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Old Land Records in the News

Land records can offer a valuable source of genealogical information. They provide evidence that the parties were in a specific time and place, they offer a window into their lives, and sometimes they included interesting genealogical information.

I have learned much about my great-grandmother Laura Riddle (1852-1933) by using land records. She had three different Nebraska homesteads in Red Willow, Hayes, and Dundy Counties.

Although I already had her homestead files from the federal government, I wanted to see what other transactions had been recorded against her land in these counties. To do that, I needed to visit the county courthouses to view the land records. I traveled there over the summer to do this.

At the Red Willow courthouse in McCook, I learned that Laura had made cash entry on her land, mortgaged it, and sold it to her brother-in-law in a short period of time. Who knew? I thought she had owned the land outright for several years.

In Dundy County, I found that she had sold her homestead many years earlier than I had thought. I also learned what a headache this transaction must have been for her. She gave a mortgage to the buyer only to have him default. She had to foreclose and look for another buyer.

The homestead files had disclosed none of these events. It took viewing the county land records to tease out these details. That meant traveling to the county courthouse, an expensive undertaking for an out-of-state genealogist.

Imagine my delight, then, to learn of the example being set in my neighboring county of Arapahoe in Colorado to enable online searches of their early land records. The county just announced an initiative to preserve historic land records from 1865-1900.

Arapahoe was Colorado’s first county and in the nineteenth century included Denver. Early land records were handwritten in iron gall ink made from iron salts and tannic acid derived from vegetable sources. The land books were on acid-bleached paper made from wood pulp and bound with glue in leather books. Now in extremely poor condition due to our arid climate, the ink on the pages is fading and the pages themselves are tearing and turning brown.

Arapahoe County has contracted with a preservation company, Kofile, to clean the pages of dust, sediment, stains, and contaminants. They will flatten, humidify, and deacidify the pages and then encapsulate them in Mylar protective sleeves. These will be placed in fire- and water-resistant binders.

During the process, they will scan and enhance each page. The records will be added to the County’s digital collection of public documents. Arapahoe will be the first county in Colorado to enable simple, online viewing of early land records.

I wonder if other counties across the United States will undertake similar projects to preserve their oldest records. The LDS church has filmed land records in some locations but not everywhere. These important relics across the nation should be preserved for future generations—title companies and genealogists alike.



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