Using Land Deeds and Plats

Tips for using land deeds and plats for U.S. genealogy research

A land deed is a legal document showing the ownership transfer of land from person to person (or sometimes company/organization to person). Land records are valuable because in most places they were the earliest records of genealogical value that were kept. With the expansion of the west, it is estimated that 90 percent of men owned land, giving you a great chance at finding your ancestor. (Other areas had a lower percentage of land owners.)

Information on a land deed

Lands deeds may include the following information:

  • Names of grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer)

  • County and state of residence of the grantor and grantee (in some cases a previous residence)

  • The type of legal document (mortgage, quit claim, warranty deed, trust)

  • The date of the sale

  • The date of the recording

  • Description of the property

  • Names of witnesses

  • Names of nearby property owners

  • Conditions/considerations (seller was paid, the property can be sold or inherited, land title is valid etc)

Here some examples of situations where a land deed may be helpful:

  • The deed information could help you to know when a person began living in a particular place and who the neighbors were to help distinguish between men of the same name.
  • The first name of the wife of the man buying or selling the property could be listed, 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, could be included
  • 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 land deeds are organized by place in the land records section of our directory.
  • 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.

Plat maps

A plat is a map showing the land area. The United States uses the PLSS (Public Land Survey System) where the counties were divided into townships and the townships were divided into sections.

The main reason to look at land plats is to locate the nearby property owners. Often family members lived near each other so it can help you identify someone's relatives and see where they lived in comparison to each other.

Many land records are organized in the land records section of our directory

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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