Beginning in 1850, the United States Census records included questions about real estate ownership. It is my guess that most genealogical researchers in the United States have acquired this information about property ownership and ignored it. This is more especially true if the information failed to show that the family "owned" any real property. One of the main reasons for writing about the subject of this series is to point out that land transactions, even including rental agreements of all kinds, can produce genealogically valuable documents. But what is even more important is finding out whether or not your ancestors owned or rented property.
Home and land ownership has traditionally been a basic part of the "American Dream." Huge numbers of immigrants came to America motivated by the idea that they could own their land. Land ownership becomes an indicator of the economic and to some extent, the social status of our ancestors. But there is a more serious issue with land ownership or the lack of land ownership. Many researchers automatically assume that finding that their ancestors rented property, absolves the researchers from investigating land and property records. This should not be the case at all.
This limited attitude towards land ownership is part of a larger, more fundamental problem associated with genealogical research. This is the tendency of researchers to ignore the context of the families that they are researching. People seldom live in complete isolation from their friends and relatives. Contiguous property ownership or occupation is often an indication of some kind of relationship. This is more certainly true historically than it is today. Our current mobile society has almost, but not completely, erased proximity as a factor in family relationships.
A good example is the part of Provo, Utah where I now live. We moved into a condominium development that is relatively newly established. But we are surrounded by "old" family homes. Some of the houses in our neighborhood, as we have found out, are owned or rented, by third and even the fourth generation of families. Over the past two years or so we have lived here, some of the homes have sold to the children and grandchildren of the "original" owners or those who built the houses in the first place. As another example, my grandfather's original home in Arizona is now owned by relatives and occupied by descendants.
I can only assume, from my experience, that many researchers also assume that the main issue is whether or not their ancestors paid rent. But it is just an important to realize that their ancestors may have collected rent from others. If your ancestors were landlords, then they certainly left a rich legacy of property ownership and the resultant records generated by their transactions. It is also very likely that they rented property to their own relatives. This is particularly true of farmland and farms.
I suggests you look at the Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach webpage on Whole Farm -- Leasing. Here is a screenshot of part of the page:
Now, not all went well in the relationships between landlords and tenants. If there were disagreements, there may also be additional records of court cases or lawsuits.
Here is another example of the type of records that might help in locating difficult-to-find ancestors. Quoting from the FamilySearch Research Wiki article "Ireland Landed Estate Court Files (FamilySearch Historical Records)."
During the 1840s, Ireland suffered a massive famine. Many tenants died, and others emigrated, hoping to find relief. As a result, landlords lost their major source of income, and their estates went into debt, culminating in a high number of foreclosures. It is estimated that between the years 1850 and 1858 around 8,000 estate foreclosures were handled.
In 1849, an act was passed which established the Encumbered Estates Court. This court handled the sale and accounting of bankrupted estates. In 1858, the Landed Estates Court was established. This court handled both unencumbered and encumbered estates.
These records were created to provide a detailed accounting of bankrupted estate sales. These records are generally reliable.
This collection covers records for the years 1850 to 1885.
These records consist of maps, which are hand-drawn, and tenant lists which are typed on preprinted forms. The records are divided by county and lot.Note that these records contain "tenant lists."
Ireland is a particularly good example of place where tenant lists can be a valuable adjunct to genealogical research, but certainly not the only place. Here are some links to additional websites of interest. There are hundreds of other sources.
“England Manors Genealogy - FamilySearch Wiki.” Accessed June 23, 2016. https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Manors.
“Estate Records for Kildare: Irish Ancestors.” Accessed June 23, 2016. https://www.johngrenham.com/records/county_estates.php?search_type=full&county=Kildare.
“FINDING YOUR ROOTS: Discovering Ordinary Folk in Manorial Records.” Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/roots/roots03.shtml.
“Getting Started - ScotlandsPeople.” Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/Content/Help/index.aspx?r=551&2134.
“Land Estate Records.” Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.billmacafee.com/estates/landedestaterecords.htm.
Lyons, Dr Jane. “Irish Estate Records: An Introduction.” From-Ireland.net, March 5, 2013. http://www.from-ireland.net/irish-estate-records-introduction/.
“Manorial Documents.” Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/guide/man.shtml.
Team, National Records of Scotland Web. “National Records of Scotland.” Document. National Records of Scotland, May 31, 2013. http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/valuation-rolls-1855-1989.
Sometimes it is important just to realize that records exist.
Here are the previous parts of this series.