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Deed Text

This is part 2 of a series of posts I’m doing on land records. I created a new lecture on this topic last year and I’m pretty excited about sharing what I’ve learned. You can read the first post if you missed it before.

My goals are 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 blog posts that cover deeds more extensively, but my current interest in them made them a “must-post” anyway. Of course as with anything in genealogy, there are differences that will exist depending on the state involved.

Land records contain dense and wordy legal language that can be difficult to weed through. I’m going to cut out a lot of the legalese in the examples and just quote the relevant language. Although sometimes complex, they are a rich record set and the patient and diligent researcher can be 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. The seller is 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. Deeds are also sometimes referred to as indentures.

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)

I’ll talk about the dower release in a later post.

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. In 1882, in Montgomery County, MD, Isabella Smith purchased land from Margeret Beall, who turned out to be her former owner. Even still, always trace the origins of the land your family owned. If not former slaveowners, you may find other relatives.

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. If the debt is not repaid, then the property can be sold. These are important for African-Americans; sharecropping agreements can be found in these types of deeds. They also provide a close look  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 deeds were often sold by and to the trustees of the church, and they are usually named in the deed. This is a different use of the word. Thanks Renate!) For many of my Tennessee sharecropping ancestors, the debt was repaid in November, which was when the crop was harvested and sold:

“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.”

These records will also name the property being used as security, and you’ll see descriptions of animals and crops, as here:

“ 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. Deed of Gift: This deed conveys property often without a normal purchase price. You’ll often find fathers and sometimes mothers 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…” or similar language.  These are very important for researching enslaved ancestors and finding this kind of deed (or a bill of sale) could be the key to breaking down a brick wall.

“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….”

Look for some of the phrases I mentioned above when unsure about what type of deed you are viewing. Like anything else, the more deeds you examine, the easier it will become to recognize the language more quickly. Using a deed extract form when you’re just beginning will be of a great help.

In these posts, I’m only scratching at the surface on deeds. 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. In Part 3, we’ll look at more deed types & examples, tips and some related concepts.

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