Have you ever wondered why it appears as if everyone in Berks County is related to each other? Well, there is a reason for that.
It is 1730…something. You are sitting on 900 acres with a big stone house, a big stone barn and some additional outbuildings. You have actually done well carving out your wealth in the Pennsylvania wilderness. One day, your wife looks at you and says it’s time to start marrying off the older children. What to do? You are isolated on your plot of land and meeting new people is a little difficult. There is no match.com or eHarmony. Your closest neighbor is at minimum a couple hundred acres away. Therefore, to keep your wife happy, you pay one of your neighbors a visit and try to make a match. Eventually, your daughters are married off and living on other farms. Your son’s are married and their families are working on your land. Your wife’s happy, your happy…done.
Matchmaking in the 18th and 19th century was definitely more complicated than that. While it would make for some very interesting research, it will not help you in locating your family’s history. What’s key to remember when doing your family’s genealogy/history is that 1: there is always a bigger picture and 2: it is all relative…literally. People are always interacting with each other. When you own a large tract of land and your neighbors own large tracts of land, it limits interaction, but there is still interaction, just not with a lot of people. In a roundabout way, I am trying to suggest that you should not limit your research to just your family. When you start researching families surrounding yours, you will notice connections and find information that you did not know exist. So where do you look?
1. Deeds. When performing a deed search, you need to be aware that there are different types of deeds and you need to attempt to look for them all to be successful. There are:
- Patent – is an exclusive land grant made by a sovereign entity, in this case the Penn Family, or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to a tract of land. Really, what is important is that it establishes the first landholder in the chain of landholders.
- Warrant – type of deed that says the landowner holds clear title to the land and can legally sell it.
- Quitclaim Deed – is the opposite of a warrant, in that the owners selling the land cannot swear they have clear title to do so.
- Indenture – is a legal transfer of property for a fixed and agreed upon amount of money.
- Deed Poll – is a change of name on the deed. It only obligates one party for the responsibility of the property.
- Sheriff Sale Deed – usually is issued in cases, for instance, when property is sold to pay off debt. This will sometimes describe how the property was seized by the county.
In some instances, names will appear on a deed, and you realize that it was the husband of a daughter that you did not know existed. Believe me when I say, that they are bogged down in legal jargon and I am always amazed at the inability of the clerk to spell chestnut. I always wonder how accurate the land surveys are after 50 years when that Chestnut sapling is grown and that stone shifted because someone tripped over it. Regardless, the interesting part is through all of that, in the part I call “Change of Hands”. That is were it relates how the property came into the hands of the grantor, who is now selling it. Read the deed in its entirety, because you will never know what you will find.
2. Wills. They contain a wealth of information and like deeds, can point to family members that are not found in church records. They might also prove a connection with another family or your family. Some are very interesting to read because they can spell out in detail, how the children should provide for the care of their mother, including how many cows, lumber and water she is allotted. Just like a deed, read the whole thing.
A lack of will is just as interesting. When someone dies intestate, then the fate of their estate is decided at Orphan’s Court. Just to clarify, this court has little to do with orphan’s. Orphan’s Court is a probate court and is there to protect personal and property rights. If you can’t find a will and your research trail is cold, check with the court for a ruling on the estate. You never know what you will find and sometimes nothing is something.
These two types of documents are just as valuable to your research as the church records. They are also the least used. Just the other day, I had a researcher interested in knowing more about their property. The first thing I asked them… “Did you read the deeds?” Oh, I did a deed search (usually stated multiple times). It is always 2 hours into the research that you send them out the door to the courthouse because they did not read the deeds. Trust me…we know you didn’t read the deeds, just like we know you didn’t consider the wills…it’s our researcher intuition or psychic powers telling us. If you need some help, bring in the photocopies, we are happy to assist.
When you live in a small community, everyone knows everything about you and it does seem like everyone is related. It is a small town reality and perception all at the same time. If you go back far enough, you can cross paths with just about anyone. That is what keeps researching fun!
Written by former BHC Archivist, Kim Brown.