Reading Deeds

Looking for basic land measurements including “poles” and “chains”?  Try

Sometimes, doing a Google search on a term that seems like absolute nonsense to me has yielding unexpected results!

Fee tail is a form of land ownership limited to an individual and his or her direct descendants. This means that the owner could not sell the land or use it as collateral for a loan (because it couldn’t be foreclosed upon) or give it away or will it away. If the individual died without descendants, the property would revert to the owner (or heirs thereof) who held it before it was entailed.

Not being able to sell the property or to use it as collateral could create problems for the owner who found himself needing money.

Property held as fee tail could be converted into being held as fee simple. Fee simple is the type of ownership we are most familiar with today … the ownership that has rights to sell or mortgage or will.  The process of converting fee tail to fee simple was “docking,” and it was carried out by petition to the General Assembly. 

Petitions for docking clogged the courts in the mid-18th century, and in October of 1776, Thomas Jefferson proposed that entailing, i.e., making a property fee tail, be abolished. Hence, we don’t see docking entries after 1776.


How to read Deed’s

In the lower left-hand corner of most deeds, you will find signatures of
two to four witnesses. The first one is (most always, but not written
in stone) is from the husband’s side.

The next one always from the wife’s side. This is to protect her 1/3
dower right under the LAW. Nothing you will use will give greater clues
to maiden names than witnesses to old deeds!

Also in the 1800s and before, it was traditional when the daughter got
married, as part of her dowry, the father either covered the loan or
carried the note for his son-in-law. If you know the husband’s name but
not the wife’s maiden name and you can find out to whom they were making
their mortgage payments, about 70% of the time it was her father.

Also on :”Relict” and “Consort”: The term “Relict” on a tombstone means
that the woman was a widow at the time of her death; “Consort” means
that her husband survived her.

Provided by Maxine Baldwin Westerfield


An ancestor of mine, Benjamin Standerfer, had a 1/6 undivided interest in a piece of property that he sold. When I was just beginning my research I didn’t understand the gold mine that this land record gave me. As I became more experienced, I realized that the deed was letting me know that there were 5/6s of that property that I had not yet accounted for and should see who owned it.

I’ve often wondered about the little flower-like drawings that say “seal” next to the names of the people signing the deeds: From

The signatures in the transcribed deed books are not the original signatures of your ancestors. The clerk copied them and often tried to duplicate the appearance. If the seller signed with an X (or other mark), the clerk tried to duplicate that, too. This can be important. Two men with the same name who left records in the same area can be distinguished by their signatures or marks. One might be able to sign his name, while the other always signed with an X.

From the Genealogy Tip of the Day:

Usually a land patent is that legal document that transfers ownership in real property from a governmental agency to an individual. A warrant is a document that indicates a person has qualified for (or purchased) a specific amount of land. The warrant does not always indicate the precise location of the land and the warrant does not usually give title to any specific piece of real estate.

The patent does that.

1 thought on “Reading Deeds”

  1. Lorelei DuBois said:

    I think I may have read at least a million deeds, because I ran a governmental Land Description office for part of my working career. Rods (aka: Poles. or Perches) and Chains… in the eastern part of the US, Surveyor’s, usually from the Government Land Office, (GLO) came equipped with hardware for measuring.. ie: actual rods, and lengths of chain. A standard roadway is 4 rods wide (66′), two on either side of the”Section Line”… which is a dividing line between any of the 36 numbered Sections in a standard Township. Rods were 16.5 ft long. There are 4 rods in a chain, which was heavy, but yet “foldable”, and can measure distance along curves… unlike the Rod. Then there are links, of which there are 100 in a chain. There is a nice explanation here:
    In places like Texas, there is the Spanish convention which is known as “Varas”. Here: These are all still used on many deeds in metes and bounds descriptions. Surveys are azimuthal, and in degrees, minutes and seconds, .. curves are radii, deltas and running distances. and are really not as hard as they sound.. especially if one is proficient in Trig.. even marginally.

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