Land records are the deeds and titles that denote to whom the land belongs, when it changed hands, and what the boundaries of the land are.
Some land records have been digitized, so a visit to your county’s website might be a good place to start. If you are looking for hard copies of these records, you will have to make a trip to your county courthouse.
The three kinds of documents you are most likely to find when you start your research are land patents or grants, deeds, and plat maps:
Land records facilitate land transfer and clarify the ownership of land, but you can also learn a lot about your family history through land records.
Not only do they define boundaries, but they also have descriptions of what the land looked like and was used for. You can learn who inherited what bit of land, if the land was larger before, and what the land was used for. You can also learn about the people who lived next to your tract of land and get a sense of what the neighborhood was like.
Large tracts of land meant farming communities – if your land used to be a farm, you’ll know your forebears were farmers. Smaller, more central land could have pointed to your forebears being merchants or another profession in the city. If it was sold to a commercial property, you can trace when that influx of cash changed your lifestyle.
There are multiple ways to get started on researching through land records, and all of them start before you even head over to the land registry office or the county courthouse. Here’s what you need to do when researching land records:
Before you even head down to the office to look at the records, you should go online and see what records you can find on its website. Over the last few years, lots of records have been digitized, and you might be able to find what you are looking for without ever having to leave your house.
Courthouses are busy places populated by busy people. You don’t want to be a problem for them, because the more annoying you are, the less they will be inclined to help you.
So, the best way to prepare for any visit to the courthouse or land records office is by starting with a phone call and asking for information. You want to know the guidelines ahead of time to have a smooth visit when you arrive.
Ask about the office’s schedule – know what its hours are and when it’s closed for lunch. Also, confirm if the records you need are accessible, as some might be off-limits for digitization or restoration.
Land records are typically kept by a bureau of mapping and city planning, but this differs from state to state, so be sure to check where your local land records are kept. Most states keep their land records at the county courthouse, but the states of Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island keep them at a town level.
Keep detailed lists of what you are looking for and what you need. There may not be a lot of time and space for you to spread out, so you should be able to work efficiently in a compact area.
There are usually separate records for the grantor of the land and the recipient or grantee of the land, so be sure you check both sides of each transaction. Also, some of the older land records might not be alphabetized, so you might have to be extra thorough.
In the course of your research, you are likely going to have a few questions for the people who work at the courthouse. You may not be a welcome distraction, so keep your questions short, specific, and to the point. Try to be as respectful as possible with the clerk or records assistant’s time.
You will likely not be able to remove any documents from the office where you are doing your research, so be sure to make copies of everything. If you are lucky, there will be a photocopier open for public use at the office.