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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley


Land records are among the most robust, best-preserved, and comprehensive records groups in the United States. Among mostly White adult free males, 90% were landowners before 1850. These documents were made to record the history of enslavers and property owners, but can be used to find the stories of people of color in the United States. 

Most land records consist of deeds and deed books; they are typically housed in a county’s Registry of Deeds. A deed is a legal document by which title to real property is transferred from one party to another. The deed establishes ownership; describes the property; lists the sellers (grantors), buyers (grantees), and their community of origin, as well as (sometimes) their occupation; provides witnesses' names (who may be family members or neighbors); lists heirs of inherited property; and notes the consideration (monetary or otherwise). Deeds offer important clues to family relationships and may be the only records in which a wife's full name appears after marriage. Deeds place an individual in a particular locality at a specific time.

A deed book contains transcriptions of original deeds for a specific location during a particular time. Typically deeds are indexed by Grantor (seller) and Grantee (buyer). The index in the registry of deeds will usually provide the name of the community in which the property sits, the date of the transaction, and the book and page number in the record book where the contents of the transaction can be read. In the Connecticut Valley, since the whole Valley was at one time a single county (Hampshire), which was later subdivided with creation of Hampden (1812) and Franklin (1811; Berkshire County to the west was split off in 1761), the early records are likewise separated.


Not all deeds concern the sale and purchase of real estate; Deed books may also contain copies of indentures, cemetery lot sales, records of births, ownership of church pews, trust deeds (mortgages), powers of attorney, etc. These records dehumanize enslaved people but can be used in subversive ways by reading against the grain to recover the narratives of historically disenfranchised populations of people. 

Tax records can be used in conjunction with deed and land records to give a fuller picture of people’s belongings, status, and location.

Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS)

Research in land records can sometimes be productively combined with searches in the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS).  This database, maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, presents information on individual properties gathered by town historical commissions.  These forms can be searched by address, and by the names of historic occupants (though researchers should know that these forms only list the names of selected owners/occupants; it is more productive to access the forms by address and read the historic narratives there than to rely on the names included in the "title").

These forms are also productively consulted alongside the Reconnaissance Survey Town Reports, "produced for MHC’s Statewide Reconnaissance Survey between 1979 and 1987, introduce the historical development of each of the Commonwealth’s municipalities. Each report contains an historic overview, a description of topography, and political boundaries. Each report evaluates the town’s existing historic properties inventory, highlights significant historic buildings and settlement patterns, and presents threats to these resources. A bibliography lists key secondary resources."