Thursday, December 12, 2013

Digging for Ancestors: new book on using land records

Michelle Roos Goodrum. Digging for Ancestors: An In-Depth Guide to Land Records. Utica, OH: The In-Depth Genealogist, 2013. 123 pages. $9.95 Nook, Kindle, or PDF; $29.95 paperback.

Most genealogists don't use land records enough. Most genealogy bloggers don't talk about them enough. And few practical books for beginners focus on them exclusively.

The folks at The In-Depth Genealogist have been doing something about all of these problems, first by publishing regular posts on these records, and now by helping contributor Michelle Roos Goodrum compile and augment the posts into book form for wider distribution. The hope is that this "will motivate the reader to take the necessary steps to utilize their ancestors land records." (page 1, image 8)

Land-record newbies can learn plenty from this book, not just from what it says about the records, but also from the author's visible enthusiasm and positive attitude toward indirect evidence, cluster research, and the Genealogical Proof Standard. Readers will also appreciate its direct and informal style (which carries over from blogging). Best of all are its step-by-step illustrated explanations of how to extract information from particular land records, which occupy about half of the book.

Unfortunately, the book may miss the mark with some readers because the material is poorly organized. It also lacks enticement, overview, information for state-land states, and any mention of what remains the best place to start learning about US land records: the late Sandra Hargreaves Luebking's 65-page chapter in The Source, third edition, available in print and on line at's wiki.

Newcomers to land records often find them intimidating; I know I did. (They're so -- detailed!) Therefore a book about them needs to give the reader

(a) an incentive to dive in, such as a few quick examples of why land records are worth the trouble, and

(b) a brief clear overview, so that the reader gets some sense of control and won't be constantly surprised.

Instead, Digging for Ancestors begins with ten research tips -- good advice, but only three of the ten have to do with land records. The first chapter follows up by telling how important and complicated land records are, with a list of eleven rather bewildering ways in which land might be transferred. Technical terms (such as "grantor," "grantee," or "aliquot") are used before they are defined. No larger context is provided, either historical (the importance of property ownership from the beginnings of settlement) or logistical (the two main kinds of land descriptions).

The book covers only 30 states. It offers little to those researching in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maine, Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Alaska, or Hawaii. These 20 states or their colonial powers provided original grants of land, and land parcels there are usually described using the metes-and-bounds system, as opposed to the other 30 "federal land" states that usually describe land using the rectangular survey system.

Readers will benefit from the author's decision to explain the practice of transcribing deeds, and to show the use of methods old and new -- transcription and GoogleEarth -- in analyzing them. The book's strongest parts are the step-by-step examinations of a land case, a homestead file, and a bounty-land file. Choice of other subtopics seems a little random -- why a chapter on cemetery deeds rather than, say, mortgages? -- but the subject is endless and one has to stop somewhere.

The list of resources would be improved by annotations. (Newcomers are likely to learn more from Val Greenwood than from E. Wade Hone.) It could also be supplemented by mention of

* Elizabeth Shown Mills's short and straightforward 1995 article, "Analyzing Deeds for Useful Clues," on the BCG web site;

* the blog In Deeds, which has been all-land-records-all-the-time for more than five years; and

* a few outstanding journal articles that show successful use of land records, such as Karen Green and Birdie Monk Holsclaw's contribution to the June 2012 NGS Quarterly.

Lesser issues: Some of the transcriptions shown don't distinguish between the preprinted and the handwritten portions of the forms being transcribed. Neither of the two separate discussions of searching for names on the BLM web site mentions that it allows use of wild-card search terms. For comparing monetary values between years Measuring Worth would be a better choice than The Inflation Calculator. Ideally PDF image numbers would coincide with page numbers, and apostrophes would be used properly. The original land records now appearing on FamilySearch might have been mentioned, as they offer unprecedented access and pose unique issues for researchers.

Harold Henderson, "Digging for Ancestors: New book on using land records," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 12 December 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Margaret Fortier said...

Thank you. This is so helpful. Those of us working in state land states do need an solid overview of this topic, with terms defined.

Geolover said...

Harold, what an excellent review. Does the book cover conveyances not in grant documents / dedicated deeds or mortgage books (e.g., wills and certain court records), or special series such as for releases of mineral rights? Resources such as tax assessment rolls including quit-rent rolls that may yield ownership histories and timing not detailed in deeds?

It seems regrettable that the book was mainly compiled from already-written articles. But it is, indeed, a hefty subject to take on.

Harold Henderson said...

Geo -- Thank you. The answer to your questions is no. The ideal land-records book would include those items but I would not criticize a book intended for newcomers for leaving them out. -- Harold

Harold Henderson said...

Margaret -- Thank you. I wish I could point you to one, but in the meantime you can see if Luebking offers any of what you're looking for. What many folks don't realize is that in some federal-land states people reverted to metes-and-bounds descriptions when subdividing smaller parcels. So the basic explanations will be useful now and then in Illinois and Indiana -- not to mention that most amazing patchwork state known as Ohio! -- Harold

Geolover said...

Margaret, if you have not perused the links in the "Reference Center" tab at, it's worth looking over.

There are two glossaries. Black's Law Dictionary has entries for such goodies as co-penceners and feoffees . . .

It is by no means complete, and unfortunately lacks a search engine. The innocent-looking link to Surveying Manuals has loads of links to publications with a lot of historical data, and one of the glossaries.

A really detailed overview for the Public Lands States would take several books (possibly 2 or 3 each for Illinois and Ohio alone).

Lisa Gorrell said...

I was disappointed there was no mention of land records found at courthouse or county clerk offices or even the microfilms of county land records. Many of our ancestors were not the first owners of land.

Geolover said...

Lisa, the Table of Contents for the book has a chapter, "Using Deed Indexes and Deeds."

I would think there is some mention of where most of these originated!

Michelle Goodrum said...

Thank you your honest review of Digging for Ancestors. Feedback both positive and negative is something I immensely value from you. Publishing a book from blog posts certainly has its challenges especially in that there will be “holes” in topics and a certain amount of randomness. Since not everyone gets their information from reading blogs or even from the internet, a book is another way to get the word out and hopefully get researchers to utilize land records.

Many of the shortcomings you mention can easily be included in a second edition so I appreciate your mentioning them. Other topics can and will be covered in “Timeless Territories” in future issues of the Going In-Depth magazine. I always appreciate input from readers regarding topics to cover. I must admit, I am puzzled by your comment that The Source is not mentioned anywhere, however. You must have missed it on page 32 and again in the resources section on page 117.

Michelle Goodrum said...

Lisa, Geolover is correct. See chapters 1 & 2, "Getting Started with Land Records Research," and "Using Deed Indexes and Deeds."

Hope this helps!

Harold Henderson said...

Michelle --

Thanks for your comments. Anything that gets land records out there is good news in my book.

My puzzling comment was not precise enough: The Source is indeed mentioned, the land article in it was not. But since you gave the URL a diligent reader would still be able to find it.

Good luck with the later blog posts and 2nd edition! It will be interesting to see if writing the posts with a book in mind changes how you write them. My guess is that it might have some effect. But I'm having enough trouble getting articles out the door, without thinking about books!


Geolover said...

Margaret, my apologies. My brain mis-tracked your stated need for good material on State Land states -- those for which most lands were taken (seldom by treaty/purchase) and allocated mainly to Euro-Americans by colonial authorities.

While material in _The Source_ does give some clues about granting patterns and settlement, once one gets beyond the very apex of the iceberg the areas' pictures get quite differentiated, as well as complicated by territorial disputes. And new material becomes more accessible -- for example, the West Jersey Proprietary's records were deposited in the NJ State Archives several years ago.

There is no doubt that up-to-date area guides to land records histories would be really valuable.

Lisa Gorrell said...

Geolover and Michelle, you're right there is a chapter on using deed indexes and deeds. The chapter was so short and without images, that I completely forgot about it. Expanding that with images like you have for the BLM chapters would be great. There are different kinds of indexes and learning about them with images would be helpful to newbies.
Overall I love the concept and you really help get into deep in BLM records.

Michelle Goodrum said...

Lisa, You have some excellent ideas on deeds! Thanks, I'll get to work on it.