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“Land Records—More than Mere Conveyances of Real Estate,” by Robert Barnes

Researchers who take the time to go beyond an index to land records may find many items of interest in a particular volume that may have not been indexed by the clerks of the county court.  For example, some indices may omit some references, such as depositions and ‘posted wives,’ but one should double check to be sure.
As the population of a county grew, some of these items were later included in a separate series of records. Some counties may have separate record series for Land commissions and Valuations of Minors’ Estates. Apprenticeship records may later appear in ‘orphans court proceedings’ or ‘Indentures,’ or both. Other types of records may appear in records with names like ‘county court proceedings,’ ‘judgement records’ or ‘minute books.’ in some areas they may be called Judicial records or Proceedings. Pennsylvania uses the term ‘Court of Quarter Session records.’ There is no consistency within a county, or between counties or from state to state. What applies in one jurisdiction may not work in another. The bottom line is that researchers should leave no stone unturned.

Land Records

Following are some examples of valuable findings buried in land records. Most of my illustrations come from Maryland land records, but no matter where you may be searching, consider checking land records page by page for possible nuggets of information.

Certified copies of entries from English parish registers. In 1709 Anthony Workman of the City of Gloucester stated in a Queen Anne’s County, MD land record that he was the nephew and heir of William als. Anthony Workman of the Isle of Kent, Maryland, dec. There followed a certificate from the Churchwardens of the Parish of Newland, Co. Gloucester, setting forth the names of the children of William Workman of Cliford, dec., and certifying that Anthony Workma was the heir of his uncle William who had come to Maryland

Chains of title within the deed: A deed always contains a statement such as, ‘A,’ the grantor, for a valuable consideration, is conveying property to ‘B,’ the grantee. Modern deeds usually, additionally, contain the “Being Clause” which describes the property being conveyed as the same property that “Z” conveyed to “A.” Eighteenth century deeds may trace the ownership back to the original patentee, and in doing so state family relationships of previous owners or of the current grantor. Such chains of title present relationships among others who are not shown in deed indexes.

Children being apprenticed by their parents might have their indentures of apprenticeship recorded in the land records.

Depositions: When people testified, either in a land commission or some other court activity, they usually identified themselves by name, age, and sometimes occupation. These depositions often contained references to other relatives of the deponent. These depositions may be found in land records.

Individuals registering the livestock marks for themselves or their children. The first 74 pages of Liber B of Frederick Co. land records contain marks of cattle registered by thirty individuals.

Land commissions: Land grants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were laid out by metes and bounds, and generally started with phrasing like ‘bounded red oak’ or a ‘bounded white beech.’ These beginning trees would fall down, decay, or otherwise become invisible, and it would become necessary for land owners to petition the county justices to appoint commissioners to take testimony from neighbors as to the location of these original trees. When any interested or knowledgeable parties had testified, the commissioners would determine what the beginning point of the land was and thus the land could be resurveyed. Most counties had a separate series of records called  ‘Land Commissions,’ but from time to time the proceedings would be recorded in the land records. Many of these land commissions were recorded in Dorchester County, MD land records, for example.

Lists of convict servants. I have found these lists in the land records of Baltimore and Queen Anne’s counties in Maryland.

Oaths of office and appointments to office: An early Frederick County land record liber contains the oath of office taken by Reverdy Ghiselin when he swore to uphold the Act for amending the staple of tobacco. Talbot County land records record the fact that in 1668 Charles Calvert appointed William Hemsley, Gent., to be clerk and keeper of the records for that county. 

Petitions: Usually found in county court proceedings, petitions may appear in land records.  In 1698, eight inhabitants of Cecil County recorded their petition to register their meeting house in Cecil County Land Records.

Posting of errant wives: In the days before newspapers, husbands whose wives had left them would often record a statement in the land records that they would not be responsible for the debts of their wives, who had ‘eloped from the husband’s bed and board.’ Sometimes we might read that a couple had agreed to live apart.

Powers of attorney: Individuals living somewhere else would give a local inhabitant or someone planning to move to the locality a power of attorney, giving them the authority transact business for the grantors.

Prenuptial contracts (sometimes called ante-nuptial contracts): A recent article in a Baltimore newspaper told how many couples planning to marry in 2010 are drawing up prenuptial contracts.  These documents are found in the 18th century, especially when one or both of the contracting parties had been married previously and may have had children by a previous spouse. These contracts were designed to protect the rights of the existing children.

Protecting the rights of orphans: In March 1711 David Richards, Nathaniel Stinchcomb and Henry Waters, were bound to Robert, Ralph, Thomas, and Edmond Moss, orphans of Ralph Moss, late of Anne Arundel Co., dec. That land record stipulated that each orphan would be paid £68.16.2 when he came of age.

Servants and their indentures. Indentures (Contracts to work for someone who would pay one’s passage to America, were usually recorded in the country of origin, but land records can shed light on what happened to the servant once he or she arrived in the New World. A volume of Anne Arundel County land records in 1699, recorded that several servants of one Edward Rumley had been taken up by them as runaways and they expected to be reimbursed. In a 1674 Cecil County volume of land records, David Jenkins bound himself to work for a term of four years from his arrival in Maryland., if William Saunders would pay for his passage to America and provide him with meat, drink and apparel. Sometimes native-born settlers agreed to serve someone else for a specified term

Ship captains registering their cargo: Both Annapolis and Baltimore were designated as colonial ports of entry, In 1705 two ships’ captains published their rates for tobacco in the Anne Arundel County land records. Benjamin Phillips, commander of the ship John and Margaret published a rate of £16 per ton.  James Bradby, commander of the ship Ursula published a rate of £15 per ton. 

Valuation of the estates of minors give a detailed description of the improvements on an estate, including physical dimensions and structure of the house, what crops were planted in the fields and the amount of livestock.

Wills: Wills were usually recorded in the county will books and in the Prerogative Court will books. From time to time a will was recorded in the county land records.  In 1700/1 Rachel Kilbourne, widow of Anne Arundel Co. recorded her will in just such a volume.

Sometimes it is necessary just to go through each volume of land records, page by page to discover these hidden treasures, especially if the items are not included in the index prepared by the clerks of the court.

Researchers using Maryland land records have two advantages. First are the many series of abstracts of county land records published by various individuals or societies. Among these may be counted the abstracts of land records for Anne Arundel, Cecil, Dorchester, Frederick, and Prince George’s counties.

The second advantage is that all original county land records from the founding of a county to the present day have been scanned and are available at the Maryland State Archives’ excellent  series known as There is no charge for the use of these records, but researchers who are not actually in the Archives search room or the county court house must register for a password.  Go to www.mdsa/net, click on the tab “Family Historians,” and on that page click on The instructions are easy to follow.

Land records contain many treasures, indeed!