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  • Hot Topics: Land Records: New England's Under-Appreciated Genealogical Source

    Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG

    Published Date : May 15, 2002

    Researchers in the southern United States have long known the value of land records in solving genealogical problems. New England researchers have long thought that because of vital records, they didn't need land records. That may be true if your ancestors are found in the vital records with no potential ambiguity. However, many researchers cannot find everything they need in vital records. Land records may hold the answers to many family mysteries.

    Land records are not as easy to use as vital records. In New England, they are rarely abstracted. Deed indexes contain only the names of the primary parties (the grantor and grantee), so you have no way of telling what information might lie in the deeds themselves.

    Land records are also voluminous. The indexes alone might require many rolls of microfilm. On a recent NEHGS trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, NEHGS Librarian David Dearborn and I agreed that, for this reason, focusing on land records is a highly efficient use of a researcher's time in Salt Lake City.

    Tip:

    In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, deeds are maintained at the town level. In Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, they are at the county level, although original grants are at the town level.

    Tip:To learn more about the location of New England land records, see Marcia D. Melnyk's Genealogist's Handbook for New England Research.

    You know what to expect to find in vital records. What should you expect to find in land records? The unexpected.

    Identify spouses
    When William Beamsley wrote his will in Boston on September 14, 1658, he named his children Anne Woodward, Grace Graves, Mercy Wilborne, Hannah Beamsley, Edward Bushnell, Elizabeth Page, and Mary Robinson [the latter three were actually his stepchildren], but he did not tell us the identity of any of his sons-in-law.1 There is no marriage record for Anne. The identification of her husband - and an approximate marriage date - came from a deed.

    14 September 1658. Whereas there was a form[e]r graunt given by me William Beamslay, unto my Daughter Ann Woodward, now the wife of Ezekiell Woodward of a Certaine house and Orchard, as it is now fenced in wherein they have lived, Seaven yeares, or thereabouts.2

    Tip: To learn more about early Boston land records and land holdings, consult the Thwing card index on CD-ROM.

    Although marriage records were found for Anne's sisters, Mercy and Hannah, no such record exists for Grace. A deed provides the information, along with the knowledge that Mercy has remarried, this time in an unrecorded marriage.

    16 November 1668. Ann Woodward with Ezekiell Woodward her present husband, Grace Graves with Samuell Graves her present husband, Mercy Wilborne alias Peterson with Andrew Peterson hir present husband, Hannah Beamsley alias Perkins with Abraham Perkins her present husband, Elizabeth Page with Edward Page her present husband, Mary Roberson alias Dennis with Thomas Dennis her present husband, Edward Bushnell, all formerly of Boston in Massachusetts ... with consent of the trustees mentioned in the will of William Beamsley of said Boston (deceased) to Key Alsop.3

    We also get a serendipitous piece of information: Anne Woodward signed with her "A" mark, so we learn she couldn't write.

    Suffolk Deeds

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    Tip: To learn more about Beamsley and Woodward families, seeThe Great Migration Begins1:139-42, 3:2061-64 on CD-ROM or search the database online!

    Identify ancestry
    As I was reading a number of early Essex County, Massachusetts deeds as part of the Great Migration project, I was astounded by the high proportion that revealed ancestral relationships, naming parents, grandparents, in-laws, and other members of the extended family. Many of these relationships were found, I'm sure, in vital, church, and probate records, but many others were not.

    David Curtis Dearborn was baffled by the origins of George Curtis, who suddenly appeared in Danvers, Essex County in the 1750s with a wife Mary. The problem was compounded even further by the common surname.4 Three deeds gave George an extended family of in-laws.

    1 December 1757. Andrew Tucker mariner, Jonathan Tucker cordwainer, Elizabeth Osborn widow, Charity Tucker and Lydia Tucker spinsters, all of Salem, and George Curtis and Mary his wife of Danvers (the said Andrew, Jonathan, Elizabeth, Charity, Lydia, and Mary being children of Edward Tucker by Elizabeth his wife) sold a small parcel of land.5

    30 November 1758 (two deeds). Jonathan Tucker cordwainer, George Curtis yeoman and Mary his wife of Danvers, Elizabeth Osborn widow, Charity Tucker spinster, Thomas Meek blacksmith and Lydia his wife, and Benjamin Smethurst mariner and Sarah his wife, sold to Andrew Tucker mariner, all of Salem, land "which descended to us from our late Grandmother Mrs Elizabeth Hill and our Late mother Mrs Tucker both of Salem deceased said premises was formerly John Hills."6

    15 April 1752. William Curtis of Danvers yeoman in consideration of 100 pounds paid by my Granson George Curtis 60 acres in Danvers.7

    After the discovery of first two deeds, it was an easy matter to locate records for Mary's ancestry. The latter deed provided the name of George's grandfather, but the names of his parents are still uncertain.

    Family construction
    Spotty vital records, lack of probate, and natural out-migration in a family can make family reconstruction difficult. But deeds may help considerably. These six brothers lived in three towns in two counties.

    17 May 1752. John Kasson of Voluntown in ye County of Windham & William Kasson of Branford in ye County of New Haven and James Kasson of Woodbury in the County of Lichfield and Archebald Kesson & Samuel Kasson both of Voluntown, all of the Colony of Connecticut, yeomen, for £150 to Adam Kasson of Coventry. 40 acres in Voluntown, which our Father Adam Kasson late of Voluntown aforesd deceaset was lawfully seized and possessed of in his own proper right, adjoining Miles Jurdas, Rhoad Island line.8

    John Kasson of Voluntown

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    The original town grants in early New England were sometimes made based on family size, which can help you with family composition.

    Tip: To learn more about grants for individual towns, see the

    25 10 month [December] 1637. It is agreed that the marsh & meadow lands that have formerly layed in common to the town shall now be appropriated to the inhabitants of Salem, proportioned out unto them according to the heads of their families. To those that have the greatest number an acre thereof & to those that have least not above half an acre, & to those that are between both 3 quarters of an acre, always provided & it is so agreed that none shall sell away their proportions of meadow, more or less, nor lease them out to any above 3 years, unless they sell or lease out their houses with their meadow.9

    Edmund Marshall received three quarters of an acre for his household, which had four persons. The baptism of only one child had been recorded at Salem Church, raising the possibility (later confirmed), that he had an additional child.10

    Migration
    Do you have any ancestors who just appeared out of nowhere? Deeds are an excellent possibility for learning from whence they came, which may be another state.

    In the 1790 census, Annanias McAllister was enumerated in Suncook Town, York County, Maine. His origins were elsewhere, as identified by this deed.

    9 January 1786. Abel Butters of Newsuncook in the County of York in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts yeoman to Annanias McAllaster of New Boston in the County of Hillsborough & State of Newhampshire yeoman.11

     

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    n the 1790 census, Annanias McAllister was enumerated in Suncook Town, York County, Maine. His origins were elsewhere, as identified by this deed.

    9 January 1786. Abel Butters of Newsuncook in the County of York in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts yeoman to Annanias McAllaster of New Boston in the County of Hillsborough & State of Newhampshire yeoman.


    In 1790, Jacob Sleeper was enumerated on the census in Corinth, Orange County, Vermont. Once again, deeds point to his state of origin, and the name of the witness helps place him within the family.

    28 January 1788. John Eastman of Kingston in the county of Rockingham and State of New Hampshire to Jacob Sleeper of Poplin in said state and county aforesaid. Witnessed by Sherburne Sleeper.12

    How many men?
    Do two records belong to the same man, or different men with the same name? It's a question we often face. Researcher Elaine M. Wood found two John Holmans in the 1790 census of York, Maine, with slightly different family structures. Same man? Two men? She used 18 York County deeds to construct the neighborhoods and determine occupations, showing that he and his family had been enumerated at both his home and his warehouse.13

    The problem encountered by Joseph C. Anderson II and Frank C. Morrone was a bit different. What was the real surname of Maine Revolutionary pensioner Abraham Southard? Was it Southworth, Southwick, Southward, Southeard, Sothard, Southeard, - or Serote? Name variations are common, but cannot be assumed, especially when the individuals are found in different locations.14

    Deeds helped establish links, as when Abraham Serote sold land that had been purchased by Abraham Sotheard.15 A move was documented by the 1789 deed in which John Serote of Boothbay purchased land in Bowdoinham next to Nicholas Gaubert.16 In 1790, John Southard was three households from Nicholas Gobart in Bowdoinham.

    Learn more about the lives of your ancestors
    It is not unusual to find wills where real estate is left jointly to two sons, or where the widow is to be allowed to reside in the house until her death. But we don't often think about what happens if it isn't practical to share. This deed, in which Daniel Harper bought half a house, gives us a glimpse.

    28 September 1769. Eliphalet Dinsmore (wife Hannah signs) of Littleton in the County of Middlesex yeoman to Daniel Harper of Littleton aforesaid Cordwainer, a certain piece of Land lying in said Littleton with part of a Dwelling House and part of a Barn on the same being what I bought of Samuel Treadwell being what was set off to him by the Commissioner appointed by the Judge of Probate in & for the County aforesd to divide the Estate of Thomas Treadwell late of said Littleton deceased excepting what the said Samuel sold to Samuel Wood of said Littleton namely the West End of the lower Room in the House and the Cellar under the Same and the upper Loft over the Same and the back lintal of said House that part of the Barn that is on the West Side of the Floor and the Scaffold over the great Beams the said Daniel to have the barn floor in common with Thomas Treadwell and the widow Hephzibah Treadwell together with part of the Barn yard bounded thus beginning at the northwest Corner of said Barn and running as the Barn Stands West twenty Seven feet and then turning Southwardly fifty Seven feet and then turning and running Eastward so far as to Have the North Line and South both of a length the line at the northwest Corner of the Barn where it began is to run parallel with the Barn & furthermore the said Daniel is to use the Well from Time to time.4

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    It is not unusual to find wills where real estate is left jointly to two sons, or where the widow is to be allowed to reside in the house until her death. But we don't often think about what happens if it isn't practical to share. This deed, in which Daniel Harper bought half a house, gives us a glimpse.
    28 September 1769. Eliphalet Dinsmore (wife Hannah signs) of Littleton in the County of Middlesex yeoman to Daniel Harper of Littleton aforesaid Cordwainer, a certain piece of Land lying in said Littleton with part of a Dwelling House and part of a Barn on the same being what I bought of Samuel Treadwell being what was set off to him by the Commissioner appointed by the Judge of Probate in & for the County aforesd to divide the Estate of Thomas Treadwell late of said Littleton deceased excepting what the said Samuel sold to Samuel Wood of said Littleton namely the West End of the lower Room in the House and the Cellar under the Same and the upper Loft over the Same and the back lintal of said House that part of the Barn that is on the West Side of the Floor and the Scaffold over the great Beams the said Daniel to have the barn floor in common with Thomas Treadwell and the widow Hephzibah Treadwell together with part of the Barn yard bounded thus beginning at the northwest Corner of said Barn and running as the Barn Stands West twenty Seven feet and then turning Southwardly fifty Seven feet and then turning and running Eastward so far as to Have the North Line and South both of a length the line at the northwest Corner of the Barn where it began is to run parallel with the Barn & furthermore the said Daniel is to use the Well from Time to time.

    Try them, you'll like them
    What will New England land records hold for you? I can't predict. But I do know that for many of you, the answer you seek is in deeds.


    1.Suffolk Probate Records 336-37 [new pagination]. FHL #584,127.
    2.Suffolk Land Records 3:305-6
    3.Suffolk Land Records 5:519-22.
    4.David Curtis Dearborn, "The Family of William Curtis of Danvers, Massachusetts," A Tribute to John Insley Coddington (New York City: Association for the Promotion of Scholarship in Genealogy, 1980), 31-46.
    5.Essex Deeds 113:227.
    6.Essex Deeds 123:54-55.
    7.Essex Deeds 104:170.
    8.Voluntown Deeds 4:66. FHL #5,882.
    9.Salem Town Records, 61 (published); spelling modernized.
    10.Salem Town Records, 101-103 (published).
    11.Western District, Oxford County, Maine, Deed Book 5:409. FHL #11,672.
    12.Corinth, Vermont, [Town] Deeds 2:28. FHL #28,077.
    13.Elaine M. Wood, "Two John Holmans in the York, Maine, 1790 Census: One Man or Two?" The Maine Genealogist 22(2000): 163-66.
    14.Joseph C. Anderson II and Frank C. Morrone, "Abraham Southard alias Serote of Maine," The American Genealogist 76(2001): 161-73.
    15.Lincoln County Deeds 13:54.
    16.Lincoln County Deeds 23:233.
    17.Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Deeds 69:471. FHL #554,039.

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