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On Using Land Records in Genealogy Research

By: Dick Hillenbrand

After doing historical and genealogical research since the 1960's I would like to recommend that fellow researchers take advantage of a few of the tricks of the trade that I have had the good fortune to have discovered or to have been taught by others.

The greatest amount of historical study that I am familiar with has been in central New York State, New England and the upper mid-western states.  The resources are generally similar and the descriptions given herein are likely the same in most places in America.  Most of what will be described shall concern relatively so called modern land records, such as the 19th, and 20th century.  Colonial records are quite often accessible through various sources however I will attempt to cover those in another paper.

It will be important to locate the current facility that is required by law to house the documents that you will be using.  The various county clerks' offices are where you are going to want to go and to learn how to use their indexes and finding aids.  You will want to learn what some of the terms are and how they might aid you in your search.  Grantor is the title of the person or party's selling the property.  Grantee is the title of the person purchasing or taking possession of the property.  Mortgagor is the person borrowing the money and Mortgagee is the person lending the money.  Mortgage indexes are very helpful as I have discovered several instances where people did not record the deed of the property, however the Mortgagee often made sure that his mortgage document papers were filed properly.

There are several good books available that will give you the current addresses and descriptions of facilities such as; Ancestry's "Red Book," Everton's "The Handy Book for Genealogists," E. Wade Hone's "Land & Property Research in the United States," and a new favorite of mine, Gordon Remington's "New York State Towns, Villages, and Cities: A Guide to Genealogical Sources."

You probably have become familiar with the various federal and perhaps state censuses and have generally located the families that you wish to learn more about.  Some of the benefits of performing land research are that you might find family members mentioned in the documents directly or as possible witnesses, or in land border descriptions.  Often times this is where you will learn the first name of a man's wife as more often than not the wife was named as one of the grantors.  This was generally to satisfy the fact that the wife agrees to the sale of the property and that she understands her right of dower.  Often in the description of the survey of the property some of the neighbors' property lines are described and it is not unusual to locate other relatives in adjacent properties.

Sometimes you will discover from whence a person came for it might be mentioned that the person purchasing the property is of his previous address and the same goes for the seller that might have moved on in the general westward migration movement.  I was able to locate the new location of a person that used to live in Onondaga County by searching the early records at the Onondaga County Clerk's Office (OCCO) in the indexes of "Miscellaneous Records."  In it he had given Power of Attorney to his father to sell his property in Onondaga County and to settle a mortgage that the father held on the property while the son had now moved on to Iowa soon after the U.S. Civil War.

It is a good idea to get a copy of all physical documents, maps and perhaps photographs of the area to help you find the present property locations and perhaps the ancestral home of the persons that you are researching.  Some of the items that I find of enormous usefulness are; Land Ownership Maps, County and City Atlases, topographical maps, current county Highway Maps, and a wonderful online source that is available to everyone, The U.S. Geographical Survey"s "Geographical Names Information System (GNIS.)"

When you get to this site go to "Query the GNIS Online Data Bases" and click on "United States and Territories."  Next you can select the locality that you are interested in sometimes even down to a small hamlet name or local landmark.  After you selected a Feature Name and State or Territory you will be provided with a list of the possibilities that are within the data base and then you can look at either a Topographical Map of the area that can be enlarged and scrolled to your area of interest that best suits you or you can also look at a current Aerial Photograph of the same area that was selected on the topo map.  You will probably have to flip back and forth between the two selections to familiarize yourself with the actual placement of the property that you are searching.  I have found the aerial photos to be of extreme interest.  They were done at various times, some by airplane photography and some by modern satellite photos, and of varying types but some of them are very detailed.  You can often see the white lines in the highways, locate old abandoned roads, and even locate cemeteries by the open fields with unusual driveway patterns in them.  You will notice that sometimes as you zoom in on the topo maps that the source map changes to a different date map entirely, as they were drawn in various scales throughout time.  These images are quite large in file size so if you are on a dialup modem you must be patient.  Those of you that have cable modems or some other higher form of bandwidth, should have no problem.

In the mid to late 1800's many companies published large wall maps for most of the counties in the popularly established states and counties.  A huge collection of most all of these maps available have been collected by the Library of Congress, and are held under the category of "Land Ownership Maps," and though they are not available online you can look at them in major reference libraries.  The Onondaga County Public Library (OCPL) has those that are extant for New York State and the Bird Library at Syracuse University has them for all of the New England and some of the Atlantic States.  These maps are on microfiche and may be viewed and printed for your own later use in the field.  The publisher actually hired an agent that walked all of the roads and visited the houses to record the data and measure the roadways.  You will find the owner or occupant's name of each of the houses shown on the maps.  It is fun to try to correlate these maps with the nearest census information.  Often times one can discover the actual route that the census enumerator took in his survey by comparing the order of visitation to the Land Ownership Map.

County Atlases were also usually published in the mid to late 1800's and are a book of maps of each town and sometimes smaller communities and cities within the county named.  These maps also show the names of the property owners of each of the houses.  When you compare these maps to your known family history findings you will often discover that the boys did not usually go too far off the hill to marry the girl next door.  Roads and transportation were quite often difficult in the early days to say the least.  Fairly good quality reproductions of many of these county atlas maps are available for purchase at

I think nothing of jumping in my car to take off for a day or two of research in some far away ancestral community but I have a very fond memory of discovering the parentage of one of my ancestors by working on his brother who was older and happened to have been in the Revolutionary War.  My ancestor, James CLARK (1764-1839) came to Onondaga County as a pioneer settler in the early 1800's and according to family lore, he was from Windsor, Connecticut.  I worked on him for a long time and then I came across another researcher in Idaho that had worked on him for many years and had even paid a professional researcher in Hartford, CT $3,000 to attempt to locate proof of his birth and parentage.  Using land record research similar to what I am describing here I found that my James had purchased fifty acres in the Town of Marcellus near the Town line of Onondaga on the Pleasant Valley Road.  I also noticed the same day that he recorded his deed a George CLARK recorded the fifty acres adjacent to James's property.

Quite by accident while rummaging through Miscellaneous Records at the (OCCO) there was a record of a George CLARK who had filed for a pension for his Revolutionary War Service in 1818 and that the court had denied it because he had no documented proof.  I had no idea who this person was but made a note of it and at some time later found that a man by this name had received a pension in 1832.  Going to the microfilm collection of Revolutionary War Pension Files that are at (OCPL) I read in George's own handwriting that went something like this; "I had applied for a pension in 1818 in Onondaga County but was denied it because my papers had been damaged or lost in a fire.  So after the crops were in, I walked back to Windsor[!] and found three old comrades that vouched for my service to the satisfaction of the pension agency."  This seemed incredible to me as he was an old man at the time, but did make me aware of the fact that many of the early travelers used their feet for travel.  Many common people did not have horses and buggies and the cost of travel on the Erie Canal was very expensive.

The end result was that by having proof that George was from Windsor I now concentrated on sources available at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and discovered that there was a small community about five miles from the center of Windsor that was known as Wintonbury Parish and they had petitioned the Congregational Church to form their own Parish as it was too difficult to attend Sabbath in the winter as was required by law.  Once I located the microfilm of that church's records I soon found George, his parents, siblings and earlier ancestors back to the Honorable Daniel CLARK, one of the first Secretaries of the Colony of Connecticut.  Oh and by the way, my James's christening had been recorded in the church record book as "Jemme" CLARK, 21 NOV 1764, son of Solomon and Ann (ASHLEY) CLARK.

If your research project takes you into the more urban communities you will have some of the same types of resources available.  Most cities had large Atlas books of maps that will show Wards, Blocks, Developments and some property owners' names.  These City Atlases can be used in conjunction with the City Street Directories for the same time period to help to pinpoint exactly where your people lived.  There are also the exciting Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps available for larger communities and you can determine details even to the type of construction of the buildings, such as wood, brick, stone, etc.  These Sanborn Maps may be purchased on microfilm or viewed at most good reference libraries.  There is also a way to subscribe to the digital versions of these maps but the price is likely beyond the grasp of an individual subscriber.  Here is an excellent site that describes the Sanborn collection:

If you are interested in Railroad History or want to locate communities that perhaps used to be viable but now might be extinct, you might be interested in the large collection of online maps at the Library of Congress called the "Railroad Maps Collection, 1828-1900," at

Our family saved a collection of letters of some of their relatives that moved out west in the migration and for instance one of the letters in the 1850's said "...take the cars to Blackberry Station and father will meet you".   Not knowing where Blackberry Station was and not finding it on any modern maps or searchable databases I started using these old Railroad Maps and eventually found it as a rail stop in what is now Kane County Illinois.  Often times in researching your ancestor's deed descriptions you will find rights of way described which might be for a railroad, which may also help you locate further details.

One site of extreme interest to historians with a fondness for maps should be a model for all communities.  This particular site is mostly helpful for Cayuga County and some of the surrounding communities and has been done as a labor of love by Bill Hecht , Bernie Corcoran and others and includes most all known maps and views that are available for this part of Central NY.  They have scanned at very high quality the various Land Ownership Maps, Atlases, and other maps and documents that they could find.  My wish is that every county coordinator of the U.S GenWeb county website pages would look at this website and attempt to duplicate it's style for their own.

As you no doubt are a computer user and probably an internet user you should look at the GenWeb site for each county you are doing research in.  You will find different resources and levels of data from county to county as these sites are maintained and built by volunteers, however some of them are very elaborate and contain invaluable amounts of data.  Many of them will have details that will help you perform your Land Ownership research.

Another great site that is available for maps of various types is: The David Rumsey Collection at

With the high tech resources available to even the most casual computer user today you can take advantage of these maps and photos and can even scan them into your genealogical database program if it so allows.  It helps to flesh out an otherwise boring list of names and dates of people.  When you can relate to the actual place that people lived and what their community was like it helps to put meat on the bones of these long gone but not forgotten ancestors.

A select list of resources:

The following available at

Ancestry's Red Book; American State, County, and Town Sources
ISBN 0-916489-47-7, 858 pages, 8 � by 11, hardbound.

County Court House Book
Elizabeth Petty Bentley
ISBN 0-806314850, 405 pages, paperback

Land & Property Research in the United States
D. Wade Hone
ISBN 0-91648968X
517 pages,

The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
846 pages, 8 1/2 by 11, hardbound
ISBN 0-916489-67-1

Bureau of Land Management: Land Patent Records � CDROM
Selected States

Handybook for Genealogists
Everton Publishers
ISBN: 1932088008, 880 pages, hardcover,
March 2003,

New York State Towns, Villages, and Cities: A Guide to Genealogical Sources
Gordon L. Remington, FUGA, FASG
ISBN: 088082-142-6, NEHGS 2002, 80 pages, $17.95

If you are going to purchase these books I would suggest searching various vendors as sometimes the prices can be found cheaper at some discount sites.  Of course, these books are most likely available at your local genealogical research library but if you become a total genealogical nut you will most likely want to purchase some of them for ready reference and new ideas to pursue.


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