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Land, Wills & Real Estate Research
Presented by Helen Medio, July 2001

Written by Polly Woodress of Bastrop County, TX
Copyright © 2001-2007, Polly Woodress, All Rights Reserved.


Deeds are so interesting and so much can be learned from deeds about genealogy, families, special circumstances, etc. For me, the most important thing to look for when looking up courthouse deeds is the "Chain of Title". This means that real property, (land, homes, etc.) must be transferred from one person to another without a "skip" in the ownership of the property. These records must be available and public so that anyone could see, for example, that one has the right to hold property up for sale, give it away, pass it down to heirs, etc. The way the ownership is transferred, from one person to the next person, is by and large done through and with deeds. (Although title can change in other forms, through wills, for example, or through foreclosure, these instruments will be recorded in the Deed Records of a county so that "chain of title" can be followed.)

Everything about a deed can give someone a clue about the family or owners of the property. To understand this, one should understand some fundamentals about deeds. Although the names may differ around the country, there are really just four main types of deeds:
  • Quitclaim Deed,
  • Warranty Deed,
  • Special Warranty Deed,
  • and just plain Deed of Conveyance (sometimes called Deed of Bargain, Deed of Sale).
Each of these types can have different specific types of variance, but understanding the basics of what each mean can be helpful in picking up clues as to ownership.
  1. Quitclaim Deeds are deeds that only deed out the Grantor's (seller, giver, etc.) interest in a property. As anyone knows, a person could own a 0% to a 100% interest in a property. With a Quitclaim Deed, a person is NEVER obligated to back up, or stand behind, the title to the property. So stated, if I wanted to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, even if I had no ownership in it, I would sell it to you and give you a Quitclaim Deed. When you found out I didn't own the bridge, it wasn't mine to sell you couldn't sue. You really couldn't do anything. You would have been taken, scammed, if you had accepted a Quitclaim Deed for the Brooklyn Bridge. On the other hand, however, a Quitclaim Deed can be very useful in transferring a person's less than 100% interest in a property. Say you want to buy a property that has ten heirs. Say all but one want to sell. So, you decide to buy their 90% interest in the property and take a chance that you might get the last heir to sell later. The nine heir owners might only want to deed out "their" interest in the property knowing that it is not going to be a 100% interest. Also, they may not want to stand behind the title to the property knowing that the last heir may never sell, etc. A Quitclaim Deed might be used in this situation. A Quitclaim says that you are deeding the next person all the interest you might have in a property, even though it may not be 100% interest. Usually, a Quitclaim Deed is a "red light" for a person searching deeds, or it indicates that you should slow down and look closer at the current owners, past owners and chain of title. There may be something amiss. Find out, if you can, what it is. Sometimes, it could be a family member that disappeared, unknown heirs, family feud, etc.

  2. Then, there is the Warranty Deed, or sometimes called the General Warranty Deed. These Warranty Deeds contain language that gives assurances by the Grantor that the deed conveys good and unencumbered title to the property. Also, the Grantor is telling the Grantees (buyers, recipients) that title is good for the property "...back to the sovereignity of the soil..." and grantor will defend the title if something comes up. Almost any type of thing can come up against the title, but the usual types of things are: less than 100% ownership, liens, judgments, back taxes, and for genealogy, missing heirs, etc. This is the kind of deed one desires when buying property. With the advent of Title Insurance Policies, most all property is transferred with Warranty Deeds, because the insurance policy will defend the property back to the sovernity if something comes up. Also, in Texas, "...back to the sovernity..." means back to the Spanish and Mexican grants, Republic or State grants, etc. In fact, Texas may still own land to grant today. Voluntary conveyances of land, after the original grant, are made by deeds.

  3. There is also a Special Warranty Deed that is used when the grantor covenants (warrants) "...by, through and under him..." In other words, he is not defending title back any further than through his ownership of the property. This can also be a "red light" to look back in ownership and "chain of title" before him, because he may not have received a good title when he got the property.

  4. Deeds of Conveyance, Bargain and/or Sale are deeds that only convey the land. These deeds do NOT convey the interest in the property of the grantor and they have NO warranty. These are usually used in sub-divisions where persons pay a little down payment and the owner finances the remainder. These deeds usually promise to do something...like deed the property out by Special Warranty Deed, or something, when and if the entire amounts of payments are paid. These are only as good as the person's character who is getting the payments, because one never knows if, at the end of ten years payments, or twenty years payments, that person may or may not have liens filled against him, etc. One shouldn't find to many of these deeds in old records, as they are a fairly recent slant to the law.
Another important thing to look for in doing deed research is to know the different elements that all deeds must contain. If you know these elements, then you know what to look for when you are trying to find out the answer to a specific genealogy question. So stated, all deeds must contain the following:
  1. Grantor: Person, etc., deeding out the property; most times, the seller.
    1. The grantor's name must appear in the body of the deed, not just on the signature.
    2. Grantor must be of legal age and sound mind.
  2. Grantee: Person, etc., getting the property.
    1. Name is usually recited in the deed, but doesn't have to be in order to be valid. Example would be property deeded "...to John Doe and wife." The wife, Mary Jane Smith Doe, would be the grantee also.
    2. Grantee can be minors, or insane.
  3. Consideration: Price paid for property.
    1. Price can be actual price or may say "...$10.00 and other good and valuable consideration."
    2. If property is a gift, the consideration clause may read, "...for love and affection, I deed..."
    3. It is legal for property to be given away, however, the law says that "...man must be just before he is generous..." which means that if a person owes money that he is unable repay, and if he also has land that can be attached for the money owed, and he decides to give the property away to keep it from being attached to the loan owed, then a gift of the land to a relative or friend can be set aside by a court so creditors can attach the land. This is why, even if property is given away, the deed will usually read "...for $500.00 and love and affection..." Then, it can be argued that the property was sold. (This is how Andrew deeded the land to L.T. and how L.T. deed 100 acres to Geo. Slack, Jr.)
  4. Words of Conveyance: Watch these words because they tell you if the deed Warranty Deed, Quitclaim, etc., and they give a hint as to the title of the property. For example: "...bargain, sell, convey and warrant to John Smith..." would be a Warranty Deed. But, the words "...bargain, sell, convey and quitclaim..." or, "...remise, release and forever quitclaim..." would be a Quitclaim Deed.
  5. Description of the Land:
    1. Towns may have subdivisions that describe the property in lots and blocks.
    2. Land may have "filed notes" with surveyors measures which are usually described in directions, feet and degrees in current deeds.
    3. In old deeds, description of land many times described so many feet, rods and in Texas, varas, in what direction and "...from blackjack tree to blackjack tree." Things to remember about old survey descriptions:
      1. Old surveyors used chains to measure land (much like the chains used to measure 1st downs at football games.) One chain was usually 66' or 792". Then, they sometimes used rods to measure land. One rod was about 16 1/2' or 198". In Texas, due to Spanish and Mexican influence, varas were commonly used for measurement. A vara is 33 1/3 " or about 2.775'.
      2. A big problem with measurement for old surveyors was with the chains that, over time, would break and be patched. So stated, many chains got shorter and shorter so accurate measurement wasn't possible. Conversely, original surveys and old surveys may have been done without any instruments. Moreover, there weren't many roads, or maps, and transportation was difficult, so one would expect some surveys to be inaccurate. But, when people moved in and occupied the land, it was not the government's policy to move them out, even if they were in the wrong place, because the early governments wanted colonies.
      3. Many old surveys have been challenged, but even with inaccuracies, they have been hard to invalidate. One old Texas survey called for a league of land and the state sued when it turned out to be eleven leagues in lieu of one league. One league is 4,428 acres and eleven leagues are 48,708 acres. Regardless of the excess, the courts ruled for those claiming the grant. It is a rule in Texas that if the surveyor's footsteps can be traced and the corners he described can be found, the survey cannot be defeated. Many old surveys contained more, rather than less, land than was called for because the surveyor was working for the man applying for the land who was paying for the work. (Old timers used to say that frontier surveyors measured the land with a coonskin and threw in the tail for good measure.) Bottom line is, old surveys were almost NEVER TRUELY ACCURATE.
      4. Because old deed descriptions were so vague, many old deeds contain the names and amount of acreage of neighbors for further identification. For example, "...which joins the Joe Smith 150 acres in the S.W. corner of said tract..." etc. This is wonderful for genealogy because I have found that many times extended family lives next to or near by the subject property and family. Great source for more cousins!
  6. Date: All deeds must contain a date of execution, and usually a date the deed was recorded. Lots of clues are here.
  7. Signature: Essential, although if unable to write, an "X" could be made.
  8. Seal: In early deeds, actual wax seals were used. Later, one was able to draw, sketch or scribble the seal. (The text of one of Andrew's deeds recites that he has scribbled his seal.) Today, most deeds are witnessed by Notary Public, which places a Notary seal.
  9. Witnesses:
    1. Notary Public witnesses modern deeds.
    2. Older deeds usually contained at least two witnesses and these witnesses are usually family members, although it could be friends, neighbors, attorney, etc. Usually good clues here.
    3. If there are 2 to 4 witnesses, the 1st witness is usually on the husband's side, the next two witnesses are usually from the wife's side, so that maiden names can be picked up here.
  10. Delivery: Delivery is essential to make a deed valid. Delivery just means that a person signs the deed for the purposes and consideration stated and that person is ready to give over ownership of the property. It does not necessarily mean physical delivery.


Once a person is given a deed to a property, then it is up to the new owner to have the deed recorded for public record. The importance of having a deed recorded is to give public notice, called constructive notice, that the property has changed owners. Constructive Notice is the legal substitute for actual knowledge. For example, laws require people intending to buy real estate or loan money on real estate to examine public records, and, if one does it or not, to be satisfied as to title. The law assumes that one has examined the records and is satisfied whenever one files a deed. Remember also that deeds can be recorded anywhere, however, deeds must be recorded in the county where the property changing ownership is located. That is also where anyone would look for deed history to any property in that county. There may be an exception to property located part in one county and part in another county. I believe the law says history of a property located in two counties can have instruments filed in either county. Otherwise, stick with the county where the property is located when looking up deed records. Remember also, that most county records have a list, or index, of Grantors for deeds and many counties keep all like names together. Thus, we were able to get the Grantor list for all Grahams in Bastrop County to see how our league of land passed out of Andrew Grahams name. Some counties also have Grantee lists, or index, so that you can then go to some certain name to see all buyers in the county for that name.

Besides constructive notice, individuals can give public notice of ownership in other ways. Possession of property also gives public notice. If a person is allowed to live without interruption on a property, or portion of a property, peaceful and undisturbed, while claiming to be the owner, then after a certain number of years the property can be claimed by "adverse possession".. Paying taxes and using a property for a number of years, without any others doing the same, gives a strong public signal that the specific property is yours by possession and a good title is fairly easy to obtain. (An example of this might be with Louisiana Texas' Graham League property. From what I see now, and I may not be correct, but it looks to me like a couple of hundred acres of property did not ever pass out of Louisiana's name. Why can't we, as her heirs, lay claim to the property or a portion of the property now, today? Because, the property has long since had others claiming ownership and paying taxes on the property for probably the last 100 years. Those laying claim to the property, then, have a much stronger claim to the property today than we, her heirs, would ever have. And, those claiming the property today, and for the last 100 years, would be the rightful and true owners of the property in the eyes of the law.)

Deeds can tell us so much more! Deeds can tell us if the property was paid for or has a mortgage. If a deed mentions a mortgage, then there probably will also be a Deed of Trust filed in the same Deed Records showing the exact lien on the property along with other terms of the loan. Deeds can tell us the heirs in an estate, the inventory in an estate, etc. Deeds can give information as to divorce, marriage and other name changes. Deeds can spell out any special conditions for the property use, like "...the acre can only be used for a private school with only boys attending..." etc. Deeds can spell out exceptions as to what is being deeded so that "...is hereby deeded this property save and except the Grantor specifically retains all mineral rights in, on and under the property..." etc. So, you can see that deeds can tell real stories, about real people and I, for one, find them fascinating! Hope this helps.



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