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.
EXAMPLE:Suffolk Deeds130:142 concerns John
Bacon of Boston, housewright, and his wife Susanna, who sold property in 1778 to
John Powers, baker, of Boston. 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. 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. 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.". When I checked the microfilm of this deed, his name was clearly
Stephen Tolbee. 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. 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.
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  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. 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.
 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.
 Suffolk Deeds130:143, Nathan Hancock and wife Prudence
selling property to John Powers, baker, on May 8, 1779.
 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
 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.
 See note 3.
 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.
 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.
 Suffolk Deeds7:213.
 Suffolk Deeds20:100-103, Caswell to Foster.