Genealogists Trace Family History Using Land, Property Deeds

RecordClick Genealogical Service -Daniel McMillen House

What kind of Genealogical Treasures?! you ask. Heirlooms, wedding dresses, jewelry? Well, not exactly. In this case, Tricia Dingwall Thompson writes about finding genealogical research treasures in the guise of faded land deeds penned in archaic handwriting. Dealing with a tangle of three families, all with the same surname McMillen, Tricia searched for her ancestors and found them by way of hard-to-read property deeds, proving the adage – One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

    Pictured: Daniel McMillen house, New Boston, New Hampshire. Photo credit John Pardee

(Pictured: Daniel McMillen house, New Boston, New Hampshire. Photo credit John Pardee)

Land records may not be at the top of your document wish-list, and I recall my early days of genealogical research thinking I would NEVER wade through old, faded deeds in archaic handwriting, with words like “demesne” and “appurtenances,” but these records can establish family group clarity and interesting details of our ancestors’ lives unavailable anywhere else. They can also lead to a physical reconnection with the past.

Surely we have all encountered misinformation in our genealogical searches that have led us down the proverbial garden path, later discovering we had placed too much credibility in undocumented sources. I battled that with the History of New Boston, New Hampshire, published in 1864. Trying to determine my correct McMillen ancestors, I found nothing but intermingling of three separate families who shared not only the same surname, but many first names, as well. Ultimately, land records enabled me to sort out the correct families.

So many of our early Colonial ancestors owned land that these deeds should be one of our first resources. The 1790 census generally creates more questions than answers, and it wasn’t taken until almost two hundred years after the first Europeans arrived. But land records were created virtually from the beginning. So start your research at the appropriate location with the two sets of indexes typically created: grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer). Check a wide timeframe, collecting all references for your surname, and realize often our ancestors did not immediately register the deed, sometimes waiting until the sale of the land years later.

Following your index work, get copies of all applicable deeds, and then transcribe them. This may seem tedious, but it is the only way to glean all the information. Trying simply to read the old handwriting can be such an obstacle that without transcription, you will lose vital information, which often includes the buyer’s and seller’s occupations, the communities where they lived (which were not necessarily where they were buying or selling the property), relationships, and even special considerations of the sale. (In his 70s, one of my ancestors sold property to his son-in-law for cash, but also with the proviso that he and his wife receive “Victuals drink Cloathing Washing Lodging Fewel Candles Doctorin Nursing and Attendance both in sickness and in health and afford them decent “Christian burials.” What amazing detail about their lives, buried deep in the hard-to-read deed!

In the transcription, don’t omit the property description. It contains vital information that can help you find the exact location today. Next, create a chart of purchases and sales by dates and names. Doing this ultimately led me to the correct sorting of the entangled McMillens. I had located the 1759 deed when my 6th-great-grandfather, Daniel McMillen, a tailor from Londonderry, New Hampshire, purchased Lot 8 in New Boston. His son, John McMillen, shared the same name with two other men in New Boston at this time, but with differently named wives. I needed to separate them and clarify their families. Neither Daniel nor any of these John McMillens had left wills. But when Daniel sold the same property in 1786 to “my son John McMillen,” all I needed was the next deed in line, when John McMillen sold the land. Deeds of sale name living wives, because they must release their “dower rights” to 1/3 of the property, thus issuing an unencumbered deed. Daniel’s wife Mary had released her dower rights in the 1786 sale (giving me her first name), and when John sold Lot 8 in 1801, his wife Rachel released her dower rights. This information, together with a will of Joseph Steele, naming his “daughter Rachel, wife of John McMillen of New Boston,” established which one of the three John McMillens was my ancestor. What a revelation! All the steps to pull it together were generously rewarded.

Then came the icing on the cake: I sent the land description to a cousin who was going to New Boston, and armed with my information, he visited the land commissioner, who provided a plat map, showing the location of Lot 8. My cousin drove out, hoping not to find a paved parking lot, and indeed, located the rural home and surrounding property. Certainly the house has been through some remodeling and additions, but the basic footprint is the same, and the fireplace is original. So, all my efforts led me to the homestead of Daniel McMillen and his son John. What an incredible journey!

Land records certainly involve a lot of work, but it is all worthwhile. If you would like assistance with your own ancestors’ deeds, contact the professional genealogists at RecordClick. They will research appropriate genealogical records and help you understand the stories they have to tell and the relationships they can clarify. May you find “land, lots of land. . . .”

A professional genealogist and expert genealogy writer, Patricia (“Tricia”) Dingwall Thompson’s articles can be found in the New England Historic Genealogical Society magazine “American Ancestors” (Spring 2012), on Everton’s Genealogical Helper website, and serialized in the “New Hampshire Genealogical Record.” A number of her researched genealogies are housed in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Having taught high school Advanced Placement English for 38 years, Tricia now teaches genealogy classes through the Bozeman School District’s Adult Education program, and serves as Registrar for the Mount Hyalite Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

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