August 19, 2011
Genealogy and Property Law
This summer, as part of what turned out to be my ridiculously ambitious agenda, I enrolled in a 14-week online certificate program at Boston University in Genealogical Research. I have been involved in genealogy for nearly 20 years, but I’m entirely self-taught. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn research skills and methodologies from people at the top of the profession. It was a great course, and I learned a lot, but it ended up taking much more time than I anticipated. (Because, of course, I wanted to earn an A!)
I mention this course here because the work required me, again and again, to delve into the history of American real property law. In doing so, I wrote notes to add to my Property lectures on topics such as women’s evolving relationship with real property under the law, and the customs of various ethnic groups in conveying their real property to children (patrilineal or by shares). We also looked at topics that turned out to be about land use – early land development and division schemes, the development of ethnic neighborhoods, etc. So while I thought that this summer course would be a fun diversion, it turned out in many respects to be an enrichment course for my own work in property.
If you are interested in taking a look at property from a genealogist’s perspective, I would recommend E. Wade Hone’s Land & Property Research (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Incorporated, 1997). The book walks through the historical background on Spanish, British, French, and Mexican possession of portions of the modern United States, the methods of property ownership under those regimes, and the records created. Then it discusses the organization of state lands and federal lands, and the methods that the U.S. government has used to distribute land since the Revolution. This background is incredibly helpful, particularly to understanding the historical context of some of our older property cases. (For example, the railroad right of way abandonment cases.)
Last year, when we talked about deeds in class, I showed students a modern deed. I’m not going to turn my Property course into a History of Property course, but next year I will also show them a 19th century deed so they can see that the formal language really hasn’t changed all that much! (If you want a 19th century deed too, but don't have one lying around, just click the thumbnail image above and you can download the full size image.)
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