Delayed recording of deeds

Early Maine Deeds and Wills. CD-ROM. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006. (Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2009), 8: 359.

While working on the Early New England Families Study Project sketch on Samuel Maverick this week, I came across a deed from 1636 that was not recorded until 1717! This is a good reminder that deeds are entered into the official books by the date they were recorded, not by the date they were made. Thus, one can never assume that a deed recorded after a person’s death – even decades after – is not that person’s deed.

A sale of land was legal, whether or not the deed was recorded, although recording the transaction helped to prove legality if disputed. Recording might be delayed until the land was sold the next time, which might be a generation or two later.

Examples abound of how title to property can go through long periods of muddle. In the Early New England Families Study Project sketch for Thomas Starr, for example, mention is made that Thomas died a few months before his father, Comfort Starr. Comfort’s will, dated 22 April 1659, made bequests to the children of his deceased son Thomas when they came to the age of 18. In August 1668, five sons of Thomas Starr – Samuel, Thomas, Comfort, Benjamin, and Jehosaphat – sold the family dwelling house in Charlestown to James Russell for £26, with the permission of their remarried mother, now Rachel Hickes, wife of John Hickes. However, the deed was not recorded until January 1684/85, by which time two additional signatures were listed – Josiah Starr and John Starr – whom we assume were the youngest sons, who were not “of age” to sign in 1668 but now needed to sign to fully clear title.

Then in 1733 and 1734, Benjamin Starr, son of Thomas’ son Comfort, set out to gain title to 400 acres in “Dorchester-Canada” (later the town of Ashburnham) that had been granted by the General Court to the widow and children of Thomas Starr in December 1658. To do this he had to buy quit claims from all the scattered heirs. Quitclaims on record in the Worcester Registry include those from the heirs of the eldest son Samuel [Jonathan, James, and Thomas Starr, John Chester and wife Mary (Starr), and Daniel Denison and wife Rachel (Starr)]; from William Peabody of Little Compton and wife Jerusha (Starr), a great-granddaughter in the Samuel Starr line; from two of Benjamin’s brothers-in-law who married his sisters; two daughters of Thomas Starr, Jr. [Hannah (Starr) Greenfield and Elizabeth (Starr) (Browell) Ward]; and Comfort Starr of Danbury, Connecticut, a descendant of the original Thomas Starr’s brother John.

In all, Benjamin Starr paid something under £100 pounds to clear the title to the land and then sold it for £200.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

19 thoughts on “Delayed recording of deeds

  1. Interesting! I have a kind of similar ancestral case – just after the wife’s death, the husband recorded a deed executed years earlier where she deeded the land to him. I’ve always suspected there were two versions and this was their version of estate planning.

    1. Yes, this is a version of the wills where husband and wife leave everything to each other, which can get tricky if the surviving spouse does not change their will — I had a great aunt whose will left everything to her deceased husband, so it ended up being his heirs that got the estate with nothing to her heirs!

  2. This is truly wonderful information. I’m a descendant of the Starr family, and I’m very pleased to have some of my questions cleared up for me. I probably have at least one other ancestor that would fit in the “late recording of deed” classification, and thanks for nudging me to try to figure that one out.

  3. Alicia, once again, your comments are filled with both helpful information and humor: when you wrote, “…title to property can go through long periods of muddle” I smiled…until I realized the confusion that arises as an amateur genealogist such as I, coming upon such discrepancies between actual deeds and their recordings, would have puzzling this all out. Good thing we have you pros to come to our rescue!(sigh)

  4. I have been working on an ancestor who disappeared ca 1802 (he last appears in a local town tax assessment list in 1801). I found a deed that was dated 1798, but was recorded in 1804. However, at the time of recording, a friend of his attested that he knew the signature of my ancestor on the original deed. I have assumed that this need for this affidavit means that my ancestors was not present (dead? migrated?) by the date of recording.

    1. Greg, It may mean not only that he wasn’t around, but that the witnesses were not there to confirm that they saw him sign. They may have all migrated together, so you might check into the witnesses and see if you can spot them in 1810?

  5. Long delays were common in the South when lands were opened up to new settlers after Indian removal (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi territories, post War of 1812). A potential landowner would select his (sometimes her) 40 acres or more and build a cabin, sheds, fences, and other signs of residency. This would keep others from trying to claim the land but the settler would wait as long as possible to register ownership with the land office or other agency to avoid paying taxes on the land. This was a common and accepted practice throughout the “Old Southwest” and often throws family history seekers into confusion. You may have reliable documents that show an ancestor left, say, South Carolina, in 1817 or 1818 for Alabama, and that residency was established but deeds to land claims don’t show up until the 1820s or 1830s. It’s always so interesting to untangle these mysteries as they tell us so much about our ancestors and their times.

  6. Of course, one of the most salient deeds in colonial Maine is that between the Newichewannock Chief Billy Sandy and the Fur trader and land owner Francis Small. The deed marked by the chiefs turtle mark while illegal in the eyes of some was not recorded until after 1770, 100 years afterwards; than another 100 years of court battle commenced between the Francis Small grandsons for land title – in this case most of southwestern Maine. The efforts of Biddeford , Maine’s own, James Sullivan, Esquire, could not surmount the backroom deals and crafty eyes of the Boston sort. But all is well in that the Francis Small Heritage Land Trust is alive and solid and a protector of the original lands— now aglory in their fall colors (Ref. http://www.fsht.org/sandy.html).

  7. Ordinarily the effective researcher traces history of known parcels, where a decedent had not disposed of land by will or deed, and/or a court had not ordered partition between heirs.

    But sometimes a deed may be written to correct a prior error.

    One of my ancestors bequeathed his land to his daughter, who was to take possession after death of his wife. After the daughter’s death 24 years afterward, the County Court in Chancery ordered partition between the daughter’s heirs and a couple of persons to whom the daughter’s children had sold their interests. Some 50 years later it was found that one of the heirs had possession of and was paying taxes on a very small parcel that had been missed in the partition survey. Fortunately the problem was again brought to the Chancery Court, who appointed commissioners to sell the remaining parcel. By this time the beneficiaries included scores of the original decedent’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as heirs of those who had purchased part interests.

    The Commissioners’ deed of sale is not indexed by names of any of the beneficiaries, so one must locate and consult the Chancery Court documents to determine details of disposition of this unexpected 3-odd acre piece. Happily, the Court did record a list of those entitled to shares of the proceeds and how their respective interests arose.

    The lesson? Always check in Court records, and anticipate that activity may involve an estate of one who died decades before a court action.

  8. Both Alicia’s post and the comments are utterly fascinating to me. I have just begun to explore land records, and consider all of this a good “heads up” for my searches. Thanks.

  9. Thank you so much! I have been trying to figure out just when my ancestors sold their land. The Indenture was done in 1866 but not recorded until 1875. So, according to what you wrote the sale WAS final in 1866, even tho it wasn’t recorded until 1875. They moved from NY to MN in 1866 and I was amazed to think they held onto the land in NY until 1875! Now I know that assumption was wrong. Cool!

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