Casefile Clues

22 August 2011

Tracking The Tract


Tracking The Tract


[originally appeared in the Ancestry Daily News on 10 April 2003]


When I first began researching my family lines, I spent a great deal of time researching land records. One of the first finding aids used to search these records are the indexes to buyers and sellers, frequently called the grantee and grantor indexes. These finding aids are an excellent starting point to utilizing and accessing land records. But like any finding aids they have their limitations and pitfalls, part of which stem from the way in which the records are recorded and the way the indexes are actually created.

Land records are not recorded in the exact order in which they are created and executed. Deeds, mortgages, and other land records are recorded in the order in which they are brought to the county records office, which typically is not the order in which they are executed. Consequently, a deed from 1842 may be filed directly after a deed from 1852, which may be filed after a deed from 1853. Grantee and grantor indexes may cover a series of deed books and may indicate what years the indexes cover, but these years typically refer to the years the records were recorded---not the years they were created.

The indexes themselves are not necessarily purely alphabetical either. The index entries usually (but not always) are chronological for every name beginning with a certain letter or set of letters.

And this impacts the way the indexes are utilized.

As an example, say I am looking for my ancestor James Rampley who lived in Hancock County, Illinois, from 1849 until his death in 1884.

In the Grantee Indexes
In the indexes to buyers (grantees), I will look for James beginning in 1849. While he might have purchased land before he moved to Hancock County, Illinois, I am going to operate on the assumption that he did not purchase any land until he moved to the county. I will look in the records for a period shortly after James' death, but will not spend a great time searching these indexes for decades after his death. If James had owned property at his death and the deed had not yet been recorded, it is likely that the deed would have been recorded during the process of settling up his estate. While there are exceptions, this typically would have been within a few years of his death. If it were the case that James owned land upon his death, probate records should also be referenced.

In the Grantor Indexes
My approach to the sellers (grantors) index will be similar but slightly different. I'll start looking in 1849 (when James came to the county) and continue for several years after his death. The person to whom James sold the land would have been responsible for having it recorded. If James had sold land close to the time of his death, the deed might have been recorded several years after his death.

Before we continue, we'll look at how a typical deed in this jurisdiction (and many other jurisdictions for that matter) are indexed. We'll categorize the deeds by the number of buyers and sellers.

One Buyer -- One Seller
If James Rampley purchased land from John Smith, the deed would appear in the grantor index under John Smith and in the grantee index under James Rampley. That is it.

The simplest case of just one grantor and just one grantee typically does not present a problem in locating the record in the index. It is when there is more than one grantee or more than one grantor that locating the deed in the index can be more difficult.

Multiple Buyers or SellersLet's say that James Rampley sells land to two of his children, Riley and John. In this case the record will typically be indexed in the grantor index under James Rampley and in the grantee index under Riley Rampley and not under John Rampley. In many cases the deed will appear in each index once even though multiple buyers or sellers are listed. In this case, even though John is listed as a buyer on the deed he will not appear in the grantee index.

Why Do I Care?
Because one excellent deed record for genealogists is the deed that is sometimes drawn upon the death of the owner. This deed should list all the heirs to the property (especially if the person died without a will) and may provide clues as to their areas of residence. This deed may list several sellers, but may only appear in the grantor index once.

Let's say that after the death of James, his children all sell his remaining property. If they are listed on the deed as Martha Luft, Riley Rampley, John Rampley. etc., the deed will be indexed in the grantor index under Martha Luft. It might not appear in the grantor index under the name Rampley at all. If I am not aware of Martha's married name or am "not interested" in the other children of James except for my direct line (one of his sons), I may miss this informative record. This example makes an excellent point of the importance of searching for ancestral siblings in certain records, especially those records that are not indexed under the name of every party mentioned in the record.

Another Index
In public land states there may be another type of index.

This other finding aid is frequently referred to as the tract index. In some non-rural areas this index may be called an index to town lots or a lot index. These indexes are geographical in nature. This distinguishes them from the grantor/grantee indexes, which are alphabetical in nature. The geographic nature of this index may make its use more effective in certain situations. A tract index includes an index citation for every land record covering all or a part of a fairly specific geographic area.

Given the geographic nature of the tract index, it is necessary to know where the property is located as precisely as possible in order to use this finding aid. It is not as crucial to know the date the transfer of property took place. We'll discuss the tract index in two parts: rural areas and city or town lots.

Rural Areas
In rural areas, a tract index will typically cover a quarter section of property (160 acres) or in some cases an entire section (640 acres). This index will typically start with a reference the initial patent and continue to the most recent transactions. If an ancestral family owned a piece of property for several generations searching the tract index for their land records may be more effective than searching though individual grantor/grantee indexes over a one hundred year time period.

An example:
Let's say that an ancestral family owned 40 acres that was a part of the southwest quarter of section 24 in Prairie Township, Hancock County, Illinois. This farm was owned by family members for one hundred fifty years and there were several deeds and mortgages involving this property. All of these records will appear in the tract index for the southwest quarter of section 24 in Prairie Township. Of course, since the family did own the entire quarter section (they only owned 40 of the 160 acres) there will be land transactions referenced in the tract for other families and other pieces of property. However, this index will typically result in a more efficient search when the property's location is known.

Urban Areas
The process is similar in urban areas. The location of the property must be known and the lot or parcel index can be just as helpful as it is in rural areas. In some cases it can be more helpful.

In an earlier column, I discussed a lot in Davenport, Iowa, that was sold by the heirs of an estate in the 1890s. One of the questions posed at the end of the article was to determine how the deceased individual obtained the property. In this case, it was not certain how the individual had obtained the property and the name of her husband (who likely purchased the property) was not known. However, I had the exact location of the property.

Armed with the location of the property, I went to the "Index to town lots" that covered Lot No. 4 in Block Number 14 in G. C. R. Mitchell's Third Addition to the City of Davenport. There were only a handful of transactions on this lot from the time it was first subdivided. The search took about five minutes using the Index to Town Lots and the deed where Marie's likely husband purchased the property was quickly located. It would have taken me an entire afternoon using the grantee indexes.

Remember: The land transactions we are talking about are typically recorded at the county level. Most jurisdictions throughout the country have a grantor/grantee index. Not all have a tract index, but it is an option worth considering.