If you are curious about property your Massachusetts ancestors or other persons of interest might have owned, there is a way to locate deeds online. All it takes is a free familysearch.org account and a little patience.
I have been researching The Old Ordinary, the Hingham Historical Society’s 1686 house museum at 21 Lincoln Street (aka “the road to Broad Cove”) in Hingham, and its former owners and have found on-line resources such as FamilySearch helpful. I’ll use The Old Ordinary as my example for how to search early deeds on-line.
In order to set up an account, go to familysearch.org, where you will be asked to provide an email address, set up a password, and choose a userID. (Make sure to write these down.) You will also be asked to provide some basic information to start “your” family tree but rest assured that information on any living persons remains private, and you don’t have to continue creating a family tree to do research on the site.
You will get a confirming email which you must respond to promptly, and you’re all set.
FamilySearch menus can be deeply nested. Rather than go through all of the menu items to find the deeds, just use your browser to search for: familysearch massachusetts deed search
From the menu of results, choose: Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986 — FamilySearch.org
Click and on the next screen choose: Browse through 5,766,135 images.
Don’t be daunted! On the next screen, you are presented with a list of the Commonwealth’s counties. When searching deeds, it’s important to know which county a town was in when it was registered. For instance, Hingham was in Suffolk County from 1643 until 1803, at which point it became part of Plymouth County. If I am researching the early years, I need to choose Suffolk County.
I am now presented with a long list of links arranged in two columns in the following order:
- Deed indexes (grantee), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname in successive volumes
- Deed indexes (grantor), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname, again in successive volumes
- Deed books, containing the actual deeds, organized by years and volumes.
(A little terminology: “grantors” are the sellers and “grantees” are the buyers.)
The grantee and grantor index books help you locate a deed more quickly within a certain set of deed books. As you will see below, using them on-line is a little bit more cumbersome than using the physical index and deed books, but you do get to search from the comfort of your home and on your own schedule.
An advantage to researching older deeds is that the index books cover a huge span of years, so you don’t have to know exactly when a property changed hands. For purposes of my example, I know that Francis Barker owned The Old Ordinary in the mid to late 1700s. He was both a grantee when he bought the property and a grantor when he sold.
To find the record of his purchase, I need the grantee index for the period 1639 to 1799 for grantees whose last names start with B
- Deed index (grantee) 1639-1799 vol 1-2, A-B
A click on the link brings up image 1 of the index book. Now it’s a matter of jumping around in the book until I find Francis Barker. Surnames are listed alphabetically at the top of the page, and given names are listed in the second column. I like to jump about 50 images at a time until I get close. I find that records for Francis Barker start at image 211 and end at image 215. Happily, the one I am looking for is the first entry, which shows that on 5 Jan 1741 Francis Barker (grantee) purchased from Samuel Gill (grantor) a property in Hingham on the Highway to Broad Cove one acre in size. For the actual deed I am directed to consult Deed Book 62 page 171.
I navigate back to the main page for Suffolk County by clicking at the top of the page and find myself at the long list of index books and deed books, I look for Deed Book 62 and choose the link for
- Deeds 1740-1741 vol 61-62
This file of 619 images has two volumes, so Volume 62 probably starts halfway through about image 310. Now, I need to find page 171. A little browsing shows that each “page” is actually the front and back of a sheet. Page 171 is, in fact, on images 495 and 496. There, you can see “Gill to Barker” in the left margin of the left page of image 496. I can read the deed on my screen and/or download or print it.
[A bonus is that the document immediately prior to this is the deed by which Samuel Gill—Francis Barker’s grantor—himself acquired The Old Ordinary from Baruch Jordan!]
To find the deed for the sale of the property, I would go back and look at the grantor index books and repeat the process.
Not all deeds were registered in a timely fashion, and some land transfers were not registered at all. Some property passed through wills and other means. But most are listed, and you can often learn a lot about an ancestor by searching to see what land holdings he (or sometimes she) might have had.
Some of the terms in land records are archaic. For help understanding them, see: http://www.directlinesoftware.com/legal.htm
For help in understanding deeds and other property records in general, see: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/U.S._Land_Records_Class_Handout