Friday, May 28, 2010

Dear Randy: Where do I find "the good stuff?"

One of my readers, who is trying to learn genealogy research using online resources, sent an email last week asking for advice. She wrote:

" I have finally been able to find my way around a little more with all the basics. Family, births, deaths, Census and all that jazz and now I am ready for the good stuff but just do not know quite how to do it. Other than going to court houses back in home towns, just HOW do I find stuff on line about probate & wills and also property ownership. I do not have a clue as to where and how to start looking this kind of information up. Most of the US stuff for my families did not start until the mid 1880s when they immigrated over here from Norway and England so that is the time period I need to start with."

The basic question there is "how do I find stuff on line about probate and wills and property ownership."

The short answer is - you won't find much online about them, other than articles about "how to" search for them in repositories, and catalogs to help you find them in repositories. There are some counties with deed indexes and probate indexes online, and there are some books and pewriodicals with transcribed or abstracted deeds and probate records, but the online coverage is really spotty.

You are very wise to say you want to "find the good stuff" - land and probate records are golden opportunities to define residences, family property and family relationships. Here are my recommendations:

1) Learn more about these record types. Go to these sites and find online articles about land, property and probate records:

* The FamilySearch ResearchWiki at, and search for "land records" and "probate records." The United States Land and Property Portal has links to information about survey methods, to each state, and many more topics. Likewise, the United States Probate Records page has basic information and links to each state.

* The Learning Center has many articles that describe research in land and probate records. Go to the Article Archives page and search for "land records" and/or "probate records." Read some of the articles to gain information about how to do research both on site at courthouses and using the LDS Family History Library Catalog.

2) Consider purchasing these books for your genealogy library, or find them and read them at a genealogical library:

* E. Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City, Utah, Ancestry Incorporated, 1997).

* Christine Rose, Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (San Jose, California, CR Publications, 2004).

3) Learn to use the LDS Family History Library Catalog and find out if the FHL has land and probate records on microfilm that you could borrow at a Family History Center in your area. Each film rental costs about $6, but that is usually cheaper than travelling to and enjoying a week's stay at the Library in Salt Lake City (although the trip to the FHL should be a pilgrimage every genealogist should make).

* Go to the Place Search category, and input the county and state that you wish to research.

* You will receive a list of subjects that the FHL has available either on the shelf or on microfilm/microfiche. Check the Land Records subject and review their holdings. Check the Probate Records subject and review their holdings.

* The FHLC has microfilms for many counties for land records indexes and the actual land records. Order the Grantee (one who buys or receives land) and Grantor (one who sells or gives land) indexes. Find your surnames, or family members, on these indexes and note the names of the grantors and grantees, plus the volume and page number of the records. Next, order the films for the specific volumes and find the land records for those persons you wrote down. This may be a fairly long process if your people were active in land transactions in that county over many years. Also, don't stop at the death year of your ancestors - many deeds were not recorded until years after a person passed away - even up to a hundred years!

* The FHLC has microfilms for many counties for probate record indexes and the actual probate records. Order the Index and find your surnames, or family members, on the indexes and note the volume and page number(s) of the records. Then, order the films for the specific volumes and find the probate records for those persons you wrote down. This too may be a fairly long process if your people had contentious estate dealings.

* Note that most land and probate records in the FHLC microfilms end in the early 1900s.

4) For land and probate records after those covered in the FHLC microfilms, you will have to contact the local courthouses and either go to those counties or hire a local person to search the records for you.

* Obtain information for your counties of interest by using the site - obtain courthouse and other repository location, their open hours, and access limitations to records.

* You might put queries on the Rootsweb and GenForum message boards for the counties asking about "how to access" land and probate records on site. Local researchers will probably know more about the procedures and records availability than the owners of the USGenWeb county sites (many of them do not reside in the county oi interest).

* For more recent land and probate records, your counties of interest may have online access to indexes for these records, and perhaps the records themselves. They may permit you to obtain them for a fee payable over the Internet.

As you might guess, searching in offline genealogy resources takes a bit more time and out-of-pocket cost than online searches, but until the Family History Library gets all of these records digitized and indexed, the above process is how it has been performed in the past, and will be for the foreseeable future. If you can wait ten to twenty years for FamilySearch Indexing to work its magic so you can find these records online, then sit back and wait!

Good luck with your searches! I hope that this article has been helpful to you and other readers. My own experience with land and probate records is that they are valuable records to define property holdings and family relationships. They are original sources with primary information at the time of the events. They are often significant records that help prove relationships, and they provide avenues for further research because of the names of relatives, friends, associates and neighbors that are included in the records.

UPDATED: 5 p.m. Edited this a bit for clarity.


Sharon said...

Nice article Randy. I have found that many County Clerk websites are putting deeds/mortgages online -- often the full copies for free. Coverage varies depending on state and county. Some counties have nothing; others have full deeds back 100 years or more. Also some probate courts have estate indexes online. So be sure to check the websites for the deed and probate offices in the counties you are searching.


Unknown said...

Great Response Randy. Guess word is getting around as to where to get the quickest, most complete answers. I like the fact the reader gave you the location and time frame. I think this is the proper follow up question to" "where is the good stuff?".