Probate Records and Land Deeds: Useful and Often Underused

Often probate records and land deeds are overlooked in U.S. genealogy, but they might be what you need to solve your brick wall. Here are the basics of what these records are and how to use them.

How Can Probate Records and Land Deeds Be Helpful?

  • Probate records and land deeds can identify your ancestor in a certain place and time
  • They can sometimes give direct evidence about families by naming family members and stating relationships
  • They can give indirect evidence that people are related to each other
  • They can help to distinguish people with the same name in the same place
  • Probate and land records are particularly helpful for time periods and places where vital records were not kept and previous to the 1850 census when only the name of the head of household were listed

About Probate Records

Probate records are court records created after an individual's death that relate to a court's decisions regarding the distribution of the estate to the heirs or creditors and the care of dependents. This process could have taken place whether there was a will or not.

Various types of records may be found in probate files including wills, inventories, administrations, orders, decrees, etc. You can learn details such as the deceased person's date of death, names of his or her spouse, children, parents, relatives, and neighbors, their places of residence, adoption or guardianship of minor children and dependents, ancestor's previous residence, occupation, land ownership, household items, former spouse(s), religion, and military service.

Where to Find Probate Records

  • Most U.S. probate records are indexed with images on Find them by using the Ancestry Card Catalog by searching for the state name and "probate records"
  • Many images are online on Find them by using the FamilySearch Catalog and doing a place search by the county (or by the town name in MA, CT, RI, and VT). Indexes to the individual books are usually at the front of the book
  • A few probate records are not online yet and are only available by contacting the local courthouse.

About Land Deeds

There are various types of land records that were kept in the United States; usually the most useful for genealogy are the land deeds. A land deed is the written legal document transferring ownership of property. The person buying the property is a grantee, and the person selling the property is a grantor.

Once in a while land deeds will give great information but in most cases they won't give you a lot of information. They are also time consuming to research so you would generally use them in cases when you aren't able to find the information you are looking for using other types of records.

Land deeds can give information such as:

  • Who bought and sold a particular property, when, and for how much, where the property was located and a description of the property and who the neighbors were
  • First name of the wife of the man buying or selling the property, sometimes names of witnesses to the deed who can be relatives or neighbors
  • A person's previous residence if they purchased land right after moving, or a person's new residence if they are selling land after they moved
  • A deed sometimes took the place of a will or probate record. A parent may have sold land to the children or to brothers or sisters. Brothers and sisters may all have signed a deed giving up their claim to property received from their parents. Sometimes relationships will be stated directly though more commonly you have to infer how the people in the deed are related.

Keep in mind that county boundaries may have changed over time so you need to look in the records for the county that existed at the time your ancestor was living there. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries from the Newberry Library has interactive maps to help you know county boundaries for various years.

Where to Find Land Deeds

  • Many counties have land deeds digitized on Find them by using the FamilySearch Catalog and doing a place search with the county name (or town name for CT, VT, and RI).
  • A few land deeds are not online and are only available by contacting the local courthouse
  • Look at the grantee and grantor indexes first to get the book and page for transactions about your ancestor, then go to the specific book for the actual deed documents.

Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

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