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  • Another Look at Deeds

    Sally Dean Hamblen Hill

    Published Date : March 23, 2005

    The importance of land records and deeds has been discussed previously on this website by Patricia Law Hatcher and others. My intention here is to offer more examples and details on this subject as it pertains to Massachusetts research in particular. Quite often, deeds can be the key to unlock that troublesome door. We all hope to find a deed in which a patriarch names all his children, including daughters and their husbands. But often we aren't that lucky, and have to make do with less stellar documents. Below are some observations from my recent work with deeds.

    A Word about Indexes and Witnesses

    Most of the deeds I have worked with have been in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, but I have also used some from Norfolk, Middlesex, Barnstable and Essex counties, as well as deeds in Maine, New Hampshire, and Nova Scotia. Researchers are familiar with the indexes for "Grantors" (those selling property), and "Grantees" (those buying property). Most counties have separate indexes for grantors and grantees. Some lump them all together. But as far as I am aware, Suffolk is the only county with an "Other Name" index, which is available on microfilm at NEHGS. The importance of this index cannot be overstated. It includes not only the abutters to property being bought or sold, but also the witnesses. These witnesses can be very important indeed. Sometimes they are neighbors or business partners, and certainly they may be relatives. One person I have been researching - a Spencer Walker, tailor, of Boston - has been found in deeds only as a witness, by using this "Other Name" index. He never bought or sold property himself. By finding him as a witness to several deeds, I know he was alive and living in Boston at that point in time. I also gained clues about his and his wife's ancestry.

    When looking at the "Grantors" index, it is helpful to remember that when you see a name followed by the words "et al." (Latin for "and others"), there is more than one grantor. It could mean, for instance, that an eldest brother is listed under "John Walker, et al.", but none of his siblings may be included in the index - just him. Reading all deeds pertaining to a whole family, including all siblings, always pays off. So make sure to see the all indexes available, and read each deed pertaining to your ancestor - whether as grantor, grantee or witness. Don't forget, when using the indexes, to check for daughters under their married names, and also include the sons-in-law in your research. Make sure that you understand how the index is organized, and take time to familiarize yourself with it. Look under all possible ways the surname of interest could be spelled. You may shudder to think of the time required for such extensive research, but with deeds this extra effort is crucial.

    Suffolk Deeds130:142 concerns John Bacon of Boston, housewright, and his wife Susanna, who sold property in 1778 to John Powers, baker, of Boston.[1] From the "Other Name" index I found that my target person, Spencer Walker, was a witness to this deed. Spencer's wife was Sarah Powers, whose ancestry is unknown. The obvious question is: Was this John Powers related to Sarah (Powers) Walker? Reading all of the John Powers' deeds uncovered Joseph Powers, another possible relative. Had I relied only on the standard index or Annie Haven Thwing's Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800 (CD-ROM, Massachusetts Historical Society/NEHGS, 2001) (which last does not index witnesses), I would have missed this valuable clue.

    The Boy or Girl Next Door

    It's also a good idea to thoroughly check out the abutting families. Quite often, people really did marry the "boy or girl next door." So spend some time investigating the neighborhood. Who were the neighbors' witnesses when they bought or sold? Sometimes a deed will say an abutter is "the heirs of John Brown". When those heirs sold the property, the deed may be indexed under "John Brown et al." In the deed itself you will find their names, and those of the husbands of any female heirs.

    Check Previous and the Following Deeds

    Another practice I have found that pays off: read the deed just before, and the one just after, the one you seek. Adjacent deeds will often bear hidden clues to your quest. If previous or following deeds prove relevant, then I read the ones next to those, and so on, until I don't see a connection. The person who brought the deeds into the County office was usually the buyer of the property, but not always. He could be acting for someone else, or may have brought in several deeds written at various times to get them recorded. I have found deeds that are preceded by others that (upon reading) are indeed relevant, but not as indexed. Perhaps a brother-in-law or son-in-law recorded the deed, and only later does the significance of this person become evident. For example, Spencer Walker was also a witness to a second deed not listed in the "Other Name" index.[2] I only found it by reading the next deed carefully.

    A deed is still legally binding even if not recorded until years afterward. It's important to realize that (generally speaking) there was a three-step process involved in the transfer of property. First, a deed was written, signed and witnessed; then it was acknowledged before a Justice of the Peace or other official; and finally (whether the next day, or years later) it was recorded by the Registrar of Deeds. The reason for such delays could be many: Perhaps the family lacked the fee for recording, or parties to a mortgage waited until it was paid off. These are only two possible scenarios; there could be any number of other extenuating circumstances.

    Where to Find the Records

    Many deeds are of course found in County courthouses, and on microfilm at NEHGS and elsewhere. Many deed series have been filmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and are available from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City for use at NEHGS or at your local Family History Center. Suffolk Deedshave been published in book form through volume fourteen (ca. 1697). I have found it best, however, to seek out all available versions, as they may differ in subtle ways. For instance, the marks people made to sign the deeds are difficult to print in a book. Seeing a handwritten mark is better. In one family, the way in which two women with almost identical names signed a deed was crucial in distinguishing between them. One could write her name; the other signed with a mark.[3] I was therefore able to prove that these were two separate women, and that they were both still living at the time of the deed. Even though the mark was the copyist's interpretation, he was copying the original deed held by the family, and had the advantage of looking at the real mark.

    I have also found deeds copied into court records, especially if an estate was disputed. In the Suffolk County Court of Common Pleas, and in the Superior Judicial Court, I have found records of ship sales, which can be important if your ancestor was involved in maritime pursuits. Sometimes unrecorded deeds are included in personal or family papers that may be found in a collection of manuscripts or archive. I even came across one deed copied into a diary. So it pays to have an open mind when seeking out data about an ancestor.

    The Closer to the Original, the Better

    Although the published Suffolk Deedsmay be easier to read, the microfilmed versions of the copyist's books are closer to the originals. In the CD-ROM of Annie Haven Thwing's Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800, a certain deed gives a man's name as "Stephen Coller."[4]. When I checked the microfilm of this deed, his name was clearly Stephen Tolbee.[5] Annie Haven Thwing apparently misread the seventeenth-century handwriting of a capital "T" (which had a significant curve to it) as a capital "C". This made all the difference in the world in proving a marriage between Hannah (Place) Coller and Stephen Tolbee/Talby of Boston. So, when at all possible, try to read the most original version of a deed.

    A Word about a Woman's Legal Rights (Or Lack Thereof)

    A married woman gave up her rights to any property she owned when she remarried, unless she had a pre-nuptial agreement or similar arrangement. If it's not clear how a man obtained a certain piece of property before he sold it, perhaps it had belonged to his wife prior to their marriage. Sometimes the fact that a man sold land that had previously belonged to another man is the only proof that he had married the first man's widow (or the only surviving heir). I recently researched a woman who was careful to protect the property her deceased husband had left her. Before she married again, she had an "indenture" recorded in which her new husband was prohibited from ever selling her property without her consent. She even had him promise to provide for her children from her previous marriage.[6] This occurred in 1724, so pre-nuptial agreements are nothing new, although unusual. They are also sometimes referred to as ante-nuptial agreements, or marriage settlements.

    It was customary that a married woman was entitled to one-third of her husband's estate after he died. This was called the "Widow's Dower" or "Thirds." When a couple sold property, the wife would have to agree to "relinquish her right of dower" by signing the deed with her name, if literate, or a mark if she was not. This release is often found at the very end of the document, so make sure to read thoroughly to the end. If you find your ancestor's wife is not included, it may mean she died prior to this deed. If you find your male ancestor in a deed with a wife of a different name than you expected, he may have married again after the previous wife died. A woman might sign with a nickname (e.g., Polly for Mary, Betsey for Elizabeth, Nabby for Abigail, or Nancy for Ann), but usually she would use her full name. Be aware of any nicknames for your ancestor's name, just in case she used one.

    Final Thoughts

    Some deeds are particularly rich in marital and family detail. Take the example of Suffolk Deeds20:100-103 (1700), in which Francis Caswell, mariner of Boston, began by declaring that he was the only son of William Caswell, late of Boston, mariner. Francis named his mother Mary Nevel, widow of Boston, "with Francis Hudson of Boston" (her father), both of whom had given bond for the payment of £27 in 1685 to Abigail Kellond, "then of Boston, widow (but now [1700] the Wife of John Foster of Boston, Merch[an]t)." By this 1700 instrument, Francis Caswell mortgaged to John Foster property in Boston's North End (Francis Caswell's inheritance from his father William), which was "now in the present occupation" of Francis's mother Mrs. Nevel. Witnesses for this mortgage were Thomas Adkins and John Ruck. In a side-bar memo later written in 1714, Thomas Hutchinson (as administrator of the estate of John Foster) acknowledged the receipt of full payment for the above mortgage.[9] The wealth of clues in this deed alone makes it obvious that a careful scrutiny of all available deeds for your ancestor is well worth the time invested. These documents are arguably the most important documents in genealogical research.


    [1] Suffolk County, Massachusetts Deeds 130:142, Bacon to Powers, August 15, 1778, Temple St., Boston. Note that this deed is incorrectly assigned to John Bacon, minister, and his wife Elizabeth, of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in Annie Haven Thwing's Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800 (CD-ROM, Mass. Historical Society/NEHGS, 2001), ref. #4194. There are other deeds belonging to John Bacon, housewright, under John Bacon, minister, as well. They were different men.

    [2] Suffolk Deeds130:143, Nathan Hancock and wife Prudence selling property to John Powers, baker, on May 8, 1779.

    [3] Sally Dean Hamblen Hill, "Stephen Talby and Hannah (Place) Talby of Boston, Massachusetts: With Notes on Hannah Sunderland, Wife of Matthew Armstrong and Abraham Gording of Boston," The American Genealogist 78 (2003): 256. A Hannah Coller and a Hannah Collyer, who were mother and daughter, both signed a document: Mrs. Coller with her name, and Mrs. Collyer with her mark.

    [4] Annie Haven Thwing, Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800 (CD-ROM, Mass. Historical Society/NEHGS, 2001), ref. #16286. Thwing misread "Tolbee" as "Coller," even though the "Tolbee" part of the name is very clear.

    [5] See note 3.

    [6] Sally Dean Hamblen Hill, "The Jilting of Samuel Walker, Mariner, of Boston," The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 157 (2003): 357, citing Suffolk Deeds38:264. The oft-married Grace (Painter) (Breck) (Howard) (Brickwood) Dudding was married four times and inherited property from three husbands. She managed to leave it to her only surviving child - Grace Howard, a daughter who never married.

    [7] Suffolk Deeds1:83, Benjamin Keayne to Thomas Dudley, Deputy Governor of Massachusetts Bay. For a full discussion of this affair see D. Brenton Simons's forthcoming book Witches, Rakes and Rogues.

    [8] Suffolk Deeds7:213.

    [9] Suffolk Deeds20:100-103, Caswell to Foster.

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