Land Records and Genealogy Research
“Underutilized but often yielding tremendous genealogical research value, land, and property records can sometimes deliver surprising answers. Land records can be beneficial in defining various family relationships that help to solve particularly tough genealogical problems. Land records, especially in a state as old as Massachusetts, are vital resources researchers should consider.”
Land records, also known as deeds, date back to the early seventeenth century in Massachusetts. The earliest known deeds were recorded shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620.
Understanding Basic Land-Related Definitions
You need to understand three basic land-related definitions before tackling this subject. We mention this to help those new at studying land records. Other researchers and people who have previously owned or sold property are already too familiar with these terms.
As with probate records, land records also have a different language. The three most common terms you will hear, talk or read about are grantor, grantee, conveyance, or deed.
Quite simply, a grantor is a seller. A grantee is a buyer, and a conveyance is merely a deed - a legal document transferring ownership from one person to another.
In addition, several types of deeds exist, but as far as this discussion is concerned, we mention warranty and quitclaim deeds.
A quitclaim deed is a document in which the owner releases all rights, interests, or claims on a real property without offering any warranty.
In a warranty deed, the grantor or seller guarantees complete property ownership, free from claims. If a lawsuit arises due to ownership disputes, the seller or their heirs may face legal action.
We prefer warranty deeds for genealogical purposes because they provide valuable information if and when lawsuits arise and mention the resulting heirs and their relationship to the grantor.
We also recommend reading an article by Elizabeth Shown Mills, longtime editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, titled "Analyzing Deeds for Useful Clues" which first appeared in OnBoard (the newsletter of The Board of Certified Genealogists). This article offers invaluable information regarding the entire deed research and analysis process.
Massachusetts Registry of Deeds
The state of Massachusetts handles land records on a county-wide basis, just like probate records, and refers to the repositories as the Registry of Deeds. Therefore, we have developed a county-wide directory for the Massachusetts Registry of Deeds for visitors' convenience.
Researchers should also note that many state registries have each established their websites, and you can access them through our Registry of Deeds Directory. You can search land records via your PC on most registry websites, but these services currently target more contemporary land records. Each county varies regarding pre-20th century real estate listings, but many have developed electronic indexes dating back to colonial times.