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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Analyzing Deeds for Useful Clues,” OnBoard 1 (January 1995): 8.

Analyzing documents, extracting clues, and developing research plans are crucial skills for every genealogist.

How does one properly analyze a deed? Sure, we know to copy all the relevant data; but how do we harvest nuances, implications, and indirect connections that move beyond the realm of fact to the more-nebulous world of clues worth pursuing?

To analyze a deed, we ask questions and probe for answers. For example:

Who else is named in this document? Does this person appear in any other record created by your individual? If so, odds are that person should be pursued as a possible connection. However, there are nuances to consider. For example:

  • was this an elected or appointed official? If so, consider the nature of his action in this case; does he appear to be merely performing a duty rather than assisting a friend or relative?
  • if not an elected official, was he a clerical employee of a public office? If so, you are likely to find him witnessing many unrelated records in that series where your deed appears.
  • is this person a merchant, doctor, lawyer or minister? Such public figures often left account books or other business or personal papers that may now be in an archive or library.
  • where did this person live? If this is a community-based official (i.e., a justice of the peace rather than a county clerk, a marshal rather than county sheriff), or if he is a merchant, doctor, or minister, then your individual’s place of residence is likely to be within five or so miles of this community leader.
  • Are those other individuals cited as adjacent landowners? If so, their deeds may name your individual as their neighbor—and perhaps give additional detail.

Does the document include more than one person of the same surname? If so, are they acting jointly with your individual or in a more-peripheral capacity or adversarial role? (Even foes cannot be eliminated as relatives, of course.)

Is the legal description given for the land? If so, plat it. Find its precise location on a contemporary map. Identify nearby landmarks and terrain. Churches and burial sites are likely to be nearby.

What type of deed is this, specifically?

  • a sheriff’s deed? If so, was the property seized for taxes or to satisfy someone’s judgment against your individual? Legal suits and tax rolls should be sought.
  • a quitclaim? Then, someone else has an interest in the property also. You may need to read all deeds of that era, searching for an identical legal description in order to identify the other potential kin.
  • a deed of trust? If so, a debt is involved. Is there an added note or a later deed, stating that the debt was paid? If not, tax rolls (if extant) should settle the question. Who serves as surety? Anyone who “guarantees” payment of your individual’s debt is a prime candidate for kith or kin.

Is there a wife’s dower release? If not

  • did the law of that colony or state require one? Legal statutes should be checked.
  • was a release filed months or years later? The deed series may have to be searched long after the actual date of the deed.

How much time elapsed between the draft of the document and its filing? If there is a significant delay, an explanation should be sought.

If your individual is selling property, how did he acquire it? Answering this question is imperative. If the property is land:

  • was it purchased it from the government? Another file should exist at colony, state, or federal level.
  • if not and the purchase does not seem to be recorded in local deeds, you may have to comb all index entries for sheriff, tax collector, state of …, or county of…. or read earlier tax rolls for land description to identify prior owner. An inheritance could be at stake.

Is slave property involved? The names, ages, occupations, and other personal data on those slaves are important clues for tracking inheritances and for identifying owners when working with multiple people of the same name.

Posing questions such as these, to every deed we find, will always suggest new possibilities to add to our research plan.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.