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UMass Amherst Libraries


A guide to selected genealogical resources at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library.


 Land records exist from the first permanent settlements in America. In Massachusetts, "the earliest known deeds were recorded shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620." Land records are among the best-preserved, largest, and most comprehensive genealogical record groups in the United States. Because land was inexpensive and readily available, 90% of adult free males were landowners before 1850.

Most land records consist of deeds and deed books. 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 addresses; 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 name appears. 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. Not all deeds concern the sale and purchase of real estate. Because slaves were once considered property, deed books may include records of the buying or trading of slaves. 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.

New England town records frequently include land transactions, but in most states land records are kept at the county level.

Two basic divisions of the fifty states exist for land records. The original Thirteen Colonies plus Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Vermont are State Land States. These states initially retained the rights to ownership and distribution of their land. State Land States divided property in a town system of lots and used the metes and bounds surveying system, a method which relied on natural landmarks to describe the property.

The remaining thirty states are Public Domain or Public Land States. They were formed from the public domain - land originally acquired and owned by the federal government. These states used a grid system of townships and sections to establish and identify property.

Genealogical researchers should check this website's Tax Records section since tax records are also part of land records.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Library owns numerous and varied examples of land records.