How to leverage the power of deed records in Family History research

How to leverage the power of deed records in Family History research

This post takes a little journey to get to the point…but we think it’s worth the trip, and it should help demonstrate the power of old property records. In case you missed it, we’re building off of last week’s review of DeedMapper (Product Review: DeedMapper 4.2 – An essential tool to bring land purchases/sales into your Family History research)

Deed Books are a great tool to move forward some of your most stubborn research questions, and there is a great deal of data in them, but without a tool like DeedMapper you’re likely not going to get the full picture of what’s found in them!

On Michael’s paternal line, the Tradewell’s are one of the two brickwalls left on that side of the tree…which is all the more ironic because the matriarch of family history research on that line was Myra (Tradewell) Morse (1870-1962). In all of her genealogy notes, and DAR applications, and family history presentations she never recorded the name of her Great Grandfather…and thus we have a brick wall.

About a year and a half ago we wrote about discovering formal genealogical “Research Reports” (Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!) and started drafting them for our toughest cases. Of course, the Tradewell line was the first subject. We knew that James B Tradewell is our 4x GGF and that he arrived in Racine County, Wisconsin Territory ca. 1844, where he and his wife Catherine lived until their deaths. We also knew that there was an Ephraim Tradewell, and his wife Marina, also arrived in Racine County around 1844, and that both men listed New York as their birth location. A little research showed that there were a James B and Ephraim Tradewell in Schoharie County, New York for the 1820, 1830, and 1840 U.S. Census but each disappeared after that and no further records were found for them there.

We wrote an “Analysis and Research Plan” for them, and it laid out the following questions we’d hoped to answer:

  • Were the James B and Ephraim Tradewell in Wisconsin from after 1844 the same men as those listed in the 1820-1840 U.S. Census in Schoharie County, New York?
  • Were they related, and/or did they even know each other?
  • Who was each of their fathers, and was either of those persons the brickwall 5x GGF?

Reviewing the Schoharie County Deed Books for 1797-1850 gave us some of the answers, and DeedMapper filled in a major piece of the puzzle.

Were the Wisconsin Tradewells the same as the New York Tradewells?

The answer is now a proven yes! Deeds were usually recorded with the Husband as the only purchaser, but almost always the wife is listed when a property is sold. In fact, every Deed we reviewed where we know we had an ancestor selling property, the wife isn’t just listed, there’s a statement from the County Clerk that recorded the deed that the wife was taken aside out of the presence of her husband to confirm she was willingly agreeing to the transaction. Besides making us wonder if any wife EVER felt empowered enough to say “no”, several sales gave us the names of the New York Tradewell’s wives: James B Tradewell was married to Catherine (Edwards) Tradewell, and Ephraim was married to Marina Tradewell. A perfect match!

We also saw a clean break in New York, with the last Tradewell land transaction completed in the summer of 1842, and the first Wisconsin transaction being conducted in 1844.

Were James and Ephraim related, and/or did they even know each other?

We still do not know if they were related, but we know they were likely very close and in fact lived next to each other…and we never would have known that without DeedMaker. Just reviewing the Deed Books, we learned that they were involved in one land transaction that indicates they were likely in a close relationship. On 7 April 1838 James sold Lot #7 of “Tradewell’s Tavern Stand” in Gilboa, NY to Ephraim for $200. Two weeks later, on 21 April 1838 Ephraim sold the same property to Sidney Tuttle for $200. We’re not sure exactly what was going on there, but it’s very likely there was coordination between the men for this to occur.

But what really sold us on DeedMapper, was what happened when we mapped all the plots we discovered in the 1797-1845 Deed Books. The biggest breakthrough came when we first mapped two properties, with no common points in their Legal Description, and they clearly fit together. Without sharing Metes & Bounds points in the description (like a Willow Tree), there’s no easy way to determine how they relate, but when you map them visually you can see them like jigsaw puzzle pieces and get a great feeling of location for the land.

Once we had those two properties mapped (both were owned by James B Tradewell and recorded in 1806), we drew another plot owned by Ephraim (recorded 1834) and we immediately knew they lived together as neighbors with an adjoining property line.

Here is the first Legal Description for James’ largest plot:

Beginning at a Willow tree near the Schoharie Creek marked on the east side with the Letters C.E. and runs thence south 15 degrees east 10 chains and 60 links, thence East 25 chains, thence north 21 degrees 30 minutes east 32 Chains, thence north 10 chains 50 links, thence west 17 chains and 50 links to the Schoharie creek, thence along said creek to the place of beginning containing 117 acres of land be the same more or less.

And here is the Legal Description for Ephraim’s plot:

Beginning at a hemlock sapling on the East side of Schoharie Creek marked on 4 sides with 3 notches and a blaze on the North side B.H, on the South side I.D. and runs thence North 30 degrees East 8 chains, thence, North 24 degrees West 12 chains, thence, due West 25 chains, thence, North 15 West 10 chains 60 links, thence, South 41 degrees West 12 chains to the west side of said creek, thence, South 2 degrees West 5 chains 75 links, hence, North 52 degrees East 2 chains, thence South 62 degrees East 6 chains to the North East side of said creek, thence, up said creek to the place of beginning.

These two plots, recorded almost 30 years apart, and showing no common marker other than Schoharie Creek, when drawn, revealed just how closely these men lived:

Tradewell Map
The pink lines are the boundries of Ephraim Tradewell’s property, the black lines are James B Tradewell’s two plots. (Note: The maps don’t fit perfectly the boundary lines, because they specifically reference the edge of a creek that no longer exists and likely changed frequently after floods, etc.)

The beauty of DeedMapper is that this is first time we worked with Metes & Bounds land descriptions, the first time we’d recorded large amounts of deed information, and this was the 3rd time we’d ever entered information into the software. We literally knew almost nothing about what we were doing, and DeedMapper brought home how closely these men lived.

Now, it doesn’t prove James and Ephraim were related, and it’s likely only DNA will ever do that, but there is now no question these men had a close relationship. They weren’t distant cousins that lived miles apart in the same County, their families lived right next to each other.

Who was their father?

We still don’t know. This creek that’s referenced in so many of the deeds was dammed up in the 1920’s to provide drinking water to New York City, and all of this land is under a reservoir. However, that project caused the local Gilboa cemetery to be relocated, which gave us strong evidence that our 5x GGP were Reuben and Esther Tradewell, and if we can ever prove that James and Ephraim were brothers, we’ll then likely know Ephraim’s father too.

So, Deed Books are a great tool to move forward some of your most stubborn research questions, and there is a great deal of data in them, but without a tool like DeedMapper you’re likely not going to get the full picture of what’s found in them!

 

Product Review: DeedMapper 4.2 – An essential tool to bring land purchases/sales into your Family History research

Product Review: DeedMapper 4.2 – An essential tool to bring land purchases/sales into your Family History research
(Note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.)

Our Ahab-like quest to build links between a group of Tradewell residents of upstate NY in the early 1800’s got a big boost with the discovery of a great new tool: DeedMapper (Direct Line Software)

About two months ago we came across a call to help index exactly the set of records we’d hoped to find, as we tried to build past one of our largest brick walls:  FamilySearch’s New York Land Records, 1630-1975 (Link). This is a collection of all of the NY Deed/Mortgage/Grantor/Grantee books including Schoharie, Albany and Delaware counties from the 1790’s onward. In advance of any Index, we went through every deed in Schoharie county from 1797 through 1845 (when we know our brick wall relatives moved to Wisconsin Territory) and found a gold mine of data.

But very quickly, we ran into the dreaded “Metes & Bounds” problem which we’d read about. Most of our land research has been in areas settled after Western migration when the US Government laid out a grid system that is much easier to determine where land was. Metes & Bounds (Wikipedia) describes land based on landmarks on the property itself, like this:

“Beginning at a Willow tree near the Schoharie Creek marked on the east side with the Letters C.E. and runs thence south fifteen degrees east ten chains and sixty links, thence East twenty five chains, thence north twenty one degrees thirty minutes east thirty two Chains, thence north ten chains fifty links, thence west seventeen chains and fifty links to the Schoharie creek, thence along said creek to the place of beginning”

This makes it nearly impossible to map out what a piece of property looked like, or where it might have been located. But DeedMapper was created to draw a plot based on these property descriptions, and it allows you to overlay the properties on a map. We’re here to tell you, it works well and it’s now a key tool in our tool kit.

The tool has an easy “wizard” like entry window for new deeds, and we had the hang of it the first deed we entered. Essentially, we just had to breakdown the original deed description at each use of “thence”, like this:

  • Beginning at a Willow tree near the Schoharie Creek marked on the east side with the Letters C.E.
  • thence south fifteen degrees east ten chains and sixty links,
  • thence East twenty five chains,
  • thence north twenty one degrees thirty minutes east thirty two Chains,
  • thence north ten chains fifty links,
  • thence west seventeen chains and fifty links to the Schoharie creek,
  • thence along said creek to the place of beginning

The Deed entry screen walked us through each of those lines, until we had our first plot!

DeedMapper - One plotThe next thing we wanted to do was see this on a map, and while DeedMapper has many local maps for purchase, they suggested we download free USGS Topographical maps instead…which worked perfectly because the Schoharie Creek was dammed up in the late 1920’s and no longer runs where any of these property descriptions ran 100 years earlier. The USGS Topo map we downloaded was from 1903, so we were able to get much closer to where the creek ran in 1806.

We found it very easy to move the plots to fit marks on the maps, the feature called “meandering” was especially useful times when the boundary line is described as “along said creek”.

The software is of an older vintage, and it reminds us of a time before ribbons and web interfaces, but it’s more importantly rock solid, well coded, and it does exactly what’s needed. It doesn’t need to be fancy, or modern, it just needs to work and it does.

Just as importantly, DeedMapper support is exemplary! When we first emailed about how we could buy the product without a CD/DVD drive, we had an almost instant reply from a human who is clearly deeply involved in the product. He solved that issue, and then gave us the great info on the USGS maps instead of trying to sell us their own maps. Combined with the great community that’s grown up around this product, with customers sharing their own plotted deeds to the extent that some counties in several states are full mapped, and available for free, it’s clear that one way or another we’re going to get what we need going forward for this software to help us in our genealogical quest.

About the only thing we didn’t like was that DeedMapper is Windows-only, and we do all of our family history on a Mac. Luckily we’re multi-OS, and we’ve been running the program on a MS Surface tablet with no issues.

So, what can you do with DeepMaper and these old Deed books? Next week we’ll give you an example of how we used it to attack some of the questions we’ve been hunting since we first posted about the Tradewell family over a year ago, but here’s what we immediately saw when we drew our first 3 plots…that we thought were just random, unrelated properties:

DeedMapper - Plots

The story of how DeedMapper helped prove a family relationship for us continues here: How to leverage the power of deed records in Family History research

To save our family archives, we must give them away

To save our family archives, we must give them away

In recent weeks, many events came together that drove home something we’ve known for awhile: as genealogists we are not equipped to keep the family records we’ve collected safe enough, and we need to get them in the hands of those who can as quickly as possible. We can’t keep the treasures we’ve saved if we want to save them.

The thought first struck as Hurricane Florence slammed ashore a few weeks ago, and we wondered how many family history collections throughout North Carolina were about to be lost to history under feet of flood waters. And not just the collections like ours, but the little scraps of paper sitting in grandma’s drawers that would have given some future researchers a priceless insight into the lives of their ancestors. Probably 10’s of thousands of priceless documents (at least) were lost never to be documented, never to be appreciated or protected. Then Hurricane Michael hit and wiped out Mexico City, FL and laid a swath of destruction into Southern Alabama…and likely another round of loss of collections that would have added to the mosaic of our research.

Most of the plate glass negatives in the collection that we recently saved were eventually just thrown into a dumpster. We have about 25% of what was saved over the 48 years the studio was in business, but the other 75% was just thrown away.

But what finally brought it home to us, and stunned us so deeply that we had to take a few weeks off before writing this, was that most of the plate glass negatives in the collection that we recently saved (link) were eventually just thrown into a dumpster. We have about 25% of what was saved over the 48 years the studio was in business, but the other 75% was just thrown away. The person that we were able to buy these crates of slides from recounted that they had finished picking in the house that held the studio when they heard glass shattering from the cleaning crew throwing two crates into the dumpster. They realized the plates might be valuable, and asked if they could buy the remaining crates. The person in charge of the estate agreed, and our patron hauled 6 of the crates (at about 90 lbs. per 2’x2′ crate) before they realized they couldn’t carry more, or get them home, and so they left the rest there. The house was confirmed empty by the end of that day…nothing was left.

It didn’t have to be that way. The daughter of the studio owner the studio was approached by a local noted historian and collector over 20 years ago, after obtaining one of the crates and 1000’s of the studio images, and did everything he could to convince her to let him keep her collection safe. But, as someone who didn’t have the ability to let go of objects, she couldn’t part with them. Her house grew full of useless objects over the decades, and grew full of pets who made the house nearly unlivable, so that when she passed it was nearly impossible for the non-relative who inherited the property to sort through anything, even if they understood the historical value of what was in that basement. Instead of a carefully curated collection being kept safe and secure decades earlier, it was shattered in the bottom of a dumpster before it was dumped in a landfill.

In some ways we are like that daughter of the studio owner. We have spent countless hours recovering and protecting some of the most amazing documents. We’ve found pictures of our African American great grandfather, and his twin brother, from a time and place where people of color wouldn’t normally have their photos taken, as well as another great grandfather’s White House place card from the Inaugural Ball of William Howard Taft. These are historic, priceless items that bring us great joy and pleasure. They remind us of the rush of the find, and the pride of the work we’ve done. But, as hard as it will be, we must get them out of our hands as quickly as possible and into those hands that can protect them forever. We’re only one bad storm, or one mislaid cigarette, away from losing them like so many others have been lost.