Land records are an excellent source of genealogy information. They can give clues to the surname of female ancestors who have married, as well as, the names of an ancestor’s parents, spouse and children. When used in combination with other resources, land records can be a great asset to your genealogy research.
Many states have an online database of land and property tax records. In some cases a user account must be created to access the information. The index can be viewed for free and document images can be viewed for a nominal fee. The index detail usually contains enough information for genealogy research; occasionally it may be necessary to purchase a document image to obtain more details.
There are several ways to search land records, but two search methods are best for genealogy research: Grantor/Grantee and Lot/Square. The Grantor/Grantee search can be used to locate property owned by an individual. The grantor is the old owner of the property (usually the seller) and the grantee is the new owner (usually the buyer). The Lot/Square search method can be used to locate all the owners for a property.
The Real Property Tax database can be used to locate the Lot/Square for an address. Most property tax databases only have information for property that is currently standing. Therefore, you may not be able to find information for property that has been demolished or the street name has changed.
The following example illustrates how I used land records along with other resources to make progress in solving one of my genealogy mysteries. Since many of individuals in the example are living or recently deceased, I have changed the names and other pertinent information to protect their privacy.
Family oral history states that the grandmother of Marissa Farr was the sister of my ancestor named Catherine Streeter. One of my research challenges was to identify the name of Marissa Farr’s grandmother and determine if there was a connection to my Streeter ancestors. I knew Marissa Farr lived in Washington, DC and the ancestor in question was born in Virginia, moved to Washington, DC where she lived until she died.
I started my research with a search for Marissa Farr in Ancestry.com which yielded a Social Security Death Index (SSDI) record and a US Public Records Index. I used the date of death from the SSDI record to obtain Marissa’s obituary which provided the names of her children and a living sibling.
I then performed a Grantor/Grantee search for Marissa Farr in the Washington DC land records and retrieved several records. I sorted the list by Lot/Square and Filing Date in order to view the information for each Lot/Square in chronological order.
From this information I noted that Marissa was associated with three properties, which I will refer to a Property A, Property B and Property C. The next step was to perform a Lot/Square search in the land records for each property. One land record for Property A immediately caught my eye because it contained the name Marissa Riddle Farr. I assumed Riddle was Marissa’s maiden name so I started with that record. The record index detail showed:
|Farr, Marissa Riddle||Morris, Martha Riddle|
|Mercer, Dorothy Riddle|
|Morris, Martha Riddle|
From this information I surmised that Riddle was Marissa Farr’s maiden name and the other people listed were her siblings and/or parents.
I searched the census for Marissa Riddle in Washington, DC and located her in the 1920 Census in the household of Thomas Riddle. Martha, Dorothy and a younger Thomas along with several other children were also listed in the household. This information supported my theory that Riddle was Marissa’s maiden name and the individuals listed in the land record were her siblings. The census record also gave the names of Marissa’s parents (Thomas and Leslie Riddle).
I performed another search of the census for Thomas Riddle in Washington, DC and located records for the family in the 1910, 1930 and 1940 censuses. The 1940 census showed the family living at 123 Maple in Washington, DC. I searched the Real Property database for the address in order to obtain the lot/square. The lot/square for the address matched the lot/square for Property A.
I then searched the land records for the lot/square associated with Property A and sorted the results in ascending order by filing date. The online land records database only went back to the early 1920’s and the property appeared to have had been in the family before the 1920’s.
Reviewing the index details for the land records provided a wealth of information to develop more theories. I continued to search the census records, marriage records, birth records and obituaries to find information to support or refute my theories.
The index detail for another land record showed:
|Riddle, Leslie||Mercer, Clifton|
|Riddle, Thomas||Mercer, Dorothy|
Base on the research I had just completed, I knew that Leslie and Thomas were Marissa’s parents and Dorothy was Marissa’s sister. I surmised that Clifton was Dorothy’s husband. A search of the marriage index confirmed that Clifton was Dorothy’s husband and Dorothy’s maiden name was Riddle.
The index detail for a third land record for Property A showed:
|Morris, Martha Riddle||Morris, Martha Riddle|
From this information I surmised that Richard was Martha’s husband. A search of the marriage index showed her husband’s name was Charles not Richard. I located a SSDI record for Martha and used the date of death from the record to locate her obituary. From her obituary, I learned that Richard was her son and the names of her other children.
I continued the process with all of the land records for Property A and gathered more information about the Riddle family.
When I had completed my research with the land records for Property A, I focused my attention on the land records for Property B. The index detail for one record showed:
|Dawson, M||Farr, M|
Since the index detail did not provide much information, I purchased the document image to obtain additional insight. The document showed Marissa changing her name on the land record from “Marissa Dawson” to “Marissa Farr” after a divorce. From this information I surmised, Farr was Marissa surname after a second marriage and Dawson was her surname after her first marriage.
A second land record for Property B showed:
|XYZ Development Company||Dawson, George|
|Dawson, Marissa N|
From this document I surmised that George Dawson was Marissa’s first husband. I located George and Marissa Dawson in the 1940 Census. Also living in the household were several children and lodgers. The names of two of the children matched the children’s names in Marissa Farr’s obituary. Three lodgers were Clifton, Dorothy and Doris Mercer. Base on the information obtained for the Riddle family while researching the land records for Property A and the ages of the Mercers’, I knew Dorothy Mercer was Marissa’s sister and Clifton was Dorothy’s husband and surmised Doris was Clifton’s and Dorothy’s daughter. I searched the marriage index and found a record for George Dawson and Marissa Riddle . The marriage information confirmed that Marissa Riddle and Marissa Dawson were the same person and George Dawson was her husband.
The index detail for the third land record for Property B did not provide much information either, so I purchased that document image as well. The document was a Waiver and Quite Claim Deed which identified the name of Marissa’s second husband, William E. Farr. I searched the marriage index and found an entry for Marissa N Riddle and William Ellsworth Farr.
I also searched the Real Property Tax database for the address found in the US Public Records Index for Marissa Farr. The search results showed the lot/square matched the lot/square for Property B.
The land record for Property C showed the property was owned by William Farr’s parents and several of their children and their spouses. Since I was not interested in William Farr, I did not do further research.
In then focused my attention on finding the names of Marissa Farr’s grandparents (specifically her grandmothers) in order to make the connection between the grandmother and my ancestor. I knew my ancestor was born in Virginia; however, I had conflicting information on the exact location. Family oral history stated she was from Fluvanna Virginia, her death certificate indicates she was born in Blue Valley, Virginia and the birth certificate for one of her children indicates she was born in Almar, Virginia.
From the census records, I knew that Marissa’s father (Thomas Riddle) and both his parents were born in Virginia. I did a search for Thomas Riddle in Ancestry.com. The results showed more than one Thomas Riddle around his age who was born in Virginia.
I decided to focus my research on Marissa’s mother (Leslie Riddle). I used the birth date from Marissa’s Farr’s SSDI record to request a copy of Marissa’s birth certificate which indicated Leslie’s maiden name was Sumner.
I performed a search on Ancestry.com for Leslie Sumner and found her in the 1900 household of Micah Sumner along with his wife Isabel and their children. The family was also located in the 1880, and 1910 censuses. In the 1880 census, the household of Micah Sumner consisted of his wife, children, a cousin and two boarders named Catherine Streeter and Lee Streeter. In the 1910 census, the household of Micah Sumner consisted of his wife, children, a three other people. Two of the people are a husband and wife named Emma and Clifton Jenkins and a 83 year old widow named Sarah Streeter.
I searched for Micah Sumner in the marriage, birth and death index and retrieved a marriage record for Micah Sumner and Elizabeth Patton, ten birth records and a death record for Micah Sumner. I was somewhat disappointed that the marriage index record indicated Elizabeth’s maiden name was Patton. I was hoping her maiden name would be Streeter.
The first few birth index records showed the mother’s name as Elizabeth Patton. A few others showed the mother’s maiden name as “Elizabeth Streeter Patton”. All of the birth index records indicate Elizabeth was born in Virginia. Three of the records indicated Elizabeth was born in Albemarle, Virginia (The county was spelled slightly different on each record).
I still have more research to do, but my research using land records has provided the following clues that lead me to believe Elizabeth Patton may be related to Catherine Streeter:
- Catherine Streeter and Lee Streeter are boarders in the 1880 household of Micah Sumner. There is a nine year age difference between Elizabeth and Catherine (Elizabeth is older) and a one year age difference between Catherine and Lee. Catherine, Lee and Elizabeth may be siblings or Catherine may be Elizabeth’s sister and Lee may be Catherine’s husband.
- Sarah Streeter is a boarder in the 1910 household of Micah Sumner. Sarah may be Elizabeth’s mother.
- Elizabeth’s full maiden name is listed as Elizabeth Streeter Patton on several of her children’s birth records. Perhaps Elizabeth’s marriage to Micah Sumner was her second marriage and Patton is her surname from her first marriage.
- Catherine Streeter’s place of birth of one of her children’s birth certificates is Almar, Virginia. It is a stretch but Almar may be a misspelling of a mispronunciation of Albemarle.
This example was somewhat lengthy, but I hope you picked up a few tips on how to use land records along with other resources to research your family history. With the exception of Marissa Riddle’s birth certificate, I was able to perform all of the research online using the following resources:
- Ancestry.com to view census records, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), the US Public Records Index, as well as, city directories. I did not mention City Directories in my example, but I used them as well. I have found that many of the City Directories are not indexed or often contain transcription errors. Therefore, it is not a good idea to depend on the search feature to locate a name. Instead it is best to directly access the directory for the specific city and year; and browse through the pages to locate the individual.
- Familysearch.org to view the Marriage, Birth and Death record index, as well as, the actual marriage record. The website also has free access to census records and the Social Security Death Index.
- Legacy.com to obtain obituaries.
- Local newspaper obituary database
- State online Recorder of the Deeds database to access land records.
- State online Real Property Tax database to locate lot/square for property using an address.
My grandfather, Sylvester Roy Woodfork Sr., was a World War I veteran. His funeral program indicates he was a member of a special class of soldiers trained in radio technology at Howard University and that he experienced combat with the Battery F, 351 Field Artillery. I did some research and learned the 351st Field Artillery was one of several units where Negro soldiers were trained as artillery officers.
After obtaining his military records from the National Archives, I learned my grandfather was not in this unit but the 52nd Company 13th Battalion 153rd Depot Brigade in Camp Dix, New Jersey. The records also show he was a private, not an officer. The situation illustrates the importance of performing thorough research.
Many families have family history that has been passed down from generation to generation. In many cases this information has not been verified yet everyone accepts it as a statement of fact. Most family historians would like to uncover exciting information about their family. We would love to have ancestors who were movers and shakers in their community or made history in someway or another. The truth of the matter is not every one will be that fortunate. Some of us are the descendants of ordinary folks whose major focus in life was working hard to maintain the basic necessities of life.
As family historians we should not embellish the truth or make up stories to make our family more interesting. We must remember it is our responsibility to have respect for the truth and the whole truth. In cases were the truth is not pretty; there is no need to air the family’s dirty laundry or change the facts to make it better. Just remember the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.
I try to keep the following rules in mind when I am performing research: 1) Just because it is published does not make it true and 2) Just because someone says it does not make it true. We must remember that researching is the systematic process of collecting, analyzing and verifying information in order to establish facts.
A systematic process is repeatable. You can demonstrate how you came to the conclusion again and again. If another person follows the same steps, they will come to the same conclusion.
Collecting, analyzing and verifying information are three very important components of performing research. Collecting is gathering information. Memorabilia, ephemera and artifacts are excellent sources of information. However, after the information is collected it must be analyzed. We must ask ourselves: Does it make sense? Does it seem accurate? Is it from a credible source? Verifying information requires us to locate a primary source and to cross check information against a variety of sources to determine the validity. A lot of people collect information, but they don’t analyze or verify it. All three steps are important.
The end result of research is to establish facts. We must be careful to make a distinction between facts and opinion. A fact is objective information that is verifiable. Opinion is a judgment, view or assessment. It is subjective and is not verifiable
Although it is disappointing when we find information that contradicts well-known family history, we must resist the urge to ignore the truth. It may possible that my grandfather was a member of that special unit in World War I or he may not have been. I have to do more research to determine the facts.