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Most People Owned Land

American research for the time period before 1850 presents challenges to genealogists. As we work backwards in our family trees, beginning with ourselves, we come to rely on the abundant information provided in the U.S. census records. From 1850 on, we can use these records to gather wonderful information about our family members because census takers recorded the names of everyone in a household. Depending on the year, they also included additional facts like age/place of birth, occupation, or immigration status. All that ends when we reach the watershed year 1850.

As we continue to work backwards, we next hit the 1840 census. For that year, and every decade prior to that, it tells us only the names of the heads of household. Everyone else is represented by a simple tick mark in a sex and age range. Information on these unnamed people is buried here. What can we do to learn more about these folks?

A prominent genealogist once told me to remember that most people owned some land in early America. She advised me to use land records to glean information about these hidden ancestors. They likely bought and sold land at some point in their lives. Even if the women did not do so themselves, they would have had to release their dower rights when their husbands sold land.

Land records can also fill in the gaps between the census records that were compiled only once a decade. They can give us a hint as to when a family arrived in an area or left another one. They sometimes specify family relationships.

In my own family, Daniel Sherman (abt. 1800 – aft. 1863) offers an example. As an itinerant blacksmith, he moved around a lot, but even he occasionally owned plots of land. My last record of him is an 1863 Madison County, Kentucky land sale.

An ancestor I have had trouble tracking is my third great-grandfather’s eldest son, Daniel H. Dunbar. Daniel’s parents recorded their children’s births in Barnstable County, Massachusetts in the early 1800’s. Daniel was born in 1809, but I had not found any subsequent record that mentioned him. When he was young, his existence was hidden in the tick marks of the early census records.

After 1830, the Dunbar family left Massachusetts and moved to then-Portage County, Ohio. Daniel H. Dunbar would have reached manhood by then, and I do not know whether he accompanied his family. This week as I searched the Portage County grantor index of deeds from 1795-1840, I came across some land conveyances for the Dunbar family. To my delight, Daniel H. Dunbar’s name appears a couple of times.

The father, Benjamin E. Dunbar (1774-1831) had died soon after the move. His widow Rhoda nee’ Hall (abt. 1784-1850) conveyed city lots in Stow, Ohio to her sons, including Daniel H., in 1833. Daniel, in turn, sold his share of this land in 1836. I know now that he lived at least that long. If I get copies of his deeds, perhaps they will tell me where he resided.

What happened to Daniel after 1836? I still do not know, but these property transactions provide a couple of facts about him to add to my family history. He, like so many other early Americans, owned land.

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