate the deed entry that you want, you should find that entry abstraction is fairly standard. Start by writing down your source. If you have photocopied an entry, write the source directly on that photocopy for future reference. Be sure to record the name of the library or archive, as well as the type of record and the volume number and page number where the information was found. It’s also a good idea to write down the date when you located the record and mark each note with your name.

Most deed records follow a few standard formats. That means that they are relatively easy to abstract. However, you should adapt your method of deed abstraction according to your research style.

Any signatures found in deed books were ordinarily created by the clerk, since the deed books are only copies of original documents. However, sometimes an official signature was required, even on copies. The wax or paper seal next to the signature of the seller on original documents was often marked as a stylized circle with the word "seal" written in it by the clerk on the copies. In early colonial times, customized seals were often owned or borrowed and helped to verify the "signature" of those who were illiterate. As far back as the thirteenth century seals were used along with signatures. In fact, during some time periods seals were required by law and signatures were not. By the late 1600s, however, seals went out of fashion a bit and were more ornamental in nature when they were used at all. Therefore, colonial seals may not match up with family coat of arms markings. In fact, the seal that George Washington used was nothing like the coat of arms for the Washington family.

Another major problem for deed researchers is that some deeds were not recorded immediately. For example, a 1735 deed may not have been officially recorded until 1802. So, researchers looking for information on deeds from a certain year may not find what they are looking for, if they don’t continue to search through several subsequent years of records. For instance one deed was recorded on March 21, 1896, but it was dated March 31, 1800. That was a Montgomery County, Georgia deed, and so was another, which was recorded on July 30, 1901, but dated December 30, 1791. Deeds that had to be re-recorded due to fires in town halls or courthouses can also be problematic for researchers. So can indexes that only show the date recorded, not the actual date on the deed itself. For example, an ancestor who passed away in 1823 might actually have a deed listed in such an index under a later year, such as 1827.