Have you wondered how to access your ancestors' records when they lived far away? Today's guest post gives you a glimpse of what can be found using films delivered to Godfrey's Family History Center. For more information about the center's hours, please visit our website.
Use of Real Estate Deeds to Uncover Spousal Identity
Identifying the names of spouses during the 1700s and 1800s is always a challenge. Real estate deeds can be a useful tool in this effort. Other than a few commercially prepared abstracts, information from real estate deeds can be obtained either by going to whatever jurisdiction in which the deed was recorded or (more easily) by obtaining microfilm through a Family History Center such as found at the Godfrey Memorial Library.
For many years I worked on the family of one of my 4th great-grandfathers, George Smith. I found his 1772 marriage record to his wife Barbara, baptismal records for their children and other records which traced their life together in Upper Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania for about twenty years. Then, in 1796, a deed was recorded where George Smith sold his land in Pennsylvania, prior to his move to Sussex County, New Jersey. Pennsylvania law required the spouse to also sign the deed and to do so “to be their free act.” In this case, his wife’s name is listed as Susannah. Since no death or burial record was ever found for the first wife of George Smith, and no marriage record was ever found for this second wife, this deed becomes the only evidence that his first wife was deceased and that he had remarried.
As I tracked George Smith’s real estate transactions in New Jersey, his wife continued to be Susannah. An 1808 marriage record for George Smith to Sarah Compton was found among the Sussex County records but without confirming evidence, the record could not be relied upon. This confirming evidence was found in an 1809 real estate deed where George Smith and his spouse, Sarah, are seen selling 10.92 acres of land. The deed states that Sarah was the widow of Jacob Compton and that she had acquired the land from a William Compton. Thus, this record confirms the 1808 marriage record and further agrees with the 1812 will of George Smith where he identifies his spouse as Sarah Smith. Obviously, his second wife, Susannah is deceased prior to the date of the 1808 marriage. Still to be determined is Sarah Compton Smith’s maiden name. Nevertheless, the use of real estate records can identify a spouse’s given name; give approximate time periods of a marriage and also the date by which a prior spouse is deceased. Also, as seen in this case, the prior marriage of a spouse is identified and if the land was inherited from her father, his name would have been identified.
Much of early real estate law, and all other laws, was modeled on English common law which in general did not provide rights to females. Nevertheless, the concept of a spouse’s right of dower to her husband’s estate was generally found in common law. Similarly, English common law, while generally denying a wife of a separate identity, did provide a protection to a woman by preventing a husband from selling real property without the wife’s consent which was also adopted by many of the colonies. Thus, the spouse is identified when they are selling real estate and her signature (or mark), provided freely (and often after a separate interview) was required on the deed in many states.