Deed Record Bonanza

1877 Upper Fairmount/Freetown

1877 Upper Fairmount/Freetown

I’ve discussed deeds in this blog before and why they should be a cornerstone record in uncovering the lives of your ancestors. I want to illustrate in this post how using deeds connected a family from the 1850’s through the mid-twentieth century.

Levin Waters and many of my other ancestors lived in Somerset County, Maryland in a little community called Upper Fairmount and nearby Upper Freetown, shown above in an 1877 atlas. “Freetown,” I believe, got its name from  where he appears in the census from 1850 through 1880. His wife was named Susan. Levin died as a widow before 1900. Levin is an especially tricky man to research, since his neighborhood over the years is filled with other men, of all ages, also named Levin Waters. So care in proving identity, and not just matching the name, requires a thorough search of a broad selection of sources.

Sometime before 1 May 1900, Levin Waters died and because he left no will, the land that he owned descended by the laws of Maryland to his heirs. His heirs decided to sell that land (to a man named Levin T. Waters, Jr., no less!). The 1900 deed gives us the names and current locations of Levin’s heirs, and describes the grantors with the important phrase “heirs of Levin Waters deceased.” Daughters, of course, represent a problem when we don’t know who they married, so that’s one of the benefits of finding deeds like this.

Levin’s named heirs were:
-Alverta Johnson, with husband William C. Johnson
-Samuel Waters, and wife Josephine
-Manuel Waters and wife Mollie
-Fred Waters and wife Mary
-Sarah Johnson and husband James Johnson
-Christianna Hall and husband Garrett B. Hall
-Bessie Moore’s (unnamed) husband James Moore
-Henrietta Waters, and her husband John E. Waters
-John Waters and wife Grace

Look at all the family history provided in this one deed! Before this deed, I had no information about at least half of Levin’s children. The deed also states that Samuel and John Waters and their wives were living in Dorchester County, MD. The rest were still living in Somerset County.

But I didn’t stop there. I kept going through Somerset County deeds, now looking at the names of Levin’s children (and in the case of his daughters, their husbands). The key is that I kept searching forward in time, long after Levin died, as long as I knew any of his heirs were still living in the county.

That led me to another amazing deed. Before his death, Levin gave a small piece of land to Robert Moore. Robert was Levin’s son in law; he had married Levin’s daughter Elenora. Though Elenora died and he later remarried, Levin had numerous children between his two wives.

Wouldn’t you know it–Robert Moore also died without leaving a will sometime before 1950, thus, the piece of land he owned descended to his living heirs. They decided to sell their land in May 1950 to George E. Waters. That deed described the legal history of the land, very specifically, starting with the phrase that the grantors are selling “the same land which was conveyed to Robert H. Moore by Levin Waters.” It goes on to say that when Robert H. Moore died, the land descended:

-to daughter Hennie Waters
-to son James E. Moore
-to daughter Beulah Whittington
-to Lorena Horsey, Donald and Thelbert Moore, the widow and children of son Fred Moore, deceased
-to Russell Nichols and William Smith, children of deceased daughter Hattie
-to Olivia Keith, daughter or deceased daughter Nora
-and to Laura, Welthus, Reginald and Marjorie Moore, the widow and children of deceased son Samuel

The deed goes on to state that Beulah is currently living in Port Norris, New Jersey,
that Russell Nichols and his wife Dora, William Smith and Olivia and her husband Lewis Keith are living in Atlantic City, New Jersey and that Lorena Horsey and her husband John are living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. All of the others are still living in Somerset County, Maryland.

Thus in two deeds, we have mapped the history of Levin Waters, who was born about 1820, all the way through his daughter Elenora Moore’s heirs, who lived through the mid-20th century. That is simply amazing and shows the power of deed records.

Here are a few tips for your search:

  1. Use the census as a guide: whenever you see that a person you are researching owns land, then you should automatically know deed research is necessary.
  2. Search the deed indexes for the names of every known child. When you look at the deed indexes, look for grantors that include the phrase “and others” or “et al.” When creating the indexes, the court clerk can’t possibly write all those names in the index, so he will simply pick one. The 1950 deed was indexed under “Hennie Waters and others” to “George E. Waters.” So be on the lookout for that.
  3. When your ancestors own land, try to find the deeds that document them buying or inheriting the land, and also what happens to the land when they die. Tax records should be searched since someone has to pay taxes on the land. Remember that if taxes are not paid, that land will be sold at a Sheriff’s auction, and many of those sales are published in local newspapers every tax year.
  4. Deeds will often provide the history of the land, and also include the book and page number for referenced deeds (although in these examples that detail was not given).
  5. Deeds will sometimes mention that the land is being sold as a result of a court decree, and in those cases will (in most cases) provide the exact case number. You’ll want to find that court record.

Much of deed research will include searching through very dry records that describe the boundaries of land and the legal transfer of ownership, and many provide no information about families or relationships whatsoever. The victory will come to those researchers diligent enough to keep searching in spite of that.

There are several good books and training available to help you understand deed records and how to use them. I encourage you to learn that information before you dive in, or else, you’ll be looking at a lot of documents that you don’t understand. Those of you who have had incredible discoveries through deed records, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

The Ku Klux Klan Hearings

LC-USZ62-93080, Klan rally in DC, 1926

LC-USZ62-93080, Klan rally in DC, 1926

In 1871, the U.S. Government decided to hold hearings on the rampant violence in the South by the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations. The official name of these records is the “Report of the Joint Select Committee Appointed to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States,” but they are often referred to by historians as the Ku Klux Klan Hearings or the KKK Testimony. I first discovered this set of records when my friend Tim Pinnick  gave a lecture about them, and he shared some of the indexed pages which he posted on his website.

Thanks to the Making of America, you can now access all volumes of the Ku Klux Klan Hearings. It gets even better—the volumes are fully text-searchable! I have been waiting for this for years; here is the what the website looks like:


The hearings were documented in the U.S. Serial Set, which are the published records of the U.S. Congress. These hearings were the precursor the passing of the 1871 Klan Act, which enabled President Ulysses Grant to send federal troops to go into southern states to maintain order and to penalize the acts of private citizens. Federal prosecutions under this Act did serve to sufficiently cripple the first iteration of the Klan, although in the first decade of the 20th century, it would come back with a vengeance.

The real jewel of these records are the verbatim testimony that was taken in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. I don’t need to tell you how genealogically rich these records are—they cover 13 volumes and over 7000 pages of testimony and reports! These records include first person testimony from numerous freedmen and women, but also include testimony from local white officials, both those aligned with the Confederate cause and those aligned with the Union, such as Freedmen’s Bureau officials.  These records are indexed in great detail at the beginning of each published volume, so that’s what you’ll want to explore first. Here is example of one of the indexed pages as well as two pages from Andrew Flower’s testimony:


Index Page

Page 45

Page 45

Search for your family surnames, but I also highly recommend searching also for your county of research and its surrounding counties. For example, my ancestors were in Taylor County, Florida, so I printed testimony about those counties. These records provide some of the best testimony describing what living conditions were like for former slaves in the South during Reconstruction. As expected, there are thousands of beatings, whippings, murders, rapes and other assaults. There was violence directed towards any efforts by freedmen to educate themselves or to better their economic station by purchasing land. Black churches were also burned down. I found it interesting during the testimony that the violence became so common, they turned “Ku-Klux” into a verb, and talked about people being “Klu-Kluxed last night.”

The violence during Reconstruction, which I have blogged about before, is truly mind-boggling. Needless to say the freedmen were the primary victims, but so were white men who pledged allegiance to the Republican Party (the old Republican Party, not the one in force today). Black republicans, who had been able to participate in state and local government and vote since the Civil War, were especially targeted. It goes without saying that most of the perpetrators were never brought to justice.

What may surprise you is how much of the violence was directed towards getting the freedmen to not vote the Republican ticket, especially in 1868. The perpetrators understood that they needed to regain political power.This is yet another demonstration of how “racist belief” by itself was not the only driver for the violence—it was a form of control designed to keep the freedmen at the very bottom of the economic, social and political ladder and to keep a compliant and dependent labor force in the South to continue to work the land. I think it’s important that we really understand that. One website offers some chilling examples of how well the violence accomplished it’s purpose:

“Those murdered during the KKK’s campaign included Arkansas Congressman James M. Hinds, three members of the South Carolina legislature, and several men who had served in state constitutional conventions. According to testimony, in other violence, Klansmen killed more than 150 African Americans in a single county in Florida, and hundreds more in other counties… The Klan was most successful at taking the vote away [from] black southerners. For example, in the April 1868 Georgia gubernatorial election, Columbia County cast 1,222 votes for Republican Rufus Bullock, but in the November 1868 presidential election, the county cast only one vote for Republican candidate Ulysses Grant.”

If that isn’t chilly, I don’t know what is.

I have already spent many more hours than I need to wading through these records. I am just overcome with the sadness and utter amazement that African-Americans survived all of the historic atrocities they collectively endured. I’d love to hear your comments about this source.

Thomas S. Sudler Account Book


I’ve written before about the information that can be found in what I call Community Papers: account books, diaries, ledgers, loose papers, family records, etc. These are the papers of (usually) men in the communities we are researching, such as doctors, merchants. Almost every library and archives has these kinds of papers housed in their Manuscript or Special Collections.

I recommend viewing these records for what they can tell us about the lives our ancestors lived; slaves and free blacks are often mentioned in these records since they were a critical part of every community. Capturing that social history, I believe, is just as important as reclaiming the names and lineages of our ancestors.

I recently got a chance to view the Thomas Seon Sudler Account Book at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland. Thomas lived in the community where my ancestors lived in Somerset County, Maryland in the early 1800s, an area known as “Back Creek,” near the Great Annemessex River. He owned more than 400 acres of land called “Sudler’s Conclusion,” and in 1820 he owned 15 slaves. His home still survives (shown above), along with some of its outbuildings and is one of the most important historic homes in the county, and is included in Maryland’s Inventory of Historic Homes. I have collateral ancestors who were enslaved by Thomas and my direct ancestors were enslaved by his neighbor William Waters and other members of the Waters family.

Thomas was a meticulous record-keeper (though not a neat writer) and his book recorded many things we would expect to see from someone who owned a farm: he noted what crops were planted, what the weather was like, and other activities like hog killing and shearing sheep. He planted primarily tobacco, wheat and some cotton, but other entries mention a variety of foods probably for consumption by his family and his slaves like watermelon, red peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, apple orchard and beehives for honey:

Farming Info

Farming Info

Began to heap the plant bed before the door Friday Feb 12, 1819
Note: I lent Emory S Sudler one cow and calf to give him milk Friday Feb 12, 1819
Tubman W Sudler was to see me Thursday Feb 11, 1819 and helpt the people to worm the plant and fence in the Neck..[?] It took 26 pannels of fence ‘round[?] the bed
Began to Burn the plant bed before the door Monday Feby 22 & finished burning Tuesday 23 and sewed it on Tuesday..

He writes about births and deaths, visitors to his homes and things like making candles. Surprisingly, at times he includes poetry and scripture, and many entries record his feelings in the way of a diary:



Note January 4th Poor old Nish Departed this Life being Friday Night and on Saturday morning January 3rd, 1819 Tubman W Sudler and his wife went away from me by perswasion which was a sorrowful day to poor me I don’t know what is to become of me, I see nothing but trouble and want both to me and my family what to do. I cant tell for the best I sent Caleb up for my poor son Tubman W Sudler, whether he will be too good as to come and see me

That’s not all–this book offers all sorts of other interesting tidbits.  The image is hard to see, but in this entry, Thomas paid several free black men for harvesting wheat. They likely worked alongside his slaves as well as alongside other white men:

Free Blacks Working

Free Blacks Working

To John Tull 1/2 day work harvest, $1.50
To Levin Tull 1/2 day work harvest, $1.50
To Negroe Nathan Turpin one day, $1.50

June the 27, 1826 Harvest Wheat
To Negroe Harry Waters half day, $.50
To Negroe Peter Waters half day, $.50
To Negroe Levin Waters, half day $.50

One page simply provides a list of names, but I am almost certain these are Thomas’ enslaved people. They appear throughout the account book performing various tasks:


Enslaved People

One entry shows a man named Daniel making shoes for Thomas’ slaves:



Daniel made 5 pair viz Nan, Ben,Tobe, Job and Cesar….13 pair in all

Here’s and entry showing a purchase of “stockings” for his “black people”:



Note all our black people new stockings in the fall 1815, except 4 as follows Tobe, Ben, ?, Lucey

Another page notes the death of a slave owned by one his neighbors, William Waters:

Stephen's death

Stephen’s death

Note Negroe Stephen the property of Capt William H Waters got drowned on Friday December 23, 1825

The story of Arnold’s runaway is recounted on one page. It is unclear whether Arnold is Thomas’ slave:

Arnold's runaway

Arnold’s runaway

Arnold ran away on Sunday May 21, 1825 and taken up in the Delaware State on Monday 23 by Mr Peter Stewart. Tubman W Sudler went up after Arnold on Thursday the 26..

But Arnold paid the ultimate price. He was sold at the slave market located in nearby Princess Anne:

Arnold sold

Arnold sold

William L Wynn Petersburge who bought Arnold May Saturday 28, 1825 at PAnn Town

I hope this post shows you that even items with benign titles like “Account Book,” can convey the wealth of information in this book. This book had often short entries, but they give us a glimpse into the early 1800s and therefore a glimpse into our ancestor’s lives, things like the care of enslaved people, what work they performed, what punishments were given, what kind of food they ate, and how they were viewed by the

This post also illustrates how important it is to study the neighborhood. It is only because I knew Thomas Sudler was a neighbor that I knew to take a look at this record. Many of the free black Waters men he mentions are men whose families I know. And while the 1820 census does not include slaves’ names, Thomas’ book uncovers the names of many of those people.

Readers, have you looked at any Community Papers yet that have given you a closer look at your ancestors’ lives?


Perry Simpson Found in Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Freedmen's Bureau LOC (LC-USZ62-1055555)

Freedmen’s Bureau
LOC (LC-USZ62-1055555)

Finally- I found a needle in a haystack. I found my 4th great-grandfather, Perry Simpson, in Freedmen’s Bureau records! I have probably looked through thousands of pages of these records through the years and that is no exaggeration.

I found his name in a Register of Letters Received in the Field Office Records for Maryland and Delaware. A “register” is one of the formats the agents used to document the many letters that poured in, and each register entry provides a brief summary. Perry, who lived in Howard County, was launching a complaint against Delilah Duvall. She had agreed to split shares of the crop with him (presumably in 1866) and after the crop came in, she refused to give him his share of the crop. Sadly, this was very, very common in the years after emancipation:

Register of Letter, Jan 1867

Register of Letter, Jan 1867

I’m still searching for his original letter, but I also found his case referenced in the book of Endorsements, which shows his complaint traveling up the chain of command. Unfortunately, in the end, there was no justice for Perry. An excerpt from the Endorsement stated:

nothing more has been done in the case, except to call the attention of the State’s Atty Genl for Howard Co. to the matter who informs us with regret that nothing more can be done, Duvall is very worthless-a civil trial will only subject the man Simpson to more expense for nothing, as no Justice of the Peace in that county will give judgement on negro evidence. They do not refuse to take evidence, but allow him to testify in order to avoid the Civil Rights Bill, but do not allow the testimony to have any weight in making their decision, as reported by Mr. Lands [?] the attorney a true friend of the Bureau

I was surprised at how emotional this document made me. It took a lot of courage and moxie for a former slave to formally complain to the Bureau. Retribution from local whites, including acts of violence and even murder were common. The above outcome references the 1866 Civil Rights Bill passed by Congress. It came up quite  bit in Bureau records, because it was supposed to change one of the reasons why black people were always so vulnerable: their testimony alone could never be used in most states against any whites. When the law was passed, some local law enforcement officials still refused to take complaints from blacks without white witnesses, and the Bureau pressed for prosecution of those local officials. What is shown above is that this particular Howard County official would take Perry’s testimony and allow it in court in order to avoid prosecution under the law, but that essentially it wouldn’t be given any weight. Just like all those cases in the 1950s and 1960s.

I tell you, there is so much today that we simply take for granted. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to live with the fear that anything–ANYTHING–could be done to you with no redress.

I have been predicting that when the Freedmens Bureau Indexing Project is completed later this year, family historians are going to reclaim scores of their enslaved ancestors and lost histories. But we don’t have to wait until then. Many of the Freedmen’s Bureau Records have been digitized and are freely accessible on Though the records are difficult to navigate, I suggested a workable strategy to research them back in 2012.

I strongly suggest scrolling page by page through those records. That is the only way I found Perry’s letter. The truth is that the digitization of the Bureau records makes scrolling through a few hundred images pretty easy. Aside from possibly finding a family member, you will learn about the community where your ancestor lived during the transition from slavery to freedom. You will read the stories of former slaves striving:

–to find family members sold during slavery
–to reclaim children being held illegally by former owners
–to be paid for their labor, after employers throw them off the land
–to get legal redress for other crimes against them
–to build schools
–to get their bounty money and pensions
–to find work

…and more. I found myself engrossed in so many of these stories, whether or not they were my ancestors. Tell me in the comments if any of you have had any luck in these records yet. If not, keep looking. Use my find as inspiration;)


“Passed and Present” and Other Family History Finds

ppimagePeriodically, I like to offer suggestions on family history-related materials that may be of interest to my readers. There are a few books I’d like to recommend:

One is called “Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive,” by Allison Gilbert. I had not come across anything like this before and the topic intrigued me, especially since so much of the spirit of genealogy is in reclaiming and holding on to the memories of our forebears. As we grow older, the reality of our own mortality looms ever closer. This is a beautifully written missive filled with wonderful ideas of keeping those loved ones near to us even as they have transitioned out of this life. The author shares her own thoughtful and compassionate experience and the more than 75 ideas (which she calls “Forget-Me-Nots”) she shares feel like a special gift.  There were many ideas I liked such as planting a Daffodil for each year of your ancestor’s life and buying a new Christmas ornament in their memory. Those who have lost loved ones will surely find themselves uplifted. For me, there are ancestors who died long before I was born but whom, through my research, I still feel very connected to. This is a rich book, with lovely illustrations. Get your copy at or your local bookstore.

Secondly, my friend Melvin Collier over at Roots Revealed has done it again, or should I say, outdone himself again. I will simply share the comment I sent to him when I received my copy of his newest book, “Ealy Family Heritage”:

OK Melvin I have been searching for your phone number for 2 days…this book is AWESOME. When it came in the mail and I unwrapped it, I was like OMG. It is so beautiful, it is so packed with so much information it’s almost mind-boggling. I cannot imagine how long it must have taken to produce this content–you must have spent every weekend writing. I wanted to call and tell you that you need to call the local newspaper because there needs to be a story written about this book & the story it tells. It’s so much all at once–social history, family history, black history, local history, oral history. You inspire me so much. This is going to be a template for the kind of work I’d like to publish one day for my family.

Get your copy at or The book is just a beautiful example of a family’s history done right. Some other family bios have been published and these books always inspire me:

We should all be working towards getting our research published in some form or fashion so that the years of blood, sweat and tears we put into this don’t go to waste. Check these two out:


(Thank you Dr. Hollie, for recommending to me Daisy Turner’s Kin!) I have published posts in the past about ideas for your writing and encouraging us all to write. I think reading the work of others in this space is great inspiration.

Readers, what family-history related books have you come across that have impressed you lately?