Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, May 13, 2013

What if my ancestors did not live in a town? How do I find their exact location?

In a recent blog post, I described a way to find the exact address of someone living in a city using U.S. Census records and City Directories. This exact location is helpful to distinguish between people with the same or very similar names living in the same area. It is also helpful for finding a myriad of genealogical records that are stored and maintained geographically. But what about the situation where the ancestor lives in a rural area? And more importantly, what if the ancestor did not own any property?

The key to all of these issues will depend on the country you are researching. But in the United States (and the colonies before independence) the issues of location are tied into land ownership. It may seem overly simplistic, but you can find the land owned by looking at the ownership records for any given location. Ownership and title to real property has always been an issue since ancient times. In the United States and many other countries, there are whole commercial industries based solely on the service of providing a chain of ownership for any particular parcel of real property. Although the form and content of the reports these agencies provide may vary from state to state and country to country, the need to show a chain of ownership does not vary. In the United States these companies are called title abstractors or title companies. In the UK, they have local and nation wide Land Registry Offices. In Australia, for example, Land Titles are handled on a provincial basis. You can also go to the Land Titles and Title Plans site for Australia and New Zealand. These services are usually not free and can run many hundreds of dollars in the local currency.

There are many different kinds of records that can show land ownership as well as tenants. Some of these records would seem to have no relationship to land ownership, but nonetheless are sources to find a record of the ownership of the property and thereby assist in specifying the location of your ancestors. For example, U.S. Census records. and many other sources provide blank U.S. Census forms that show the categories of questions asked. Many of the years of the U.S. Census ask specific questions as to whether the home was owned or rented. This applies to people living both within cities and those living in rural areas. If your ancestor shows land ownership in a census, there is an automatic need to look into the land records for the area where your ancestor was found in the census. As time goes on, more and more of these types of records are becoming searchable online. In my own state of Arizona, title records from the County Recorders, in many cases, can be viewed online for free.

Finding the exact location of where your ancestors lived is wrapped up in all of the rest of the research you do about your family. The types of documents that may show an address or similar location are almost without end. For example, both letters and photographs have been used to pinpoint an exact location. Listing all the types of records that might assist in finding the location is essentially the same as listing all the documents available for research. Any type of document from town records in New England to tax records can give enough information to establish a basis for doing a title search in any given area. Many of the agencies that maintain such records have what are called grantor/grantee indexes. This means that they have a list of all the people both buying and selling the land. Few, if any, of these records are kept by genealogy companies but there are notable exceptions. presently has 332 collections of land records including millions of records of U.S. Indexed County Land Ownership Maps from 1860 to 1918 among many other valuable records. These records, also available from the Library of Congress, are the counterpart to the city directories and are collectively known as county landownership atlases.

In the U.S. we have a whole category of records dealing with the original acquisition of the land from the Federal Government. There is an online index with links to the original land patents for all Homestead property in the western United States in the Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records. The image at the beginning of this post is a copy of the Land Patent issued to my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner. This document shows exactly the land owned by my ancestor.

The point here is that finding the exact location of where an ancestor lived is the key to locating additional documents, but rather than search for birth and death dates, the real investigation should focus on locating the ancestor first. The records that might show this information are seldom searched by genealogists.


  1. Link to the General Land Office (for federal patents)

    The actual patent images sometimes have useful information that isn't indexed, such as middle names, junior or senior designation, or "of place X". I found one that identified a whole group of people as the heirs of another person.

    The maps are fun, too. You can often find neighbors (who turn into spouses) or just see what kind of land your ancestors bought.

  2. I agree that records of land ownership are important for pinning down ancestors to a particulat place and time. In the United States it is relatively easy to trace a chain of title, compared with England. The newly independent US had the good sense to reform property tenures and introduce accurate legal land descriptions.

    The UK Land Registry was established in 1862, and the registration of transfers of ownership have only been compulsory in the whole of England and Wales since 1990, so might not be registered at all if it has not changed hands since. Prior to the abolition of copyhold tenure in 1926, only freehold propery could be registered. Copyhold was a feudal tenure governed by the manor, so land transfers were recorded by the manorial courts baron.

  3. Just always remember that the most effective way in performing this kind of search is the one who can give you the most complete and valid information.
    Property Tax Record.