Land Records for Genealogists: Deeds, Patents and Grants. What’s the Difference? 3


Photo Credit: Michelle Goodrum, with permission

Land records are a gold mine for genealogists. They should be one of the standard record groups to search along with census records, vital records, probate, etc. Among the many documents you will run across during land and property research are deeds, patents, and grants. Understanding the difference between them is crucial for genealogists. Let’s take a quick look at what each term means so we understand what we are looking at when we find one of these documents.

Deeds, patents, and grants are documents which officially transfer ownership, or title, of property. Who is originating the transfer of ownership determines whether the document is a deed, patent, or grant.

Patents and Grants
The originator of a patent or grant is either the federal government or a proprietor (think William Penn). The initial transfer of title from the federal government is usually called a patent. Generally transfers from proprietors are called grants. But depending on the time period and locality, they may be called patents. They’re both the same thing just a different word.

So, now you are probably wondering what a proprietor is. A proprietor is a person or company who the government of Britain, Spain, France, or Mexico (previous “owners” of what is now the United States) gave a grant of a large area of land to. The proprietor then could sell (grant) the land to other individuals. It was a way to get land in North America settled.

A deed is also a document which transfers title or ownership of property from one person (or entity) to another. These are always transfers of ownership after the initial transfer from the federal government.

There are many kinds of deeds including warranty deeds, quitclaim deeds, deeds of trust and the related release of deed of trust. Warranty and quitclaim deeds were discussed in detail in the June 2013 issue of Going In-Depth. It’s available to view for free.

So, who creates deeds? The buyer and seller (grantee and grantor) of the property create a deed. The purchaser of the property keeps the original. Local governments keep an official record copy of deeds. Usually, that’s the county recorder, county clerk, or clerk of courts. In New England, sometimes it’s the town clerk who has the deeds.

If you are interested in what’s in a deed, see the December 2014 issue of Going In-Depth  for my article, “Anatomy of a Deed.”

Knowing whether your land document is a patent, grant or deed will provide you with important clues. Since the government or a proprietor issued patents and grants, this tells you your ancestor was an early settler in the area. Who were the other early settlers? They may be kin or have an association with your family. With deeds, it can be important to look into who the other party to the deed was. They could be a relative or other associate.

I hope you find this simplified explanation about patents, grants and deeds helpful. Remember, when researching your ancestor’s land and property records, be sure you understand what kind of document you are looking at. The federal government and proprietors issued patents and grants. They are the documents transferring ownership for the first time into the hands of private individuals. Deeds record all the subsequent transfers of ownership.

Good luck researching your ancestors land and property.


Eakle, Arlene and Johni Cerni, editors. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Company, 1984. Also available online at

Greenwood, Val D. The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy. Third Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2000.

Hatcher, Patricia Law. Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2003.

Hone, E. Wade. Land and Property Research in the United States. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc., 1997.

FamilySearch. Family History Research Wiki.

Michelle Goodrum

About Michelle Goodrum

Writer, family historian, and researcher Michelle Roos Goodrum has been researching her family for over 20 years. Being the caretaker of over 135 years of her family’s papers and photographs, Michelle enjoys piecing her ancestors’ stories together. Michelle is also a Teaching Assistant for Boston University's Genealogical Research Program. Follow Michelle on her blog The Turning of Generations ( ) Michelle is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Timeless Territories.

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