Urban Research Using Land Records
Even though the city dweller is not always dependent upon his or her land for a livelihood, that quarter acre is usually as valuable as the agriculturalist’s quarter section. Not only the deed books but many court cases bear record of this.
Most American cities are under the jurisdiction of county governments, and city land records are almost always held by the county recorder. City lots, however, may be recorded in volumes separate from county land with their own indexes or finding aids; they are easy to miss.
The municipal library, designed to collect data useful to the governance of the city, is a good place to learn the procedures of land searching. Plat maps or tract books may be centralized there. Otherwise, detailed plat maps of a city are usually available from municipal agencies or from the recorder of deeds.
Some municipal land records are now available on the Internet. For example, Hennepin County, Minnesota, which includes Minneapolis, has a property information database that can be searched by address, addition name, or property identification number. The resulting display provides a wealth of information, including location and size of the property, year of construction, date and price of last sale, estimated market value, name and address of current owner, amount of taxes due, and a link to a map of the property. Links to similar sites throughout the country may be found by searching the “Public Records Online” page at NETR Online: Real Estate Information & Public Records Research.
If the ancestor you are interested in is consistently listed at a certain address for a number of years in city directories or the census, he or she may have owned that piece of property. Frequent address changes may indicate that he or she was renting. Both of these hypotheses need further proof for verification. The 1920 and 1930 censuses may help. They indicate whether the head of the household owned or rented the property. The ancestor who rented property in one location may also have owned land in another, especially a vacant lot. To find his or her land records, check land indexes of abstracts, tax rolls, and less commonly consulted sources, such as building permits or building improvement files; street, sidewalk, and sewer assessment records; and utility cards for water, lighting, and refuse collection, which also identify an owner with a specific lot or address. These records are normally not subject to privacy laws. Land abstracts compiled from deeds and other property documents by title and abstract companies provide an alternate source when the original land records have been destroyed. They were especially valuable in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, when they were used to reestablish property titles in burned areas.