“Gimme an ‘N’!”: Using Neighbors To Solve Deed Dilemmas

There’s been much talk recently about the FAN club principle. While I won’t go into detail – for those that are not familiar with the concept, it is basically this: our ancestors did not exist in a vacuum. Just as we do now, they had Friends, Associates, and Neighbors (see how that spells ‘FAN’? Get it?) with whom they interacted, married, conducted business, and moved from place to place. Researching those connections may yield information that exclusively researching our direct ancestor may not. In the case of deed research, neighbors have a direct, physical connectedness to our ancestors regardless of whatever other connections between them may exist.  You can use this connectedness to help locate missing pieces of the puzzle.

In order to sell property, our ancestors must have somehow first acquired title to it.  Good research practices dictate accounting for the conveyance of each piece of property acquired, as well as the acquisition of each property conveyed. Sometimes there just isn’t a deed, and the answer to how that happened can be more complicated than can be addressed here. Other times, researchers assume that there isn’t a deed because they can’t find anything listed in the index. However, just because it is not found where we’ve looked in the index doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there. Here’s an example that demonstrates a simple way to expand that search for a missing transaction:

A recent project required finding a particular property in Palmyra, Portage, Ohio. The family name was Williams.  At the time, this area was predominantly Welsh. Common-surname research can often be confusing in any research, and if you’ve ever tackled Welsh research you’ll understand how many Williams, Jones and Davis families you’re likely to find to further complicate things. Even searching the index might be challenging, or at least time consuming in these cases.

Using the grantor (seller, sometimes called direct) index, I was able to locate the deed of interest fairly quickly: heirs of John T. Williams selling the property in 1919.  A thorough search of the grantee (buyer, or indirect) index, however, failed to reveal any purchase of the property.  From census records, I knew that the property was probably purchased between 1870, when John T. Williams was listed in his father-in-law’s household, and 1880 when he was listed as owning a home in the area in question.  I checked and re-checked the grantee entries for all Williams using the estimated date to help focus the index search, as well as  the township and lot number which were helpfully listed in this particular index.  No luck.

At this point, it was time to start pulling deeds to see what I could find. I copied the deed of the heirs selling the land, hoping for a chain of title that would tell me from whom and how/when the property was purchased. Again, no luck, but the deed did have a description of the property:

“..the north part of original surveyed lot number (16) sixteen  in the third division of lots in said township and bounded on the north by the north line of said lot; on the east by the east line of said lot; on the west by the west side of said lot; and on the south by the north line of a 50 acre tract formerly owned by Thomas Isaac Jones, containing forty-five acres of land.”

While this deed hadn’t given a chain of title, it revealed another possible path to get to the information  needed. I went back to the grantor index and located the deed for Thomas Isaac Jones. Mr. Jones sold his property in 1904 – 15 years before the Williams deed. In that deed, Jones’ property was bounded on the north by “the heirs of J.T. Williams.” The next step was to determine when Jones purchased his property, and who the neighbors were at that time.  I needed to go back to the grantee index. Unlike J.T. Williams, the deed in which Thomas Isaac Jones purchased this property was actually listed in the index.  I pulled the deed, which was dated April 1873. The property description read:

“Fifty acres of land in lot no. 16 of the third division of lots in said Palmyra township and is bounded on the north by lands of Elizabeth Davis…”

Now we are getting somewhere. From the above three deeds, we know that in 1873 when Jones bought his property, Thomas Isaac Jones and Elizabeth Davis were neighbors. By 1904, when the property of  Jones was sold, J.T. Williams was the neighbor on the former Elizabeth Davis property. The next, and this case, final step was to return to the grantor index and see if I could find a transaction for Elizabeth Davis. Sure enough – there it was, Elizabeth Davis to John T. Williams, 15 May 1876. As a side note – when John T. Williams widow and daughters sold the property in 1919 – it was sold to a nephew of the widow. There’s that FAN thing again.

If you take only one thing away from this post, I hope it is this: “Don’t give up when you can’t find it in the index” – whether it’s deed research, or some other kind of record. Use the clues of the people around your ancestor to further guide and refine your search.  We all know that neighbors love to gossip about each other. In genealogy,  we should listen to what they are telling us.

If you can manage to take two things away from this, take what I said up there plus this: “Deed research ain’t that bad.” And, yes, I know I just said “ain’t”.  But extolling the virtue of deed research is a soapbox for another day.

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