Using Land Records in Genealogical Research
By Richard P. Howe Jr. Register of Deeds, Middlesex North District
The modern system of public land records in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was established in 1640. At first, those records were maintained by the clerks of the county courts, but in 1715, the legislature enacted a law calling for the election of a register of deeds for each of the Commonwealth’s counties.
Over time, some counties were divided into two or more registry districts. Today, Essex, Middlesex and Worcester counties each have a north and a south registry of deeds district, while Berkshire and Bristol each have three registries. All other counties have a single registry of deeds. (A list of all cities and towns in Massachusetts along with the corresponding registry of deeds district is available on the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website at http://www.sec.state.ma.us/rod/rodgde/gdeidx.htm).
In the late 1990s, many Massachusetts counties, including Middlesex and Essex, became insolvent and were abolished by the state legislature. The registries of deeds in those counties became divisions of the Secretary of State’s office while registries in Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk, and Plymouth Counties have all remained part of county government.
All registries have digitalized most records and make them available online. Access to registry websites varies. State registries make all data and documents available at no charge; county registries require users to register and pay a nominal fee for access to online records.
How Massachusetts Registries Operate
At its seventeenth century founding, the Massachusetts recording system had two objectives: To safeguard important documents in the volatile and unpredictable frontier setting of the time; and to reduce the likelihood of fraud in real estate transactions. To achieve those objectives, the recording system had four principles: (1) the entire document was reproduced in the registry records, not just a summary of it; (2) a document that conveyed an interest in real estate such as a deed or a mortgage had to be acknowledged by a notary public or justice of the peace before it could be recorded; (3) a recorded document took priority over an unrecorded document; and (4) title passed even though a deed was not recorded. These rules still apply today.
When a document is recorded, the registry of deeds reproduces the entire document and places that official copy in a book with other documents in the order they are received. These record books are sequentially numbered and each page within a book is also numbered. Documents are frequently identified by their book and page number. For example, a document said to be “at book 1234, page 21” can be found on page 21 of book number 1234.
The technology used to make the official document copies has changed over time. At the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds, copies were hand written until 1924 when the typewriter came into use. In 1949, prints created from microfilm of the original documents replaced the typewriter. In 1995, prints from scanned images replaced prints from microfilm. Today, registries no longer create paper record books, but rely on scanned images for the official record with microfilm as a backup.
The registry of deeds also creates an index to help users find documents relevant to their inquiries. The primary method of indexing has always been the names of the people listed on the document (addresses were only included in the index starting in the late 1990s). Today, all indexing information is placed in a single, searchable computer database.
Historically there were always two indexes: the grantor and the grantee. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial to conducting historical research.
In a real estate transaction, the grantor is the person who is giving something away. The grantee is the person receiving something. With a deed, the seller is the grantor, the buyer is the grantee. With a mortgage, the borrower is the grantor and the lender is the grantee (because the borrower is conveying an interest in the property to the lender). If you want to find out how a person became the owner of a house, look for his name in the grantee index. If you want to find out when a person sold the house, look for his name in the grantor index. Once you have located the relevant index entry, it will show you all parties to the transaction, a brief description of the property involved, and the book and page number of the document. Using that book and page number, you can retrieve the actual document and read it for yourself.
Researching the History of a House
Because the registry of deeds indexing system is name-based, not addressed-based, having the address of a property is only the starting point of researching its history. The best way to begin is to find the most recent deed for the property.
If you know the current owner’s name, do a name search. If you only know the property address, try an address search since most registries have included addresses in the index for recent documents. Many cities and towns have excellent GIS (Geographic Information System) websites that will help you identify the property and also show the registry book and page number of the most recent deed to the property. Similarly, Google Maps and Street View can help match property descriptions contained in documents with the actual land.
Once you have found the most recent deed to the property, start tracing the “chain of title” back through time. Chain of title refers to the successive ownership deeds for a particular piece of property.
On most deeds, the last paragraph of the property description section contains a “title reference.” This is a statement of how the grantor on this new deed (i.e., the seller) became the owner, saying something like “For grantor’s title see deed of John Doe to grantor dated March 1, 1929 and recorded in Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in Book 805, Page 29.” By going to the deed at Book 805, Page 29, you will find the prior deed in the chain of title. Find that deed’s title reference and you’ve found the prior deed in the chain of title. Keep going until you finish your search or until you encounter a deed without a title reference.
For a deed that lacks a title reference, look up the seller’s name in the grantee index. That should point you to the deed by which that seller became the owner of the property. Keep using this method until you complete your search.
If a property seems to disappear from the grantor/grantee index, it might be because ownership changed through inheritance. When a person inherits property, there is no deed that conveys the property to the new owner. It is the probate documents of the deceased owner that provide evidence of the transfer of title. Unfortunately, probate documents are not recorded at the registry of deeds but are at the country registry of probate. Few probate documents are available online so a trip to the registry of probate is often necessary to view the documents. Because older probate records are often stored offsite, they may have to be ordered in advance of a visit.
The legislature recently amended the Commonwealth’s probate procedures to permit “deeds of distribution” which memorialize property transfers made as part of the probate of an estate. These deeds of distribution are to be recorded at the registry of deeds and should provide a complete picture of ownership changes within the registry of deeds records. This is only for new deaths, however, and does not affect older estates.
Because registry of deeds records are concerned with who owns the land, not what is built upon it, determining the age of a house or building can be difficult. Sometimes, circumstantial evidence such as the words “and the building thereon” suddenly appearing in a new deed suggests that the building is of recent construction. Similarly, if a large tract of land is divided up into smaller lots and sold off to individual owners, you might conclude that a new neighborhood has been constructed. For more recent structures, the records of the municipal building inspector may be of assistance, but records for structures more than a few decades old are often lacking. Two good books for determining the age of a house are House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home by Sally Light (Golden Hill Press, 1989) and Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsy J. Green (Santa Monica Press, 2002).
Joint Ownership – Massachusetts law provides three options for the joint ownership of real estate. Tenants by the Entirey (available only to spouses) and Joint Tenants both have a right of survivorship. When a co-owner dies, that person’s interest in the property is extinguished along with his life, leaving the surviving co-owner as the sole owner of the property without any probate procedures. Tenants in Common has no right of survivorship, so when a co-owner of a tenancy in common dies, the decedent’s interest in the property becomes part of his estate and ownership passes through probate.
Straws – Today if a person owns property, gets married, and wishes to transfer an ownership interest to her spouse, she can execute a deed from “myself to myself and my spouse.” Historically, a person could not convey property to himself so this type of deed was not allowed. To accomplish such a transfer previously, the property owner would sign a deed conveying the property to a third person, called a straw, who would immediately transfer the property back to the owner and his spouse. When searching ownership history, straw transactions can sometimes lead the researcher astray. To avoid this, try looking at the next document in the book after the deed to determine whether it affects your property.
Mortgage Deeds – Today, almost every mortgage is clearly labeled “mortgage” but prior to the 1940s mortgages closely resembled deeds. The only way to tell the difference is the inclusion of a “reversionary clause” in the mortgage deed. This mortgage deed would begin with standard deed language such as “X grants to Y” however towards the end of the document there is a clause that says something like “but if X pays the sum of $1000 to Y prior to June 1 of next year, then ownership of this property reverts back to X.”
Surveyors’ Measure – One link equals 7.92 inches; one rod equals 25 links or 16.5 feet; one chain equals 4 rods or 66 feet.
Registered Land – There are two separate real estate recording systems in Massachusetts: Registered Land and Recorded Land. Most real estate in Massachusetts is “recorded land” which means all documents related to that land are presented to the Recorded Land office at the registry of deeds where each document is assigned a “book and page” number and is reproduced in a bound record book in chronological order. Registered Land is governed by the Land Court in Boston although each registry of deeds has a Registered Land office where documents related to land that has been “registered” through proceedings in the Land Court are presented for recording. When someone becomes the owner of “registered land” the Land Court issues him a Certificate of Title certifying that the person is the owner of the property. Registered Land is identified by reference to the “Certificate of Title Number.” (If a document contains a “book and page” number, it’s Recorded Land; if it contains a “Certificate Number” it’s Registered Land). The benefits of owning Registered Land include (1) the Certificate of Title as evidence of your title to the property; (2) the property’s boundaries are established by a decree of the Land Court; and (3) if you suffer a loss because of a problem with the title to the property, you will be reimbursed by the Commonwealth’s “Assurance Fund.” The downside to Registered Land is that the initial “registration” of the property is very expensive and time consuming. Also, recording fees for Registered Land are usually higher than for Recorded Land. The Registered Land system was born in Massachusetts in 1898 in an effort to streamline the process of buying and selling property, however, it never gained great popularity and now accounts for only about 10 percent of real estate transactions in Massachusetts. Land typically becomes registered when there is a dispute about ownership or boundaries, and the parties litigate the matter in the Land Court which then retains jurisdiction over the property.
For More Information
For more information about land records in Massachusetts, contact Middlesex North Register of Deeds Richard Howe at (978) 322-9000 or at [email protected].