Find Ancestors in Upper Canada Land Records

How many of us overlook searching for an ancestor in land records? Sometimes genealogists don’t realize how much information can be found in a land record. Originally all land in Upper Canada (later called Canada West, then Ontario) belonged to the Crown. Although there were small areas of settlement in 1763 after the British took over, major settlement of Upper Canada began in 1783 and utilized Crown Grants. Many early settlers, both military and civilian, submitted land petitions to the Governor in order to obtain Crown land.

The following steps were involved in a settler acquiring land in Upper Canada:

  1. To apply for a land grant from the Crown, he (or she) may have submitted a petition to the Crown (further explanation below under Crown Land Grants).
  2. If the petition was successful, the Crown issued a land grant to the petitioner. It was a complex process to receive a land grant.
  3. If the settler took up residence on the land and fulfilled certain settlement duties, he or she ended up owning the land. In that case the settler was issued a patent, showing that the ownership of the land had passed from the Crown to a private individual.
  4. If there were any later transactions relating to that property (e.g., sale to another individual, taking out a mortgage on the property, etc.), they were documented in the records of the county Land Registry Offices.

Free Grants of Crown Land

Until 1826 free land grants were available to all settlers, to government favourites, and to United Empire Loyalist (UEL) children. In 1826 these free grants were abolished except for Loyalist grants and soldiers, thus anyone wanting Crown land had to buy it. 

Land Petitions

There were two types of land petitions:

  • pre-1827 petitions for free grants of land under the UEL and military categories
  • post-1827 petitions for purchase of Crown lands 


1797 Upper Canada Land Petition. Library Archives Canada


The Canada Company

Settlers could also buy lands from the Canada Company, a private company owning all of the Huron District. These records are held at the Archives of Ontario. All land sales after the initial Crown grant were registered with local land registry offices. 

Crown Land Grants

Procedures for granting Crown Land changed constantly but could involve:

  • The settler's initial Petition to the Crown for land
  • An Order-in-Council from a federal Land Board granting their request
  • A Warrant from Ontario's Attorney General ordering the surveying of a lot
  • The Fiat from Ontario Surveyor General authorizing a grant of the surveyed lot
  • A Location Ticket permitting the settler to reside on the lot
  • The Patent transferring ownership of the lot from the Crown to the settler.

CLRI (Computerized Land Record Index)

The Computerized Land Record Index (aka Ontario Land Record Index) summarizes land grants of Crown Land, sales of land from Canada Company sales or leases and from Peter Robinson settlers' grants. If your ancestor settled anywhere in Ontario and he was the first time owner of Crown Land, he should be on this index. 

Heir & Devisee Commission

In 1797, the government of Upper Canada (now Ontario) established the Heir and Devisee Commission to clarify land titles for settlers on unpatented land. If your ancestor was living in Upper Canada around this time, there is a chance that you might find them referenced in this collection. Records can include: affidavits, bonds, location certificates, powers of attorney, orders-in-council, copies of wills, mortgages, deeds of sale, and testimonial letters. The digitized films are challenging to search but for a corrected list of online digitized film numbers with their contents, see Olive Tree Genealogy’s Heir & Devisee Commission Microfilm Listings.

LFT HDV74H1146CorneliusVOLLICK 1795 copy
Heir & Devisee Commission, 1795.

Abstract Indexes to Deeds

The Abstract Indexes to Deeds are the indexed record of every transaction on a plot of land from Crown ownership to the present day. Using the Abstract Indexes to Deeds you can check for every instance of your name of interest on that parcel of land. By referring to the date and Instrument Number found with each transaction, you can look up the complete record. You may find a will (many wills are filed in the Land Records Offices) or other important genealogical information or document. 

Assessment Records

Assessment and Tax Records contain location of an individual's land. There are some very early assessment records, but each area in Ontario has different surviving records, so you must check for the county or township of interest to you. 

Township Papers

Township Papers deal mostly with the original locatees, but may contain other pre-patent records. Some petitions for land can be found in the Township Papers. This miscellaneous group of land-related records have been arranged by township name, then by concession and lot or by town name and lot number. Under any lot which has documents, researchers may find the following: copies of orders-in-council; copies of location certificates and location tickets; copies of assignments; certificates verifying the completion of settlement duties; copies of receipt; copies of descriptions; and copies of patents; and copies of incoming correspondence. See Finding Aid to Township Papers

Other Resources for Land Records

Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

My Grandfather was a Sea Captain: Researching Maritime Ancestors

Learning about seafaring ancestors can prove to be as exciting as the adventures of many who crossed oceans to destinations around the world. My great, great, grandfather, Owen O’Neill, was born off the coast of South America aboard his Irish father’s frigate. After courting his wife in Boston, Owen sailed his family to California. From the 1850s until his death in 1871, he piloted a cargo ship that traversed daily from San Francisco to Belmont, California.

Clipper ship-LOC
 N. Currier, Clipper Ship "Red Jacket" off Coast of Cape Horn.
Image from the  Library of Congress.

Many men of his time living near ports were employed in the maritime industries. The importance of the maritime industry led to the creation of records that, in many cases, have discoveries waiting for genealogists. With the right know-how, any researcher can re-tell the tale of their sea captain.

Many resources exist at the National Archives that remain only partially digitized. The Act of 1789 by the United States Government mandated that private seagoing vessels be officially recorded by the government. As a result, 100 district offices throughout the country were established for the agency of the U.S. Customs Collection Service. The U.S. Customs Service became responsible for recording information on vessels and their contents. Ships arriving at port were directed to the local customhouse. The customhouse was operated by the collector and his subordinate officers who collected details on the arriving ships. Among the records produced at the customhouse are:

  • Arrival and Departure of American Merchant Ships
  • Seamen and Marine Passenger Protection Certificates
  • Names of Owners and Masters of a Ship
  • Crew Lists
  • Names of Officials at the Customhouse
  • Manifests of Cargo on Board

Records of United States customhouses are located in National Archives Record Group 36, Records of the U.S. Customs Service. There are collections of passenger and crew lists that are digitized and searchable on Ancestry. These lists mostly come from Record Group 85, Bureau of Immigration. More federal records are accessible to researchers online if the seafaring ancestor in question served in the Navy.

While the National Archives has a majority of these records, some maritime collections were deposited with public libraries and local history repositories before the National Archives was created in 1934. Here are a few examples of maritime records from local history collections that are FREE to search:

Researchers new to these records will come across unusual terms. Here are definitions of some important terms to help your research:

    Before documents could be obtained for a vessel, it had to be measured. These certificates show name of ship builder and name of owner.

    Each certificate shows date of issue, name of seaman, his age and nationality and a brief physical description. These persons were required to give oaths of citizenship that were signed by witnesses.    

  • DRAWBACK           
    Historically the word drawback denotes refunding the tax on goods to the master of the ship importing goods. The rationale for drawback was to encourage American commerce and manufacturing.     

  • DUTIES         
    Same as tax.

  • GAUGER      
    A customs official who inspects dimensions of bulk goods subject to duty.

    Lists of cargo.

    Certificates protecting seamen from being impressed by foreign entities.

  • SHIPPING ARTICLES                     
    Agreements between masters of vessels and seamen on contract of the voyage. After the general agreement, they include the seamen’s signature, age, nationality, personal description, birthplace, address, and information on next of kin.

Genealogists should prepare in advance for searching these records. Many are not indexed and will require looking for multiple boxes of archival material. You will have greater success if you know name of the ship and the home port. Historical newspapers may contain information on your ship-owning ancestor. Court and probate records are also worth checking because boats are important property. Save time by confirming that your ancestor had a maritime job by checking the US Federal Census 1850 or later to determine your ancestor's occupation.

Finding Maritime ancestors can be a great surprise, but learning details about their lives is even better. If someone asked me to research the career of Captain Joseph Peabody of Salem, Massachusetts, I would use Records of The Customs Service in the District of Salem and Beverly to find what ships he mastered, where he imported goods, whom he worked with, and so many great details that would otherwise be overlooked.

Do you have any maritime ancestors in your family history? Share your ancestor's maritime stories here!


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. He received his Bachelor Degree for History in 2013 and is now researching genealogy professionally. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy  since high school using his blog page Travelogues of a Genealogist.



Have You Used this Unusual Genealogy Resource?

Funeral and Memorial Cards are often overlooked as a genealogy resource. They can be a treasure trove for the genealogist as they usually contain detailed information on the deceased person, such as birth and death dates, funeral location and burial location. Sometimes a memorial photo of the departed loved one is also found on the card.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, small memorial cards or invitations were often sent to inform friends and neighbours that someone had died. These cards were seen as an invitation to a funeral as well as a funeral notice. If the deceased was someone of great importance, the card usually had to be shown in order to attend the funeral.  Funeral and Memorial cards are a genealogical treasure.

Funeral Cards in the 19th Century

In Victorian times (ca 1837-1901) mourning customs were comprised of rituals and strict rules of etiquette and these were rigidly followed by most individuals. Mourning and funeral rituals were quite strict and anyone who did not wish to be ostracized tried to follow the social customs. This was the time period when mourning jewellery became popular and custom jewellery containing a lock of the deceased person's hair was often made for a widow to wear.

Funeral_Card_Black1896 copyFuneral Card 1896. From private collection of Brian Massey.

Funeral cards were very popular in the 19th Century. After a loved one died, a family member was expected to let others know of the time and date of the funeral. That is where Funeral Cards came in.

The deceased's love ones could order from dozens of styles of cards and have them imprinted with the deceased's name, date of birth and death, age and when and where the funeral was to be held. Often a standard verse was included.

Sometimes there was a photo of the deceased or an image such as an angel if the card was for a child. These cards were usually 4x6 inches and viewed vertically. A commonly used colour was black with gold lettering. A child's Funeral Card was usually white. 

Funeral_Card_White_Child_1902 Child's Funeral Card 1902. From private collection of Brian Massey.

After printing, funeral cards were sent or given to family members, friends, and the surrounding community. Recipients of a funeral card were expected to attend the funeral or risk offending family members. Conversely, those who did not receive an invitation would have been insulted, whether it was intentional or an oversight. 

Funeral cards were sometimes kept as a memento of a person's passing. They often turn up in antique stores, auctions, flea markets, or attics where they have been stored and forgotten.

Memorial Cards

Memorial cards did not have the same purpose as a funeral card. These small cards were sent out after the funeral and often contained more details of the burial location as well as a memorial to the deceased. Usually the name of the person as well as birth and death dates and location of death were included. These cards were usually 3 x 4 1/2 inches and viewed horizontally. They often had elaborate mortuary designs. Often a thick black border was used on Memorial Cards. If there was enough room a poem or verse might be added. 



Memorial_Card_Ada1919_3Small folded 4-sided Memorial card 1919.
From private collection of Brian Massey.

20th Century Cards 

By the 20th Century these Memorial and Funeral cards were out of style and Victorian rules of etiquette were rapidly changing. The cards evolved into other designs, usually a folded 4-sided vertical Memorial Card given out at the Funeral. A photo of the deceased and a great deal of genealogical information was usually included. 

Today's Memorial or Funeral Cards can come in a variety of designs and shapes. They might be bookmarks, or a card similar to a Sympathy card. Families can have their card of choice printed through the Funeral Home or a Printing House. Often a photo of the deceased or of something of significance to that person is included. A poem or religious verse is often added. Some Memorial cards are religious in design and will have religious symbols and relevant religious or biblical verses included.

Funeral and Memorial Card Resources for Genealogists

Genealogists can look for Funeral and Memorial cards at flea markets, in Antique stores and on E-Bay. There is also a large collection of these cards on the AncestorsAtRest website. They are free to search and view at the links below:

Funeral Cards on

Memorial Cards on

Funeral Cards on Cyndi's List

Historical Funeral Card Collection from the American-French Genealogical Society

Funeral Card Collection of the Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana

Marsha Smiley African-American Collection: Memorials

Genealogists can also find Funeral Cards at the Subscription website Genealogy Today.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.

5 Online Places to Start Your Southern Genealogy Research

Research in the South can be both challenging and rewarding. Historically, the southern states’ culture and economy have been deeply rooted in agriculture. As an agrarian society, many areas were not meticulous in keeping records. When living on farms any significant distance from the courthouse, taking care of business at home took precedence over a lengthy trip to the courthouse. Births and deaths might not be recorded until months or years later. Deed transfers within the family might not be formalized for a generation. As a researcher of the American South, it is imperative to understand the agrarian way of life.

Another challenge for the Southern researcher is burned counties.  Many counties have lost records over the years to fire and/or natural disasters.  Certainly the Civil War played a role in the loss of courthouse records. While research in a burned county can present a brick wall for the researcher, the brick wall is not insurmountable.

Don’t despair! Research of your southern ancestors will still be a rewarding experience.  

Richardson familyDaniel T. Richardson of Pittsylvania County, VA - ~1906 (Source: Personal Collection of Lisa Talbott Lisson)

5 Online Places to Find Your Southern Ancestors

  1. The State Archives – More and more records are becoming available online for the genealogy researcher.  A good place to start is with the state archives where your ancestors lived. Each state will have its own unique holdings. For example, if you have North Carolina ancestors, visit the State Archives of North Carolina website. You will be able to search their holdings and explore their digital collections. Examples of what you will find include family Bibles, Civil War Pension Applications, and War of 1812 Pay Vouchers.  The State Library and Archives of Florida’s Florida Memory Collection is another good example of using a state archives’ available online records. On their site a sample of what you will find includes Spanish land grants, WWI Service Cards and Civil War Pension Applications.

  2. State and Local Genealogical Societies – The amount of information found on state and local genealogical societies will vary quite a bit. The information is usually provided by the society’s volunteers.  Still, be sure to check these societies for where your ancestor lived. Depending on the individual society, variable local records will be available. For example, transcripts of individual will and deeds might be found. Photographs of local residents and landmarks are another example that may be found. Some of the information may only be available to the society’s members while others are available to the general public. These sites are certainly worth a look.

  3. Documenting the American South (DocSouth) – The University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) sponsors this online resource for southern history, cultural and literature. Among its collections are first person narratives of slaves, women, farmers and soldiers. Other collections include personal diaries and papers relating to the Civil War and slave narratives. DocSouth is an invaluable resource for any southern researcher.

  4. The Library of Virginia – While obviously focused on the records of Virginia, many southern families of other states such as Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama can trace families back to Virginia.  The LVA website is also a valuable resource for learning about the southern culture and way of life.

  5. The Digital Library on American Slavery – If you have African American ancestry, this site sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is an excellent place to visit. Many slave deeds, runaway slave advertisements and slavery era insurance records may be found here.

Remember: For all the excellent records available online, there are many more that are not. To be complete in your research, sometimes you need to travel to a repository or use the assistance of a local genealogist.

Now…. Go grab a tall glass of iced tea and start exploring your southern roots!

You can learn more about southern genealogy research in these Legacy webinars:

Lisa Lisson is a genealogist, blogger and Etsy-prenuer who writes about her never-ending pursuit of ancestors, the “how” of genealogy research and the importance of sharing genealogy research with our families. Specializing in North Carolina and southern Virginia research, she also provides genealogical research services to clients. You can find Lisa online at Lisa

Ancestor's Picture in the Newspapers? Three Steps to an Amazing Photograph

I found a genealogy gold mine in the newspaper this week. And then with a little creativity and a couple of good contacts, I doubled my findings.

First, I used my favorite newspaper subscription site,, and found an article about an ancestor I have been researching. The article had lots of goodies for me, but none greater than the photographs of Cullen Brown, his sister Fannie Brown, and his wife Helen Goshaw. Here's their three pictures in the context of the February 19, 1905 edition of The Duluth News Tribune.


I've been researching Helen Goshaw as a potential main character for my next edition of Legacy Unlocked! and never imagined I'd find her photograph. Here's a zoomed-in and cropped image of Helen:


Then I started to get greedy. Or maybe creative is a better word. While the photograph find was priceless, I wondered if I could get a better copy of it. Without, I never would have found the picture, and so thanks again to them! But I wanted better quality. That's when I contacted Robert of the Twin Cities Legacy User Group. I asked if he would visit the Minnesota Historical Society (such an amazing place!), locate the newspaper (either the original or the microfilm edition), and snap a digital image of it for me. To my surprise, he responded to my email within minutes (thanks again Robert!) and said he would try to fulfill my request the next day when he was scheduled to be at their library.

The following day he emailed me the digital photographs he took of the microfilmed edition of the Duluth News Tribune. Look at Helen's picture:



Most people would be thankful enough already, but I had one more idea. I contacted my friend, Miles Abernathy of and asked if he could do anything more with Helen's photograph. Again - minutes later I received a response (talk about instant genealogical gratification!) that he would see what he could do. Two days later he sent this:


Stunning, isn't it!

I guess the only thing better would be to find the original photograph in one of their descendant's photo albums. Yet without it, I am very pleased with what I have found. Thanks again to, Robert, and to And thanks to Cullen and Helen for sneaking out of the house (and out of the county) to get married back in 1905. And thanks to Cullen's sister for doing the exact same thing just months earlier. It made for a story good enough to get their pictures in the newspaper! If any of my kids try this, they'll find their picture in the Obituaries.


Looking Past Land and Probate Records

by Marian Pierre-Louis

Following my recent blog post Bring Down Those Brick Walls! I received this response from Elizabeth:

"There has been a lot of discussion lately about land and probate use. The conversations make the assumption that everyone either owned land or had a will. This is not the case for most people who lived in non-rural areas. My family members have lived in the New York City area for more than a few generations. They were always tenants. The first real-property on both sides of the family was purchased by my parents in the 1950s and they were the first to have wills. So my brick walls will not benefit from this discussion. Believe me I have looked. How about some suggestions for the rest of us?"

Let's see if we can come up with some suggestions for Elizabeth.


New York State Census, 1865 from

Before we start, I need to point out that I don't have two very important pieces of information: the time period in which Elizabeth is having trouble or the specific county in New York City where her ancestors lived. We also need to mention that New York nearly invented the phrase "Brick Wall!" New York suffers from a dearth of extant records making it one of the hardest states to research in.

New York City is made up of five boroughs in five separate counties: Bronx in Bronx County, Brooklyn in Kings County, Manhattan in New York County, Queens in Queens County and Staten Island in Richmond County. Research strategies may vary depending on where your ancestors lived.

Since we are talking about bringing down brick walls I'm making the assumption that research has already been done on low hanging fruit such as US Federal census records and vital records. One place you might want to start, if you haven't already are the New York State Census records. These are available for free on for the years 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.

The census records list the individual names of family members, place of birth, ages and occupations along with some other details. The 1905, 1915 and 1925 census even list the street address. (Please note that some of the record images are viewable on while others require a subscription to to view the original image.) If your ancestors are New York-born, the 1855, 1865 and 1875 censuses will tell you what county they were born in. That may be critical in guiding you to new locations to focus your research.

When dealing with tenants, non-land owners, I would head straight for city directories. On I found a database called New York City City Directories that starts as early as 1836 and as late as 1947. Unfortunately, Ancestry doesn't list which specific years are covered in the database so don't consider those years as hard and fast. If you can find your ancestor in a city directory then you can locate their neighborhood. Armed with information about their neighborhood you can try to establish which place of worship they frequented. Start by selecting churches or temples within two square miles of your ancestors' homes. If you can't find the records online then contact the churches or temples directly asking for information about your ancestors.

Another wonderful resource for New York City ancestry is the Italian Genealogical Group website. Despite the title's focus on Italian records they actually have transcribed many New York City records, regardless of ethnicity. Be sure to search their databases for information on your ancestors.

If you still haven't found anything new about your ancestors then it is time to seek some research guidance help. Right from within the Legacy Family Tree software you get can specific suggestions about your ancestors. The software will suggest specific record groups as well as county histories and collections to search.

Another resource you should try if you haven't already, is the Family Search Wiki. This resource has extensive information on New York City research. Wherever possible it links directly to the record groups mentioned.

Thomas MacEntee's webinar and Legacy QuickGuide provide many clues and strategies for researching your New York ancestors that you may not have thought of.

And lastly, you should definitely refer to the recently published New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. This 840 page work provides a comprehensive look at New York records and resources.

In terms of specifically bringing down brick walls, an effective strategy is to seek examples by others who have already solved challenging research problems in the same location where you are having trouble. The two main publications I would focus on are the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. Search these publications for example articles that cover the same county where your ancestors lived. Learn how the authors solved their problems and look at the footnotes to see what records they used.

African American research, regardless of location, can be some of the toughest research to unravel. For this reason well-documented narratives can provide a great source of inspiration or information regardless of your race. Check out a book like Black Gotham by Carla Peterson and pay close attention to the records she used to document her ancestors.

Finally, you will likely have to dip into manuscripts and special collections to find information about particularly stubborn ancestors. Luckily you have one of the most incredible resources right in your local area - the New York Public Library. Start online by reviewing the Research section of their website. You will find links to special collections and manuscripts as well as online articles, databases and digital collections. When searching for your ancestors in special collections expand your search beyond their names to include their neighborhood, their churches and their ethnicity. While your ancestors are likely not indexed by name, this broader search will bring you to information about their community.

Hopefully this article has provided you will some new suggestions for researching challenging New York City ancestors. If not, then I would suggest joining a local genealogical or historical society in your county of interest. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society provides and extensive list of organizations on their website.

If anyone else has any suggestions for Elizabeth, please leave them in the comments. Good luck and let us know if you make any progress!

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

Bring Down Those Brick Walls!

By Marian Pierre-Louis

Genealogists like a good challenge. Brick walls are the ultimate challenge. We may love them or hate them but they keep up researching actively for years, sometimes even generations, in an attempt to break them down.

Image from [New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971," images, FamilySearch (,221584701 : accessed 25 April 2015), Jefferson > Wills 1848-1854 vol 1-2 > image 96 of 655; county courthouses, New York.]

As many of you know, one of the best places to learn how to break down brick walls is in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ). The NGSQ is a journal provided to members of the National Genealogical Society. This publication is geared toward teaching genealogists how to solve difficult research problems.

After you read a few issues of the NGSQ you'll notice a pattern. Many of the articles are focused on using probate and land records. If you're serious about solving challenging genealogical problems then probate and land records should be your go-to sources of information.

Traditionally, more casual genealogists have shied away from using land and probate records. That's because these records have been hard to access. Most of them haven't been digitized. They have been available via microfilm but it could mean ordering many films in order to get all the indexes and relevant record years you might need. The other challenge is the courts themselves. They are typically open working hours - nine to five, Monday to Friday. For folks who can't take time off of work this has posed a great challenge.

Working with deeds and probate can be a real challenge too. Probate records may be found in copybooks with each document filed chronologically. That could mean pulling up to ten books if the probate of an estate dragged on for many years. On the flip side, you may be given a file with all the original "loose papers" from the probate settlement. Many genealogists are left confused by the volume and variety of the documents and are left wondering what they all mean.

Land records can be easy to work with if you have a specific book and page number but if you don't it means wading through index volumes that themselves can be challenging to decipher. And when you have an ancestor who bought a lot of properties, it can be difficult to sort out which individual piece of property is the one where the homestead was located.

Before you get discouraged and give up on the thought of using probate and land records, know that you have an ally in your corner. Over the last year or two has been working diligently to get these records online. With online access, you can take some free time over a weekend to figure out these records and then reap the rewards of the genealogical treasure that they hold.

Perhaps the most beneficial set of probate and land records that has put online is the one for New York state. Anyone with New York ancestors knows that researching there is an exercise in hope and patience. digitized and made available online for free two databases: New York, Land Records, 1630-1975 and New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971.

The most important thing you need to know about these databases is that they are not indexed. Having them available online without having to order microfilm or to travel to the local courthouse makes the extra effort worth it. Eventually, in time, the records will likely get indexed. In the meantime, the index books themselves have been digitized and the images placed online. What you will do is to go through the effort that you would in the courthouse. First search through the index books to find your ancestors and then go to the specific books referencing the corresponding book and page numbers that you found.

The New York land and probate records are organized by county. Locate your county and start drilling down alphabetically by last name and by time frame. Each county will be slightly different, both in how the records are indexed and in what years are covered. Once you get used to the records in one county don't presume that you will be able to follow the same system in another county. It could be completely different and you'll find that you have to invest time into learning how the next county organizes its records.

New York records are not the only land and probate files you'll find on Here are some others for you to explore:

Massachusetts, Land Records, 1620-1986
Vermont, Land Records, Early to 1900
United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908
California Probate Estate Files, 1833-1991
Texas, Probate Records, 1800-1990
New Jersey, Probate Records, 1678-1980
Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990
Tennessee, Probate Court Books, 1795-1927
Pennsylvania, Probate Records, 1683-1994

To find other locations, search for your desired location in the Historical Records section on the website.

If you're still not sure whether your target region or province has land or probate records online, then head for the Family Search Wiki. On the main page, type your location and probate or land records. For instance, try North Dakota probate. The first result will be North Dakota Probate Records which explains all about those records and where to find them. Want to find land records in Queensland, Australia? Typing Queensland Land Records will bring you to an article on Australia Land and Property.

Have you ever tried searching land or probate records before? Did you have any trouble figuring out how to make the most of them? If you have any questions, post them here in the comments and I will answer them in an upcoming blog post. 

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

New England Town Records Demystified

by Marian Pierre-Louis


Medway, Massachusetts Town Record book, 1811. From's Holbrook Collection (Medway Town Records, image 352).

Last week I wrote about how to Navigate Local Town Hall Research, specifically vital records such as birth records. Before leaving the topic I'd like to explore the different types of  New England Town Hall records.

Often when people think of Town Hall records they either think of vital records (births, marriages and deaths) or they conjure up the image of the old time chronological town records where all the information was kept in one book.

The truth is New England town records are more complicated than that. There are four  important concepts you need to understand. First, there is no one set type of record book. In fact, there are many. Second, the record books and how information is recorded will be different depending on the time period. Third, all those original record books might not be "original." Last, not all town record books are currently found in the town hall.

Original town record books

Let's tackle the issue of original town record books first. New England records started to be recorded in some part of New England in the 1620s. That's nearly 400 years ago. Over the course of that time books have gotten damaged, gone missing or been exposed to flood or fire. As a result, over the years some Town Record records have been copied into new books. In some case, this is to preserve older copies and in other cases it was to make information more accessible.

The key thing to check for is the handwriting of the information. Is chronological information all in the same handwriting with the same color or "weight" (heavy or light) of the pen? True original records should have been written as the events happened and therefore each entry should look slightly different. Is there a note at the front of the book explaining provenance? Some town clerks will make a note at the front of the book as to when the records were copied and by whom.

There  is nothing wrong with using town record books that are not originals. They may still be very old! You simply need to be aware that any derivative copy may have introduced errors. So be on the alert if anything looks incorrect. If it does, scan the page (or several pages) from top to bottom and see if you can discover where the town clerk went amiss.

Types of Record Books

There are and were many different types of Town Hall record books. The oldest books were often chronological records containing every bit of town record information from votes to taxes to births, marriages and deaths and even animal markings. The details were written as they happened but be aware that no blank space was spared. Some information will be written in the margins and if a book ran out of space, a Town Clerk might go back to find an empty spot to cram in some later information. Therefore be on the lookout for information tucked away in unusual spots. These town record books are the least likely to be digitized (though they are microfilmed) or indexed.

As the years went by and town government became more organized, individual record books were introduced. You will find separate books for town business and vital records. You many also find books for marriage intentions completely separate from recorded marriages.

Some books you may never have heard of such as warning out books (where non-residents were warned against attempting to settle in town) and strangers taken in books (where residents had to notify the town if a non-resident was staying with them for a longer period of time).

There were also poor records, tax books and accounts books listing all the financial transactions of the town. The accounts books are a particular treasure because they might make reference to payment for grave diggers or coffin makers for deaths that otherwise went unrecorded.

Some town halls, particularly in states like Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, where information is recorded at the town level rather than the county level also have deeds and probate records.

How information is recorded

You are most likely familiar with census records. You know that the oldest census records hold the least amount of information and as you come forward in time, you find greater details. Town record books are like that as well. There are three basic types of recorded information: long form chronological text, register style and certificate style.

The earliest records were written long form with little separation by topic except perhaps by headers or a note in the margin. In the 1800s register style took over. Here you find information such as births, marriages and deaths in a list with many people on one page. The information is standardized into  columns. As we head into the 20th century, life event information is recorded certificate style in individual certificates such as a modern birth or death certificates.

Finding Town Records Books

You would think that all town record books are located in the local town hall but that is not the case! Some record books were moved so that they could be better protected or preserved. Other books were moved, such as account books, because they were no longer deemed critical by town clerks. You will often find these books in the care of the local historical society or the historical room of the local library. To find them, check online card catalogs when you can, call the historical society or ask the town clerk.

In other, more unusual cases, town record books might be found in the home of the local town clerk. This is a very old fashioned practice which is not the case in most places. However, some very small rural towns may not have a lot of space and therefore the books get moved to make room for modern records.

If you'd like to learn more about New England Town Records here are some further resources:

Benton, Josiah Henry. Warning Out in New England. Boston: W.B. Clarke Company, 1911.

Friend, Esther L. “Notifications and Warnings Out: Strangers Taken Into Wrentham, Massachusetts, Between 1731 and 1812.” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register Vol. 141(1987): 179-188. [This provides a good summary of "strangers" before getting into the detailed Wrentham information.]

Gutman, Robert. “Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts. I. The Colonial Background, 1639-1800.” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly Vol. 36, No.1 (Jan. 1958): 58-74

Herndon, Ruth Wallis.  Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Lainhart, Ann S. Digging for Genealogical Treasure in New England Town Records. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996.

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.

Navigate Local Town Hall Research

by Marian Pierre-Louis

The ease of accessing documents online is indisputable and a great advancement to genealogical research. I have to admit, though, that I still prefer to research in original record books. Perhaps it's my location here in New England. We are blessed with local records still kept in their original town or city.

When I research people from my local town I can access vital records online from databases on the website, or More often than not I prefer to drive two miles up the road to my local town hall and see the records for myself.

The records held at the town (or city) level are the originals. Copies are sent to the state level and are recorded in copybooks. The data contained in the two sets of records can vary. For instance, for a birth record, the local copy may include the mother's maiden name whereas the state copy will likely leave that off.

There are challenges, however, to working in original records. The records are not indexed electronically so you can't type in a name and have the record you want suddenly appear. There are still indexes but you have to use them the old fashioned way - you need to look them up in the index book. That will give you the volume and page number you need to refer to in the original record volumes. If you have many vital records to look up it could take quite an effort finding the references in the index book(s) and then locating each book you need for the records. Of course, if you are researching in a very short time frame you may be lucky enough to find all the records you need in one book.

Another challenge is the handwriting. On the major database sites you can still view the original records and handwriting but you have the advantage of having someone else read and index the records for you ahead of time. All you have to do is verify the handwriting against what has been indexed in the record. You're on your own in a town hall. You will not likely find help or handwriting expertise from the local staff.

You have to be meticulous when researching in local records so as not to introduce typos in your notes. You could waste time if you transpose or write down the wrong volume and page number for a record. After spending considerable time looking for a record you can't find, you'll be forced back to the index to check your notes again and to discover where you made your error.

You'll also have to be very careful to copy down all the information you find in the record accurately. In addition to the handwriting, you'll want to make sure you don't introduce any errors in your transcriptions.

The last thing you'll want to be very careful about is collecting the information for your citation. Original record books may not have pages numbers so it is easy to forget that you need determine the page number and write it down. Also, the title of the book may only be on the spine. It's easy to forget to record that too!

Here's what I do to ensure a successful trip to the local town hall:

1) Photograph the actual record book (if you are allowed to do this). Pose the book at an angle so that you can see both the spine and the cover. If the inside of the book has a title page be sure to photograph that too. I actually do this whenever I do onsite research (even for modern books), at libraries and archives so that I can gather the citation information.

2) Make a chart BEFORE you go to the archives that will contain all the information you will be recording. If you are unfamiliar with the records, you may have to guess what items the records will include. For instance, if you are recording a birth record, make a chart that includes the name of the child, the father's name, the mother's name, the birth date, birth location and parent's residence. Be aware that different information will be available in different time periods. The farther back you go the less information you will find. In my Plan Your Way to Research Success webinar I referred to these as data collection sheets (Legacy members can find it in the webinar library).

What type of chart you make is up to your personal preference as well as the restriction of the town hall you will be visiting. Some places will let you bring in a computer. If that is the case you may want to keep your chart in a program like MS Word or Excel. Also consider whether there will be internet access. You might not be able to use internet or cloud resources until you get back to your home or hotel. If the town hall only lets you use paper and pencil be sure you print out a copy of your chart before you leave.

3) Create a citation template. I like to use the book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills to determine what information I should collect. For a birth record in a vital record register (list style as opposed to individual certificates) I can find examples on page 426 of her book. I will then type out the citation using the information I already know and put XXs for the information that will be collected during the visit. I will also include columns in my data chart for volume and page number for each individual record (see image below).

If you create a chart with this information ahead of time you will be much more likely to gather the information you need so you don't have to make a second trip.

There are challenges to researching original records in a New England Town Hall but the touch of the old records books and the ambiance of actually being in the town where your ancestors lived should make it all worth it!

The form below is available for download for your personal use:
Download PDF version

Download MS Word version (editable)


Click to enlarge

Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


Putting a Face on Your Ancestors

by Marian Pierre-Louis


How do you react to the shadow people? That's what I call the pink and blue profile silhouettes in most family history software programs. They are place holders for real photos but when you don't have photos of your ancestors they just become shadow people.

Personally, I ignore the shadow people. I don't even see them anymore. I don't want to get my hopes up so I just pretend they don't exist. Until recently.

I have been working hard on finding my great great grandmother, Charlotte Hill who died at age 33 in 1862. Discovering the location of her gravestone was a great thrill. This is likely the closest I'll come to a physical connection with her. There may be a extant photograph of her somewhere but whether her name was written on the back or whether a descendant has the photo are two things I'll likely never know.

Since I spent so much time researching Charlotte I inevitably spent quite a bit of time researching her husband, William Chandler Learned, who lived a long life, and her two children. In addition I also researched William's second and third wives and the children produced from those marriages.

My great-grandmother, Clara (Charlotte's daughter), was only 9 years old when William married his third wife, Adda Setchel, in 1868. Adda lived to the ripe old age 86. She was part of Clara's life for 60 years before her death and it's probably safe to say that she was the only mother Clara ever knew.

At first, I hadn't really considered researching the other wives but I'm glad I changed my mind because it changed everything for me.

While researching the entire family I discovered that Adda and her daughter, Abbie liked to travel. I came across ship passenger lists from their trips to Europe. The real gold came when I found them in the US Passport Applications, 1795-1925 database on The early passports, from 1914 and earlier, may contain descriptions of our ancestors. You'll find information about age, stature, eye color, hair color, complexion and the shape of their forehead, nose, mouth, chin and face. What a wonderful surprise to find details about how an ancestor looked!

If you are lucky enough to have ancestors who traveled abroad between 1915 and 1925 you will be rewarded with an actual photograph of your ancestor! From this database I discovered photos of Adda Setchel and her daughter Abbie Learned.

I already had some photos of my great-grandmother, Clara. Since she and Abbie were half sisters it was fun to compare their features. I tried to imagine which traits Clara and Abbie both inherited from their paternal Learned side and which they got from their respective mothers. Abbie had a brother, William Setchel Learned, and I had a photo of him as well. Quite a handsome chap!

Now with photos of 3 out of 5 siblings and one mother I was ready to start replacing the shadow people in my family tree!

What a treat it is to look at a pedigree chart and see actual faces instead of silhouettes! This transformation has encouraged me to seek out more images of my ancestors. It may be difficult but I will work hard to find more photos.

You can try the Passport Applications database to find photos of your ancestors. Be aware, however, that not everyone's ancestors will be included. Your ancestors needed to be wealthy enough to travel abroad and to pay for the passport application fee. But don't discount your ancestors, took a look anyway. Your ancestors may just yet surprise you!

If you have another unusual public source for ancestor photos please be sure to let us all know. It would be wonderful to convert as many silhouettes as possible to actual faces.



Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.