Using County Land Records
to Trace Your Ancestors
by Betty R. Darnell
This is one in a series of researching tips taken from presentations by Betty R. Darnell, a noted local historian and genealogist. These notes are copyrighted by her.
Things to Know
- The Grantor, the party of the first part, is selling the land to the Grantee, the party of the second part. Occasionally, there is a party of the third part, someone representing one of the other parties; for example, a guardian or trustee.
- A deed is a writing signed by the grantor, conveying property. Real property is land; personal property is anything else, as slaves, furniture, farming equipment. A Deed of Release releases property that had been mortgaged. A Deed of Trust serves as a mortgage.
- A deed, especially one conveying property within the family, may not have been recorded until as late as twenty years after the deed was written. In an abstract of a deed, the date of recording is as important as the date the deed was written.
- A land deed is recorded in the county where the land lies. Deeds frequently give the place of residence of the grantor and the grantee. Some counties have a collection of “Unrecorded Deeds,” deeds that were not recorded, either at the request of the parties involved, or because the parties did not pay the filing fee.
- Deeds are frequently the earliest available record for a county. Landowners paid the majority of the county taxes.
- Frequently, when a county was formed, early deeds for land in the new county were copied from the records of the parent county; sometimes in a separate book, sometimes filed with later deeds.
- A deed was filed with the county clerk, who hand-copied the deed into the deed books, and added information:
- Acknowledgment: formal declaration before the official that the instrument is the free act and deed of the grantor. If the deed does not state the county of residence of the grantor, the acknowledgment is proof that the grantor was in the county at least at the time of the acknowledgment.
- Separate Acknowledgment: made by a married woman, on her examination by the official separate and apart from her husband. The separate acknowledgment was sometimes made much later, and is recorded later in the deed books. Lack of a separate acknowledgment does not mean that the grantor was single.
- Date of Recording: Deeds were recorded after the deed was written and filed with the county clerk, sometimes the same day, sometimes days or weeks later. The clerk may have been waiting for acknowledgments, especially if the grantor was in another county, or the clerk may have been busy with other duties.
Where to find the Deed Books
- Original books, at the county courthouse, in the county clerk’s office. Don’t expect the clerk to do your work, or to listen to your family history. Ask the clerk where the indexes are, where the old deed books are. The books are heavy; you might want to bring a helper. Put the books away when you’re finished.
- On microfilm, at the Archives Room, Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, Coffee Tree Road, Frankfort.
- Indexing styles differ. Some examples I’ve found:
- Grantor (or Direct) indexes on the left-hand page, Grantee (or Indirect) indexes on the right-hand page (or reversed); Separate books: Grantor index, Grantee index; Grantor index, or Grantee index only.
- Usually in several volumes, by groups of years; for example, 1797-1865.
- By first letter of surname: all the As, then all the Bs, etc.; By the first two letters of surname: Aa, Ab, Ac, etc.; Nelson County indexes: A grantors to A grantees, A grantors to B grantees, A grantors to C grantees, etc. This system is very handy if you’re looking for deeds between members of a family, or if you know the name of both parties; not very handy if you’re looking for all deeds for your ancestor.
- Indexes list only the names of the Grantor and Grantee. Your ancestor may have been a neighbor mentioned in the deed, or a witness to the deed. Published deed abstracts, if available, should index all the names mentioned in the deed.
- Some indexes give number of acres and a brief description of the property. Some indicate whether the document is a Deed, a Mortgage, etc. Make a note of the Deed Book number and the page number. Look for deeds with “Heirs of …” as the Grantor.
- Deeds will appear in the book as they were recorded; they may have been written years before. Check the indexes at least twenty years after your ancestor died or moved away.
- There may be a separate index for Commissioners’ Deeds (sale of the land directed by a court, to settle a lawsuit or an estate division).
- Copy all the index entries for your surname. If you later decide you need a particular deed, you can order a copy from the state archives or from the county courthouse.
Finding the Deed
- Photocopies: be sure to add the name of the county, the name of the book, and the page number. Be aware that the deed in the book is a copy of the original deed; there may be errors. The original deed was usually retained by the buyer.
- Abstracts: get all the details: book and page, date of deed, name(s) of grantor(s) and grantee(s) and their county of residence, type of document (deed, mortgage, power of attorney, etc.), payment, number of acres, watercourse, other landmarks mentioned, adjoining landowners, other details (improvements, dower rights, etc.), witnesses, acknowledgments and date of recording.
- What if they owned land and you can’t find them in Deed Records? Did they receive the land through a will? It may not have been recorded until it was sold out of the family. Was the land divided among the heirs, in a court case? Was the deed not recorded? Is there a file of unrecorded deeds at the courthouse? Did they receive a land grant?
Some terms you might see:
- Hereditaments – what can be inherited; lands and everything thereon, heirlooms, furniture.
- Appurtenances – that which belongs to the land – rights of way or easements.
- Tenements – property held by tenant – houses or dwellings.
- Improvements – may be buildings.
- Fieri facias, or FiFa – a writ commanding the sheriff to sell property to raise the amount of a court judgment.
- In Kentucky, land is measured in “metes and bounds.” Metes are measures of length, as rods or poles; bounds are boundaries, as property lines or watercourses.
- To draw a plat map from the survey calls in the deed, you’ll need a protractor and a ruler. See The Source, edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny, for instructions (1984 edition, page 221).
- Mapping software, as DeedMapper, available from large vendors.
- Is there a surveyor’s plat book at the courthouse, or a collection of survey plats?
What can deeds tell you?
- Where did your ancestors live? How much land did they own?
- Who were the neighbors? Where did they come from? Did they travel together? Did they intermarry?
- Maybe you’ll have the opportunity to stand on the land where your ancestor lived!
- Even if your ancestor never owned land, he may show up in deed records, as a witness or a neighbor or a tenant.
"Bibles" for county land record research
- Kentucky Ancestry, Roseann Reinemuth Hogan (Ancestry, 1992)
- Kentucky Genealogical Research, George K. Schweitzer (The author, 1987)
- Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources (Ancestry)
- The Handybook for Genealogists (Everton Publishers)
The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code.
Page last modified: 08 Sep 2020
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