Some ancestors with names like John Smith can seem too difficult to research. An internet search of that name can provide thousands of results. Without additional criteria such as birth and death dates or locations the search can be unwieldy. However, if you know where your ancestor resided at at any point in their adult lives then deeds are perhaps just the tool you need to sort it out.
As a house historian, I frequently research people who owned a house at a particular time. I jump into the middle of their lives without knowing anything about where they were born or died. This can make research a real challenge.
Luckily, deeds provide some clues that make it much easier for both the genealogist and the house historian.
Find the wife’s name
Depending on the time period, the transfer of property may have required a release of dower rights. Dower is the part of the husband’s estate that the wife is entitled to after his death. To ensure that husbands didn’t sell property to deprive their wives of their dower, the wife’s release was required for the deed. Typically a dower release will appear towards the very end of a deed. Armed with the name of the wife, you can separate your John Smith from many others.
I recently researched a 1795 deed where Ichabod Seaver sold property to Tisdale Puffer (I did not make these names up!). In the dower release Ichabod’s wife’s name was listed as Rebeccah. It was just the information I needed to distinguish him from any other potential candidates.
Deeds sometimes provide the name of a spouse even without a dower release. If the property is held jointly, her name will be mentioned as part of the deed. A second place you might find it is at the beginning of a deed where the parties involved in the transfer of property are listed. In this location you might find spouses or parents names listed to further identify the individuals.
Another helpful tool you can find in a deed is the listing of occupations. Deeds from the early 19th and 18th centuries frequently listed the occupations of the parties involved in the property transfer. In the case of Ichabod Seaver, he was noted as being a cordwainer (someone who made shoes). Tisdale Puffer happened to be a cordwainer as well. In 1801 when Puffer sold the property, the buyer was Nahum Thayer, a blacksmith. Now you not only have something with which to differentiate your ancestor by in other documents but you’ve learned an interesting fact about your ancestor as well.
The next time you get stuck tracing your ancestor with a common name, consider searching for his land records and see if you can find a deed to help you.