Property records and the maps that help us understand our ancestor’s location contain some very helpful clues. Even for ancestors whose background we know, maps and deeds can fill in fascinating parts of the story.
So let me just say right off, even after years in genealogy, I still tend to look at maps too late in the process of research. Maps should be almost the first thing we turn to. Was the village close to the state line, meaning our ancestors’ records may be recorded in another state? Have we checked all neighboring towns for records? Looking at our ancestor’s street on an old map, is it clear which nearby town would have been easiest to walk to, and possibly find a wife in? What was the nearest church? What nearby waterways provided easy transportation or employment?
More and more old maps are coming online. Even if they are for sale, they are often viewable online. Although not listed below, Ancestry.com has also added some of these same maps in the Maps, Atlases and Gazetteers section.
My top 8 online map finds
I was underwhelmed with the selection of digital maps available online, the same few over and over, and lots of state maps showing the names of the towns. I wish more specific content was available for each city and town. Here are the major collections and some of my favorites.
- The 1870 D. G. Beers & Co. Rhode Island State Atlas shows landowners (link lets you view it at the HistoricMapWorks site).
- The 1855 Walling map of Rhode Island, with incredible detail, from the Harvard University Library. Harvard really knows how to photograph a map. It’s a great copy. Try other Rhode Island content from Harvard by using this search for Rhode Island and limiting your search to digital objects. To see a map, after clicking the link, you get a screen like this for an 1849 Providence map – click the digital object link that has the word “buttons” in the URL. The map screen is good once you get used to it – change the Viewing Size, then enlarge.
- Plat Book of the City of Providence, Rhode Island, 1918, on the Rhode Island USGenWeb Project. Likewise, 1893 map of Newport.
- Norman B Levanthal Map Center, Boston Public Library provides digital Rhode Island maps including an 1741 Rhode Island map, Northern boundary of Rhode Island, 1750, State of Rhode Island 1796, also 1800, 1822, 1838, 1855, plan of the city of Providence, 1844, a map of the city of Providence 1851, also 1875, 1894, and maps of Providence owners or occupants of buildings recreated by Henry R. Chase 1650, also 1770 in four parts: here here here and here.
- Brown University Library has a decent collection of digital Sanborn Maps for Rhode Island.
- At the Library of Congress digital collection of Rhode Island maps, you will have to wade through many late 1800’s bird’s eye views of various Rhode Island mill villages, but check out A plan of the town of Newport in Rhode Island (1777), Map of Providence County, Rhode Island, with some of the adjacent towns (1851, include landowners in outlying towns only), Map of Newport & vicinity, or Rhode Island (1860; shows some property owners), and Map of the town of Providence : from actual survey (1823; shows streets).
- The Portsmouth History Center features maps of original Portsmouth, Rhode Island land grants, created in 1932, using various colors for the era of the occupant. I wish every early town had these. Check this list of names first, then put “land grant” in the search box near the top of that screen, to find the map you need.
- From the David Rumsey Map Collection: Atlas Map of Providence (R.I.) from 1875. Each plate from the three volumes can be viewed in the “Georeferencer” for an amazing overlay with current Google maps. A search for Rhode Island maps pulls up many statewide maps as well.
Obviously, there are historical maps in paper collections that could be very helpful. The Rhode Island Historical Society has a wide collection.
To buy wall maps, Rhode Island’s own Map Center located on North Main Street, Providence, will sell you reasonably priced maps. Many time over the years, I have purchased CD’s and a few paper maps from the Rhode Island collection at Old Maps including the 1831 & 1855 maps on CD, and the 1870 Atlas on CD. This lets me keep them permanently on my computer, and open them to whatever size I want.
Deeds and land records
Deeds treat us to a glimpse of our ancestor’s financial and home life. Was it a big farm? Did they have a mortgage? Did they keep the land their parents had, or strike out on their own? Did they lose their property at some point, and why? And most of all, where was this homestead? Does knowing the “abutters” or neighbors clarify a genealogical detail for us? Did your ancestor buy an extremely expensive house in 1798 which he could never, possibly have afforded, lose it in 1800, and then lived the rest of his life in poverty and you cannot figure out how that happened and it keeps you up at night? (but I digress. On with the deeds).
In Rhode Island, deeds are kept in the town that the transaction occurred in. As new towns split over time, deeds tended to remain in the original town, although there are exceptions to that so always check the town website to see what deeds they hold.
VERY few deeds are online at this point, as you will see, below. So it’s important to get out to the town halls or rent the microfilm from the Family History Library. They have most pre-1900 deeds on film which you can rent, and read at your local Family History Center. Most likely you will have to rent the index volume microfilm first, and the volumes you need, later after you use the index. To find those deeds go to http://www.familysearch.org, use the Search — Catalog menu item and then “Search by” place, pulling up the exact town, which will look something like this: “United States, Rhode Island, Kent, Coventry.” Familysearch files all deed records under the term “Land and property.”
It may not be widely known that slowly, some Rhode Island towns are moving their deeds online and in a few cases, that includes historical deeds. Check this site for the town you are interested in, although you may also need to consult the town/city web page to find out which years are in that system.
I am finding no deeds on Ancestry.com, however, a few deeds drifted into the “probate” category – look over at the Week 3 post on Probate, and follow instructions there to pull up the record set.
A few towns have a few deeds on FamilySearch.org:
- North Smithfield very spotty, mostly index volumes
- Coventry Real Estate Mortgage Book 1874-1883
- East Greenwich, General Grantor Index 1679-1937
- West Greenwich, Deeds 1886-1900
- Little Compton, deed records, 1878-1894
- Newport, land records, 1878-1880
- Hopkinton land evidence documents, 1743-1861
Some additional helpful sources:
- Brief Westerly deeds abstracts 1725-1758 are available towards the bottom of this USGenWeb page. Thank you, Susan Irish Nahas.
- The published volume of Rhode Island Land Evidences 1648-1696 is available on FamilySearch.org.
- Home Lots of the Early Settlers of the Providence Plantations by Charles W. Hopkins is also available online.
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