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Guide No. 29A

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Basic American Land Terminology

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Basic American Land Terminology

Grants — Royal, colonial, federal, state land grants — a grant consisted of a land warrant which authorized 1) lands to be laid out and surveyed; 2) a plat showing the location; 3) a patent or title to the property.

Deeds — Land transactions between two parties. They include sales of land, gifts of lands to relatives (or others) and settlements following disputes.

Mortgages — Temporary transferals of title to property for the purpose of paying debts. Relatives of parties to mortgages are often mentioned in these records.

Power of Attorney — The appointment of individuals as attorneys for persons who have usually moved away, but who become involved in business transactions in places of former residence. These include: sales of land and other properties, collections of legacies left to those who have removed and settling of debts.  

Microfilm All county records are usually located in the office of the clerk of the county where the transaction occurred. Deeds, leases and mortgages are usually indexed, and many of the indexes and actual records have been filmed by the Family History Library. Also, subscribers to Heritage Quest can borrow rolls of microfilm to read deed indexes and transcripts.

Other Related Terms and Records

Articles of Agreement — Made between property owners and their heirs or assignees concerning how property is to be settled after events or conditions transpire, such as decease of the owner, after heirs reach a certain age, or after services rendered.  

Bills of Sale — Papers showing transfer of ownership of slaves, cattle, livestock, furniture or crops.  

Contracts — Sales of property on contract and other agreements based on the terms of a contract between individuals or parties.

Leases on Property — Made to individuals or companies for farming, mining, logging, etc.

Tax Records — Real and personal property assignments and collections, describing land holdings, slaves, livestock, carriages, and sometimes show inheritances, assessments for children in school, for eligible voters, etc. During colonial period may include tithables payable to church wardens of a state for church expenses, such as caring for the poor.  

Legal and Additional Land-Related Terms

  • Administrator/administratrix — A person appointed by the court to settle the estate of someone who died intestate .
  • Alien — To transfer (lands, title) to another.
  • Alienation — A transfer of title or property to another.
  • Assigns — Anyone acting on behalf of or in place of the nominal owner. Example: The owner may have transferred his rights to someone else or appointed an attorney to act on his behalf.
  • Bargain — Mutual agreement among two or more people to exchange or purchase goods.
  • Bargain and Sale Deed — A type of deed in which title is transferred but in which there is usually no guarantee as to the validity of title.
  • Cadastral Map — Land ownership map. Generally used for tax purposes.
  • Chattel — A tangible, movable article of personal property, as opposed to real property .
  • Collateral — Property put up by someone getting a loan. If they fail to repay the loan, the property goes to the person granting the loan.
  • Condemn — The taking of privately owned land for public use by eminent domain. In the U.S. just compensation must be provided for any lands thus taken.
  • Consideration — The money (or other property) used to purchase land.
  • Deed — A document giving the holder the title to property. More generally, any document sealing an agreement, contract, etc. The most common types of deeds Bargain and Sale , Quitclaim , and Warranty .
  • Deed of trust — A transfer of property to someone to be held in trust for another. See trust . More specifically, however, deeds of trust are used in a number of states instead of a mortgage to secure a loan. The deed of trust names the trustees in whom title is placed as security against failure to meet the terms of the loan.
  • Deed poll — A deed not indented; deed made by one party only.
  • Dower — A wife's interest in her husband's property, inheritable at his death. English probate law set this at one-third. In the U.S. it was common for a woman to formally relinquish her dower claim on land sold by the husband. This further guaranteed that the property was clear of all obligations. 
  • Entry — Filing of the intention to get a land grant or patent. This was the first step of a multi-step process of getting land, the other steps generally being Survey, and Grant.
  • Escheat — Land ownership reverting to the Crown, government, or estate owner because of a lack of heirs.
  • Estate — A property right held by someone. There can be many estates held on a single piece of property, for example, relating to specific uses of the property. Mineral rights, water rights, and so on are examples. 
  • Executor/executrix — The person named in a will to carry out the terms of the will. See administrator .
  • Fee simple — Ownership of land that can be inherited by any heirs. To hold in fee means to possess.
  • Fee tail —Ownership of land restricted to a specified class of heirs, generally direct descendants.
  • Feoffment — Transfer of inheritable real property.
  • Grant — Transfer of title from the government to the first titleholder of a piece of property. This term is generally used by states and the federal government.
  • Grantee — The person receiving a grant, or buying property.
  • Grantor — The person issuing the grant, or selling property.
  • Headright — A colonial system used in Virginia of land patents, in which immigrants, including minor children, were entitled to 50 acres of land apiece. It was customary for the person paying passage to claim the headright. Headrights could be sold or assigned to others and also used in other states.
  • Improve — To make land more valuable by clearing and planting. Land that was not improved by the owner might revert to the government.
  • Indenture — A written agreement. (Originally, the document was written in duplicate, and the two copies placed side by side and 'indented', or cut, with a wavy line so they fit together perfectly.) 
  • Intestate — Without a will. If someone dies intestate, the court appoints an administrator to settle the estate.
  • Instrument — Legal document.
  • Messuage — A dwelling house with its adjacent buildings and lands appropriated to the use of the household.
  • Moiety — One-half. One of two equal parts. A share or portion.
  • Patent — Transfer of title from the government to the first titleholder of a piece of property. 
  • Planting and Seating — See improve . In Virginia colonial law a patentee was required to cultivate an acre of land and build a small house on the property, otherwise the patent would revert to the government.
  • Probate — The process of proving a decedent's will and settling the estate. 
  • Quitclaim Deed — A common type of deed in which the seller relinquishes claim to whatever rights were held on the property, but does not guarantee that that the property is actually free of claims by others.
  • Real property — Land. 
  • Remainder — Transfer of ownership to someone on the death of another. For example, land may be sold to person A for use during their lifetime, but then remaindered to person B at the death of A.
  • Revert — Return of ownership to a former owner (or heirs).
  • Title — Legal ownership as evidenced by a deed or other instrument.
  • Trust — Confidence placed in someone by giving them property to be held or used for another's benefit. 
  • Trustee — An individual to whom another's property is entrusted.
  • Warrant — A governmental order authorizing some action. A land warrant instructs a state to issue land to someone.
  • Warranty Deed — A deed in which the seller warrants having a valid title and that the property is clear of any liens.

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