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 the prevalence of free blacks in the community.
Levin is an especially tricky man to research, since this neighborhood over the years was 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 (which means he died ‘intestate’), 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 indicates 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 were still living in Somerset County, Maryland.
Thus in two deeds, we have mapped the family 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:
- Use census records as a guide: whenever you see that a person you are researching owns land, then you should automatically know deed research is necessary.
- 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 names in the index when a group of heirs are buying or selling land, so he will simply pick one. The 1950 deed discussed above was indexed under “Hennie Waters and others” to “George E. Waters.” So be on the lookout for that.
- When your ancestors own land, try to find the deeds that document them buying or inheriting the land, and also what happened to the land when they died. 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.
- 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).
- 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 lots of training available to help you understand deed records and how to use them. One of my favorites is the Deed Records course offered by the National Genealogical Society. I encourage you to learn about using deed records 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.