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New York City Land Conveyances 1654-1851: What They Are and How They Work
On microfilm, in olde worlde language, in undecipherable hand writing. Who cares? This is digitized, right? Yes, sometimes, often, and not yet. Being a librarian, I spend a lot of time rummaging through old documents, seemingly dull and indecipherable tracts that often prove to be invaluable sources of the good stuff. Land conveyances are just such a document. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society recently donated to the New York Public Library's Milstein Division, a microfilmed collection of land conveyances, complete with some wonderful indexes, that collate all transactions between 1654 and 1857 associated with a particular name, e.g. all the land in Manhattan (officially) bought and sold by an individual, group or institution during those years. These documents are a boon to building and house historians, genealogists, and historians alike. Want to know how great-great-grandpapa wheeled and dealed his way to property millions? Or simply how he worked his socks off to scrape together enough money to buy that first family home? Here's where you start.
A land conveyance, sometimes referred to as a land or property record, or just a plain deed, is a document that records the transfer of the ownership of land, and in many cases, though not always, the building or buildings on that land, from one party (the grantor) to another (the grantee). A conveyance records the names of the grantor and grantee, and a third-party witness, information about the location of the property, the date of the transaction, and when that transaction was recorded. Land conveyances may also include additional information about a plot of land’s history, any buildings erected on the site, street numbers, and even a map.
Typically one searches land conveyances using either Block and Lot numbers, or Grantor / Grantee indexes. Using land conveyances it is possible to trace the ownership of a piece of land across a period of time. For instance, in 1815, in make believe Manhattan, Block 100, Lot 10 is owned by one Michael Gill (the grantor), who is selling to William Stone (and his wife Henrietta) (the grantee). In 1828 William Stone, the next grantor, sells the land to Thomas Garfield, the new grantee. Over time a record of ownership of the property can be traced:
Block 100 Lot 10
White, Stephen A.
White, Stephen A.
This is a simplified version of events. Deaths, marriages, legal problems, contested wills, illegibile handwriting, missing documents, and multiple lots, for instance, may make this narrative more complicated.
If you are more interested in the buying and selling habits of an indivdual, group, or institution, then Grantor / Grantee indexes are the best way to search land conveyances.
What does The New York Public Library have?
The New York City land conveyances available on microform in the Milstein Division's Microform Reading Room (Room 119) are searchable using Grantor / Grantee indexes, i.e. by name, not block and lot number. Broadly speaking, the years of coverage for conveyances in the boroughs available are:
To search for land conveyances by block and lot number, you will need to vist one of the institutions described below. It's a good idea to work out the block and lot number in advance. You can work out current block and lot numbers by visiting the NYC Department of Finance Block and Lot calculator. Block and lot numbers have changed over the years, so it might be a good idea to consult any one of the fire insurance maps held by the New York, Brooklyn, or Queens public libraries, or at the New York or Brooklyn historical societies.
The Milstein Division collections also include land conveyances (sometimes described as property deeds) for other parts of New York State: check The New York Public Library's online Catalog for more details.
Why are land conveyences important?
It is easy to see how land conveyances might be particularly useful to historians and genealogists. Used in conjunction with other primary source documents (e.g., probate records, tax assessment records, city directories, historic newspapers, census records, and maps), land conveyances help researchers construct a historic narrative. Land conveyances record the history of a plot of land and a building's ownership, the development of a neighborhood or how an individual or a family owned land, and how they conducted business.
Like many official documents, land conveyances reveal important information beyond what was originally intended, information that might not be found elsewhere. For instance, a genealogist researching a Victorian female ancestor, a married woman hitherto known simply as Mrs. George Brown, might discover the woman's first name in a land conveyance. Wives at this time typically owned one-third of their husband's property, as part of a dower, and as such their names were included in records of land sold by their husbands. Perhaps you are researching Colonial New York and what to know what land Daniel Horsmanden was buying or selling during this period? This information will be found in land conveyances.
What else? If you are trying to find out when your Manhattan house was built and it pre-dates the Department of Buildings (1866) records, you can use the land conveyances to find out who owned a plot of land. You can then consult the Assessed Valuation of Real Estate, 1789-1979 records at the Municipal Archives; if the value of the plot of land suddenly shoots up one year, then there is a fair chance that the property has been developed, i.e. built upon.
If a genealogist begins researching family history using the US Federal Census, then the history of a building might begin with land conveyances. A researcher can use conveyance records to construct a list of people who have owned a property from before its construction up to the present day. Using this list as a starting point, a researcher can look up names in censuses, city directories, tax records, historical newspapers, and so on, constructing a narrative not only of a building, but also of the lives of the people who owned and occupied it. Like census records, land conveyances place an individual [albeit an inanimate object — a house or building] in a time and place: land conveyances enable one to associate land, and often the buildings contained thereon, with people, actual names, and dates.
How to search the land conveyances
Generally speaking, there are two ways to search land conveyances; by address, i.e. by block and lot number, or by name, i.e. by grantor or grantee. Collections held by the Milstein Division are searchable by grantor or grantee.
The indexes *R-USLHG *ZI-1067 and *R-USLHG *ZI-1068, Index of Conveyances Recorded in the Office of the Register of the City and County of New York, 1654-1857, are especially useful as they provide property transactions for New York recorded between 1654 and 1857 and even arrange them by name, collating all of the transactions carried out by an individual, group, or institution during that period. To use the indexes, you should:
- Find the name of the person involved with a transaction of land that you are researching, as either grantor or grantee in the relevant index. If, for example, you are interested in seeing what land was sold by James Delancey in the 1700s, you would look in the Grantor Index. Delancey is listed on a number of occasions in the Grantor Index (*R-USLHG *ZI-1067). It is important to know a little biographical information about the person you are researching, such as where and when they lived, so that you can identify the correct James Delancey.
- Once you have found an entry for that person, look at individual transactions and make a note of the liber and page number in the index. This is the location of the land conveyance document itself. For instance:
James Delancey [Grantor] … William Walton [Grantee] … Mar 1762 [The date of the transaction] Jan 26, 1768 [The date it was recorded] Liber 38, Page 131
- Provided that the transaction took place before 1851, select the microfilm reel that contains the correct liber number, in this instance Liber 38, from the Conveyances: *R-USLHG *ZI-1066, 1654-1851, [Reel 9, Liber 38-39 […]] microfilm collection, and look for Liber 38, page 131: here you will find the full conveyance document, describing the details of the transaction.
Land conveyances and indexes post-1851:
To explore land conveyances post-1851, or for all years by block and lot number, you can search the collections of the following institutions:
City Register’s Office City of New York, Manhattan Business Center, 66 John St., 13th Fl. NY 10036
The City Register has New York County (Manhattan) deeds, mortgages and filed maps, 1654-present. Miscellaneous real estate items, may include wills, transfer of dowager rights. Also Bronx: the Manhattan grantor and grantee […] indexes, 1874-1891 include Western Bronx properties.
City Register’s Office, Brooklyn: Municipal Building, 210 Joralemon Street, Room 2, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Here you will find property records (deeds, mortgages, and filed maps) for Brooklyn (Kings County) from 1697-present. Indexes; digitized present-1966, late-1890s-1960s as ledgers, grantor / grantee indexes, 1697-1966 on microfilm.
Note: As of December 5, 2011, Brooklyn Real Property books [block and lot indexes, etc] will no longer be available at this office. On December 12, 2011, the books were relocated to the Queens Business Center. Microfilm/microfiche will still be available at the Brooklyn location, on the 6th floor of that building.
Brooklyn Historical Society Othmer Library, 128 Pierrepont Street, NY 11201.
The Historical Society has an excellent a collection of abstracted land conveyances. Each abstract typically contains a schematic map, information about location, names of grantor and grantee, date of transaction and record, and sometimes street numbers as well. The abstracts are searchable by block and lot number. The full land conveyances abstracted here are available at 210 Joralemon Street: use the liber / page number in the abstract to find the full record at the City register's Office. Any house historian or genealogist interested in Brooklyn would be advised to consider visiting the Brooklyn Historical Society, where they will also find an excellent collection of maps, photographs, and city directories for the area.
City Register’s Office Queens, 144-06 94th Avenue, 1st Floor, Jamaica, NY 11435
All real property recorded instruments (deeds, mortgages, and maps) for Queens County, recorded 1683-present. Also pre-1899 records for Nassau County. On microfilm (all years), in block / lot microfilm jackets (1968-1987) or in ledgers (1839-1968).
City Register’s Office, Bronx Business Center, 3030 Third Avenue, Room 280, Bronx, NY 10455
This office has real property records (deeds, mortgages, and maps) for Bronx County, 1674-present. Records on microfilm (all years), by block / lot (1968/1991). Some records are also in Manhattan (see above for details).
County Clerk’s Office, State Supreme Court, Richmond County. (Staten Island), 130 Stuyvesant Place, 2nd Floor, Staten Island, NY 10301
Deeds recorded from May 1683 to October 1973 and from July 1986 to the present are indexed in libers by both grantor and grantee. These libers are arranged by groups of years and alphabetically by surname. For more details see Guzik, page 273.
Genealogical Resources in New York edited by Estelle M. Guzik
New York, NY : Jewish Genealogical Society, 2003.