One good way to separate your John Smith from other John Smiths is to locate him in a specific location. Coupled with age and spouse, it can really help to separate out people with the same name. Let’s assume you’ve discovered all of your ancestors up through your great-grandparents. You’ve identified all the children, maiden name of your great-grandmother, and birth and death dates at least within a range of dates based on the vital records and census records you’ve pulled and studied. You have a pretty good idea of where they lived, at least the county and precinct from the census. Now it is time to do a little research and find out where land records are maintained for that county and the boundary lines for that county at the time your ancestors lived there. I use a software program called AniMap which I have used for many years and find very helpful but these days you can also find some helpful websites that will help you document the boundary changes to your research county over time.
There are two reasons to understand boundaries for early ancestors. They did change, sometimes quite often. While your ancestor may appear in three different counties over thirty years, they may in actuality have been in the same location. The political boundaries changed, not your ancestor’s residence. The second is to place your ancestor on a map and be able to visualize what the geography looked like around them. Find old maps and look at where the roads were and how someone on foot or in a wagon would get to a particular location. An example from my own ancestry might help. My ancestors who settled in what is now northern Okaloosa County, FL had limited access east and west by road. Many of the folks who settled in Barrow’s Ferry were first in Alabama and dropped down to the upper Yellow River area. Once settled in Florida, Alabama was closer for business and some personal activities, at least until the roads were built, and they were likely more familiar with it. Because of that my great2-grandparents were married in 1840 in Andalusia, Covington Co, AL and not in Santa Rosa or Walton Co, FL. This while they lived in Walton Co, FL. You need to see the landscape as they had to deal with it. Genealogy is a bit like the 3D chess they used to play on Star Trek. It is multi-dimensional.
If they owned Florida land, they had to buy, homestead or receive as a reward for military service from the Federal government or buy from an individual. Transactions with the Federal government are online and the link can be found in the resources below. Spend some time on the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records website. Explore the reference center before you start researching if this is your first visit. When you click on “Land Patents” you will come to their search engine. There is a brief explanation on the page on searching that I won’t repeat here. A couple of pointers I’ve picked up over time that you might find helpful. Initially, if you are researching someone who may have served in one of America’s early wars and received a bounty warrant, research all states initially. Your ancestor might have received a warrant in another state and sold it. Names were often misspelled so if you don’t find your ancestor the first time, begin changing the spelling of the surname to other possibilities and try leaving off the given name. This will overwhelm you with a common surname but will work pretty well for less common names.
If you get a hit you believe is your ancestor, follow the link and look at the details and click on the button entitled “Patent Image” and download an image of the transfer document. If this was a homestead, you should order the homestead application file from NARA. If the transaction was a bounty warrant, you can order that file from NARA as well. Links are below. These files can contain details on the property and if a homestead application what your ancestor built on the property and other family details. In one of my ancestor’s homestead file, I finally had specific proof that his first wife, my great2-grandmother had died just before he completed the homestead process because he indicates that in the file. Since they lived in Holmes County and the majority of local early records for the county were lost in fires, this little piece of information helped to put more structure to the family.
Now we come to local land records. These are generally not online, at least for those records that are not current. So, researching them entails going to the courthouse or wherever the particular county keeps older land records. You can often find out where and how to research these records by searching online at the county’s website or visiting sites that aggregate information like Cyndi’s List. Some counties have digitized records back a decade or two but they may not be online but on an in-house system wherever the records are kept. These can be easier to search than the large books but I personally find meandering through the old books, if possible, to be useful. Sometimes you don’t know if you should look for something until you accidentally see it while you are meandering. It is like wandering in a cemetery and suddenly seeing a headstone for a name you recognize but weren’t looking for or had recently found in another record but hadn’t gotten around to putting detail to. If you haven’t had this happen yet, you will sooner or later. It is genealogy synchronicity.
Once you have exact locations for your ancestor’s property you can map it in Google Earth Pro. I use an inexpensive add-in called Earth Point. Their website provides a basic mapping for free or you can get the add-in for a small annual fee. This not only allows you to see where they were located in relationship to landmarks, such as rivers but allows you to glimpse what is there now and determine how to drive there and see it first hand. Google Earth Pro also allows you to overlay maps. Explaining this process is more detailed than I can do in a brief blog post but if you are interested in knowing more about Google Earth Pro capabilities and other ways to map your ancestor’s property, I would recommend a brief course provided by Family Tree Magazine’s University entitled Google Earth for Genealogists. You will come away knowing a lot more about what you can do with Google Earth. It is an excellent genealogy tool.
Next up we will explore probate records, the most underused genealogy resource.
See you next week.
- Animap website
- BLM Glorecords website
- NARA website for ordering homestead and bounty warrant files
- Cyndi’s List website
- Earthpoint website
- Family Tree Magazine University
- Google Earth Pro download
- Land and Property Research in the United States by E. Wade Hone
- Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures by Christine Rose