When Deed Books Are More Than Land Records

In Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records, author Patricia Law Hatcher, FASG, FGSP, spends a couple of pages on one of her favorite topics: “Records in Deed Books That Aren’t Deeds.”[1] Hatcher uses the example of Barren County, Kentucky, in which she found agreements, apprenticeships, bills of sale of personal property, bonds, contracts, deeds of gift, partitions, leases, manumissions, mortgages or securities, plats, powers of attorney, prenuptial agreements, and quitclaims, all scattered among deeds in deed books.

Hatcher gives specific examples of apprenticeships and prenuptial agreements, but her example from Union County, South Carolina, really got my attention. In 1819, John Hughley gave his nuncupative will[2] to Joseph McJunkin and Major Thomas Young, leaving his real estate to his son, Alexander. A separate document by the heirs and legatees confirmed the will, and a third document recorded a quitclaim by the widow and children to their rights in the land left to Alexander. All of this was recorded in a deed book.

Like Hatcher, I’ve found many instances of such records over the years. For example, Terri Bradshaw O’Neill made an unexpected discovery of 18th-century slave manumissions in New York Secretary of State deed books. Though only four manumissions were found among the deeds, a single record from that time period can affect thousands of researchers today. O’Neill published her findings in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record.[3]

In my personal research, a problem of relationship was solved by a power of attorney recorded in a deed book. I had theorized that Samuel Gregory (abt. 1755–1838) was the father of my third great-grandfather, John Gregory, and his siblings (Wesley, Rebecca, Samuel, Noble, Margaret, William, and James), whose relationships to one another had already been proven, but I had problems confirming that paternal theory.

In an attempt to establish a relationship, I collected over a hundred and fifty land records for Gregorys in Greene County, Pennsylvania; Miami County, Ohio; and Delaware County, Indiana. Those records showed which Gregorys migrated together, but did not indicate any specific relationship between any of them and Samuel. One power of attorney in a deed book, however, did. On 27 October 1836, Samuel Gregory of Morris Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania, “[did] make constute [sic] and appoint and in my place and stead put and depute my son Noble Gregory of the County and State aforesaid my true and lawful attorney for me. . . .”[4] In this instance, firmly identifying one child resulted in firmly confirming the entire family structure.

In perhaps my favorite example, Peter Wright of All Hallows London Wall leased and released land in Pennsylvania to Charles Hurst on 30 and 31 August 1769. In order to prove that he had a right to the land in question, he presented and recorded with the deed a “proof of pedigree,” including full and certified extracts of English Quaker records. Wright’s added records showed his descent from his maternal grandfather, Arent Sonmans, the original purchaser of the land. My article about this record and the Sonmans family appeared in the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine.[5]

Even if you think that your ancestors did not own land, avoid the trap of thinking “I don’t need to look there.” If a genealogical problem remains unsolved, but deed books have not yet been explored, you now know what your next research move is.


[1] Patricia Law Hatcher, Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2016), 38–40.

[2] A nuncupative will is a will given orally to witnesses, generally in expectation of imminent death.

[3] Terri Bradshaw O’Neill, “Manumissions and Certificates of Freedom in the New York State Secretary of State Deeds,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 139 (2008), 72–73.

[4] Samuel Gregory to Noble Gregory, power of attorney, 27 October 1836, Greene County [Pennsylvania] deed book 8, 1836–1839 (FHL #857,248), 358.

[5] Aaron Goodwin, “The Arent Sonmans Family: Peter Wright’s 1769 ‘Proof of Pedigree’ in Philadelphia Deeds,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 46 (2009), 113–127.

  1. February 27, 2018 5:46 am
    • March 4, 2018 5:02 pm
    • March 7, 2018 10:37 am
  2. March 2, 2018 2:16 pm
  3. March 19, 2019 6:45 pm

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