My goal in this post is to outline general types of deeds, show examples, and point you to some other resources for further study.
There are lots of other sites and other blogs that cover deeds more extensively. As with anything in genealogy, there are differences that will exist with regard to the records depending on the state involved.
Land records contain dense and wordy legal language that can be difficult to understand. I’m going to cut out a lot of the legalese in the examples here for ease of reading.
Although sometimes complex, land records can be rich in genealogical data. The patient and diligent researcher is often rewarded with evidence possibly not available anywhere else.
A few basic concepts first: a deed is defined as a formal document that transfers property from one party to another. They are sometimes called Indentures.
Every deed book I’ve ever seen has an index and that is where you will start your research.
The seller is typically referred to as the Grantor and the buyer is referred to as the Grantee. Most land records are indexed by both Grantor and Grantee and when researching, you’ll need to check both indexes.
In some states, these indexes will be titled Direct Indexes (meaning by Seller/Grantor) and Reverse Indexes (by Grantee/Buyer).
Deeds will typically contain:
- the names of the buyer and seller
- the date it was written and recorded
- the consideration (fee) paid
- a description of the land, possibly adjacent landowners or history
- signature or mark of the grantor and if required, any witnesses, acknowledgement or proof, and
- a dower release (if required)
Deed Types: Warranty
Some of the most common types of deeds are:
1. Warranty deeds: This deed warrants (i.e., guarantees) clear title to the land. Look for words/phrases like warrant title or guarantee title. Most deeds will be of this type.
“This indenture made…between A. Gammel and A.S. Brooks…hath sold…all that parcel or tract of land…and the said A Gammel…will warrant and forever defend the right and title thereof.”
Of particular interest to African-Americans, try to find the first deed where your ancestor purchased land.
Research the person who sold them the land–many times, former slaves purchased land from their former slaveowner.
Always trace the origins of the land your family owned. It may lead you to other relatives. My research into the land of my ancestor Martha Simpson Prather revealed that she bought land from her sister and her brother-in-law.
The land helped me to uncover that important relationship.
Deed of Trust
2. Deed of Trust (or Trust Deeds): This type of deed secures a debt. Property is usually transferred to a third party called a trustee. The property can be sold if the debt is not repaid.
These are important for African-American sharecroppers. These deeds often include their agreements. They also provide a glimpse of what life was like for the average farmer.
Look for phrases referring to a trustee or third party, and also discussion of a debt and when it is to be repaid.
(Note: Church trustees often sold and bought the land, and they are usually named in the deed. That is a different use of the word. Thanks Renate!)
For my Tennessee sharecropping ancestors, the debt was due when the crop was harvested and sold in November:
“We, George Holt and wife Leonia…do hereby transfer to Douglas Shull, trustee, the following tracts of land…we are indebted to J.S. Dickey…for $275.40 due November 12, 1928…and this conveyance is made to secure the payment.”
The property used as security is often named:
“ I am indebted to KW Welsh by note $106.10 made June 1, 1909 and J.W. Holt as security, also for merchandise and supplies furnished…I have sold unto trustee JH Joyce, 7 acres of cotton and 1 mare named Roxie.”
3. Gift Deed: This deed conveys property without a normal purchase price. You’ll often find parents conveying land and/or slaves as gifts to their children using this instrument.
You will often find the phrase “for love and affection I do hereby give…” as shown here:
“Alex English Sr….for love and affection have this day given to my son John’s oldest son James, 1 negro man named Peter, to his second son, Alexander, I give 1 negro woman named Betsey….”
These are very important for researching enslaved ancestors. Finding this kind of deed (or a bill of sale) could be the key to breaking down a brick wall.
Conclusions and Tips
Look for some of the phrases I mentioned above when unsure about what type of deed you have. The more deeds you examine, the easier it will be to recognize its type.
For important family deeds, transcribe the document. This makes future analysis much easier. Also, track the history of land in the family.
Keep in mind that when farmers died without a will, the inheritance laws of the state determined what happened to the land.
Thus, you may not find a deed for that transaction. It will often simply show up as owned by the wife or the children at some later date, perhaps when they decide to sell the land.
Using a deed extract form when you’re just beginning can be also great help.
In these posts, I’ve only scratched at the surface on the value of deed records. The premier book that every genealogist should have is “Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records” by Patricia Law Hatcher.
Take a look at any deeds you’ve collected on your family thus far, and see if you can determine their type.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.