Deed formats and terminology vary from colony to colony, county to county, time period to time period and from the handwriting and style of one clerk to another, all of which makes this a complex topic. As a basic primer, we are using a deed from Plymouth County, Massachusetts, chosen because it is short and legible!
It is important to remember that the recorded copy of a deed is a copy, not the original. The transaction could take place without the deed being recorded, but it was in the best interest of both parties to have it placed on official record in case the original was lost and/or any questions about title should come up in the future. The deed would be copied into the “copy book” by the recording clerk and the original would go home with the grantee. There are, therefore, opportunities for errors or omissions to have been made in the copying. The recording clerk may have also written the original deed, but few of these survive because they disappeared with long-lost family papers.
Parts of a deed:
Grantor: The grantor is the person(s) selling the property: “James Studley of Scituate, yeoman.”
Price: The grantor confirms the price he has received and/or the conditions under which he is to be paid: “twenty eight pounds and six shillings & eight pence lawful silver money.” All types of currency, goods, services or land exchanges may have been involved, their intrinsic values fluctuating under economic factors.
Grantee: The grantee is the person(s) buying the property: “Josiah Lichfield of Scituate, yeoman.”
Description of property being sold: “five acres in Scituate in Lichfield’s Pasture, being the 61st Lot in the first division of Scituate Common Land originally laid out to James Studley.” Apparently, land granted to Studley ended up within the bounds of Lichfield’s farm, so with this deed the title was cleared by the exchange of money. To determine what and where the 61st lot in the first division of Common Land was you will need to go to the town history. Deeds may include reference to a volume and page of the deed books where the land was bought by the now grantor. Some will state that the property had been inherited and from whom. More often than not, however, the deed will not explain how the grantor obtained the property, only that he claims to have the legal right to sell it.
Legal paragraph: “To have & to hold,” in which the grantor warrants the sale. In this example it is short and does not include conditions, but any special circumstances under which the sale is being made will be given – e.g., parents transferring land to their son under the requirement that he take care of them for the rest of their lives. If a wife is releasing her dower rights, it will appear in this section. While the boiler plate portions of this paragraph do not need to be transcribed, the text still must be carefully read for any unique information, not found in all deeds, but extremely valuable when it is there.
 Plymouth County Deeds, 46: 188, accessed at familysearch.org, “Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986” collection.
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.View all posts by Alicia Crane Williams →