Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Case of the Disappearing Abstract of Title: a closer look at property records

We hear plenty of stories regarding the accidental or careless destruction of historical records, but dare we believe that there are policies & laws in place to purposely destroy them?  And even so, certainly these records are being digitally reproduced or preserved on microfilm...not the case with one of the show pieces of land history, the Abstract of Title.

Typically, when property changes hands, the seller is "encouraged" to turn their Abstract of Title into the Title Office who will then in turn destroy it.  This policy isn't mandated, but most people either don't realize that fact, or don't care one way or other.  In any event, the vast majority of Abstracts have already met with this fate.

Wikipedia defines an Abstract of Title as "the condensed history of title to a particular parcel of real estate, consisting of a summary of the original grant and all subsequent conveyances and encumbrances affecting the property and a certification by the abstractor that the history is complete and accurate." further states that "All potential buyers of a property should request this to determine the status of the property."

But, alas, in Michigan and countless other states, the original Abstract of Title packets are being destroyed when possible by the Title Offices, a directive to eliminate any paperwork floating around that might not be solely on their computers.  The consequences of that is not only the loss of the original documents, but a reliance on document transcriptions, and, of course, the cost of having a title search done based on those computer records.

In light of these facts, the Local History Collection collects the Abstract of Title documents for any Southwest Michigan land parcel.  All so far have been gifts from individuals who recognize their historical value and wish to have them preserved.  Each is indexed by surname, placed in an archival folder and added to the manuscript collection.

What things are useful about Abstracts?  At a minimum, there is a legal detailed land description, followed by transactions from the point that it was purchased from the government (patent) continuing until the document was discontinued, typically spanning as far as 150 or more years.  Each entry provides the names of the buyer & the seller, dates executed and recorded, a summary of each transaction, and a citation to the original deed, mortgage, etc. 

Other things that might be referenced in the Abstract of Title:
  1. Wills & Estates
  2. Timber & Oil Contracts & Leases
  3. Mortgage Discharges & Assignments
  4. Description of the plat of an entire Subdivision
  5. Death Records
  6. Petitions
  7. Tax History
  8. Parcel Map
Nowhere else do you get such a wonderful snapshot of the history of any piece of land, and the added potential bonus of useful family history information.

Researchers:  Plan to add the Abstract of Title to your resource checklist.  Where to find them?  First, try the current owner of the property.  They may have it squirreled away.  After that, try any local, county, regional or state historical archives or library who may have these in their manuscript collections.

God bless the pack rats:  If you fall into this category and you have an Abstract of Title in your possession, consider making a gift of it to the appropriate institution.  However, be sure to check with a representative of that repository first to make sure that they accept Abstracts.  Certainly, any documents relating to the Southwest Michigan counties of Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren, are of interest to us and we would welcome the donation with open arms.  Contact the department for more information.

Nameless Picture of the Day
 family or community group
Gayle (Pickering) Draper Manuscript Collection 
photographer - F. W. Toogood, Hartford

Can you identify this group or any of the individuals in this cabinet card taken in Hartford?  Please contact us if you have any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Future of Evergreen Rural School, Bloomingdale Township

This week we received the following press release regarding the Evergreen rural school building, formerly District #7, Bloomingdale Township.  The Bloomingdale Area Historical Association has plans for the building whose current site is on the intersection of CR 380 and 44th Street in Section 31.

March 21, 2012
The last available one-room school in Bloomingdale Township, Van Buren County, will be moved from its current rural site to the Village of Bloomingdale on March 24, 2012 between 8AM -12PM.  The move will be performed by Laraway and Sons House Movers of Pullman MI, in cooperation of the Indiana Michigan Power Company, The Van Buren County Road Commission, local Amish families and the Township of Bloomingdale.

Courtesy of Shelby Ashbrook, taken 2001
The Evergreen School is currently located at the corner of CR 380 and 44th Street adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery. The building has served many functions over the years including: a Church, Community center, neighborhood school, VFW Meeting hall and most recently as a school for Amish children.  It was established in the early 1860’s.  The Bloomingdale Area Historical Association (BAHA) purchased the school house from Bloomingdale Township  in 2010 with the provision that it be moved from its current site by this summer.

The future plans for the Evergreen School include:
·      Preservation and restoration of the building
·      Community activities
·      Enhancement of the existing Bloomingdale Depot Museum 
·      Provide an opportunity for local school children to experience attending a school like their ancestors may have attended.
·      Provide a destination for vacationers visiting Southwestern Michigan and users of the Kal-Haven linear trail.
·      Provide an economic boost for local businesses and the local economy.

The Sponsors and owners of the Evergreen One-room School welcome any and all input from the community or persons with knowledge, pictures, artifacts, etc. relating to the History of the Evergreen School, its’ teachers, students, etc.

For further information contact Pat Bly, BAHA President at 269-330-0680, Email:

Evergreen school is one of 4,700 schools represented in the Bess Britton Michigan One-Room Schoolhouse CollectionInformation in the file includes photographs of the building and student groups, transcripts and photocopies of school records, and newspaper clippings from various publications.  For more information about this or other schools in the Britton Collection, please contact us.

Nameless Picture of the Day
unknown school group
probably Allegan, Van Buren, Kalamazoo County area
Courtesy of Jennette Button Parkhurst

Can you identify the students in this photograph, or the name of the school?  This picture was donated to the Local History Collection by Jennette Parkhurst with many others identifying schools in Southwest Michigan.  However, this was the only one with no identification.  Please contact us if you have any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Upcoming Event : Navigating the 1890 Gap, March 26

If you've been one that has been genealogically frustrated by the "missing" 1890 United State federal census, you may want to attend, "Navigating the 1890 Gap : Research With State Census Records," a free program sponsored by the Van Buren Regional Genealogical Society, Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m.

Kris Rzepczynski
Presented by Kris Rzepczynski, Library of Michigan, professional genealogist and lecturer, this talk will be of special interest to all genealogists who have missing family members because of the lack of 1890 Federal Census.  The original data for most of the 1890 Census is no longer available because almost all the population schedules were damaged in a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. in 1921. The fire destroyed 25% of the materials and another 50% were damaged by smoke and water.  The surviving original federally held 1890 census records were destroyed by government order during the 1930s. The only schedules that have survived are a handful of population schedules that weren't in federal hands, and some special enumerations.

Kris is currently the Michigan Coordinator at the Library of Michigan and has worked there for more than 11 years.  In addition to his work-related duties, he is a passionate genealogist and has presented at national, state, and local conferences, including the National Genealogical Society, Federation of Genealogical Societies, Ohio Genealogical Society, Public Library Association, Historical Society of Michigan, Michigan Library Association, and dozens of local genealogical societies. In addition, he is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan, Historical Society of Michigan, Historical Society of Greater Lansing, Michigan Library Association, and is a Past President of the Mid-Michigan Genealogical Society.      

Preceding the general meeting from 6:00 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. Mr. Rzepczynski will also present a “Family History Essentials” class where he will talk briefly about the Library of Michigan, his role there and some of the resources available to genealogists.  He will also spend a few minutes on some of his research successes. 

All meetings of the genealogy society are free to the public and everyone is welcome to attend.  For more information contact the society.

Nameless Picture of the Day
 unknown woman
Can you identify the woman in this tintype?  Please contact us if you have any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New on the Shelf : Germans to America, 1850-1888

Those who are researching German & Prussian ancestry will want to consult Germans to America, 1850-1888.  Approximately 2.1 million entries were extracted from ship passenger arrival records and originally published in 56 volumes, edited by Ira Glazier and P. William Filby, a familiar name in passenger list publications.

In the Local History department, space is somewhat of a factor with a collection this large and the cost is also prohibitive at roughly $90 per volume.  We have done the next best thing and acquired the set on two CD's published by Broderbund in cooperation with Family Tree Maker software, viewable with their Family Archive Viewer. 

"Certainly this information is available online," you might say, and in part you would be right.  A version of these records can be searched on a page sponsored by the National Archives in their community of Access to Archives (AAD) databases along with similar indexes for Italians, Irish and Russians.  The comparison between the book series and the online database is discussed under the NARA Frequently Asked Questions.  At present, the set is not found in the catalog for

For those who prefer to research using books, several larger libraries have the complete books series.  One of the drawbacks to that approach, however, is the need to check an index in each individual volume...a cumbersome process if you are unsure as to what year your ancestor may have arrived.  The CD set allows a single search for the years 1850 to 1874, and another for 1875-1888. 

Online databases are nice, but I'm still big on the Browse Factor, allowing for visual scrolling up and down a list alphabetically watching for alternate and unexpected spellings. 

What information comprises a typical entry in Germans to America?  The categories include:
  1. Name
  2. Age
  3. Gender
  4. Occupation
  5. Last residence
  6. Date of arrival
  7. Final destination
  8. Purpose for travel
  9. Ship's name
  10. Captain's name
  11. Port of embarkation
  12. Mode of travel
  13. Manifest ID number
 Visitors may view and print from this CD set and dozens of others on Local History department computers.  For more information please contact us.

Nameless Picture of the Day
 Black School
location unknown

Can you help us identify the location of Black School pictured here?  Please contact us if you have any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Collection Highlight : Land Records Date Back to Earliest History - Part 2

In part 1 we discussed the importance of incorporating ancestral land history into your family history research plan.  Unlike the more commonly used records such as vitals and census, there aren't a lot of land records available for research on the internet which leaves us seeking alternatives.

The goal of the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library is to amass family and local history resources for the Southwest Michigan region, allowing researchers to access materials in one place for "one-stop shopping," if you will.  Items concerning land holdings is a strong part of that focus in the following categories:
  1. Plat books & atlases (see Local History Collection inventory)
  2. County deeds & mortgages
  3. Tract Books, a.k.a. land patents
  4. Maps
  5. Tax & Assessment Rolls
  6. Abstracts of Title
  7. Centennial & sesquicentennial farms
The Van Buren County land records on microfilm collection was rounded out this week with the acquisition of the last of the 54 reels of  deeds & indexes, 1836-1887.  These films, as well as county & local tax records, mortgages, and select real estate listings, represent all that are currently available on microfilm.  Similar holdings are available for Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo and St. Joseph counties, with more being added regularly.

Abstracts of Title are discontinued documents that give the complete history of a particular parcel of property from its first purchase from the government.  These abstracts may span as far as 150 years.  A note should be made here that these wonderful land histories are disappearing in the face of the computer age.  Abstract offices usually will request that they be turned in to them for destruction, but that isn't required by law.  Many people have opted to keep the abstracts even if they no longer own the property, simply for their historic value.  The Local History department has acquired some of these, created indexes to them, and added them to the manuscript collection for permanent retention.  If you have an abstract of title representing a Southwest Michigan land parcel, consider making a donation of it for the collection.

Learning how to effectively research land-related records takes more time and attention to detail, but is well worth the effort.  To familiarize yourself with the types & locations of them, consult Land & Property Research in the United States, by E. Wade Hone.  The author also created a one-hour multimedia seminar on CD entitled Land Records...So What : I Just Want to Know Who the Father Was!  We used this as a program for our local genealogical group and it was very well received. 

Simply entering the search terms "land records" and "genealogy" into Google or Mocavo will steer you toward countless online instructional aids such as conference syllabi, handouts, and even some things on YouTube.   A few added terms such as a county and or a state may lead you to more in-depth information or indexes.

And, land records is another type of resource that you may find at all levels of government, i.e., local, county, state & federal, something to keep in mind in your goal to "leave no stone unturned."

For more information regarding the Southwest Michigan land-related records housed at the Van Buren District Library, contact us.

Nameless Picture of the Day
 unknown man
Photographer - Northup, Bangor

Can you identify the man in this cabinet card?  Are you familiar with the photographer?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Collection Highlight : Land Records Date Back to Earliest History - Part 1

Michigan resources for family & local history research abound, but land records belong to an elite group of pre-vital records (1867) possibilities, along with probate, tax, court, county marriage, and census records.  Depending upon the county, land records may date back as far as 1830 in Southwest Michigan. 

Usually, land research is low on the list of priorities for the family historian, sometimes so low that it drops out of site.  Deeds and mortgages typically don't offer the juicy facts we seek such as birth dates, parents' names, etc., so why should we research our ancestral land history?  Some items that we might expect to find:
  1. Names & name variations - If there is some question or inconsistency with the spelling of a name, the mere frequency of land documents may help sort this out.  Also, those signing the deed tended to sign their actual legal names rather than the Americanized or nickname version of it.
  2. Spouse's name - Because of dower rights laws, married women had to "sign off" on any land sale.  During this process, they were privately interviewed to insure that they weren't being coerced into giving up their right in a given property.
  3. Residence - Just because a purchase was made in a specific area, doesn't necessarily mean that this is where the owners lived, a misconception that often trips up the genealogist.  Exciting is the possibility of the listing of a prior residence, giving great clues as to migration or origin.
  4. Geographic location -  Examination of all land transactions allows you to "diagram" a person's life, discover where they may have attended school & church, and learn who their neighbors were.
  5. Witnesses - Pay special attention to any signatures on the documents.  Witnesses were very often family members or close friends.
  6. Economic status - The consideration amount of purchase or sale of property gives insight as to the wealth (of lack of) of a particular family.
  7. Occupation - The type & location of property may give unique insight as to the owner's trade.  If the purchase is a parcel of hilly property in the fruit belt, one might deduce that the it would be used for raising apples, peaches, or cherries.
  8. Education - Could your ancestor read & write?  Oftentimes these documents will be signed with an "X" with "his mark" written next to it, hinting at a lack of education.
There have been countless instances where land records have been responsible for solving genealogical problems.  In my own experience, one of my Revolutionary war lines was resolved using a grouping of land & tax records which studied in context established a relationship between father & son.  There are cases where an extended history of the property is included, or reference to family members is made.

For those of us who just plain want to learn everything possible about our families, land records should definitely be on our research checklist. 

Next time, we will introduce you to the array of Southwest Michigan land & related records in the Local History Collection of the Van Buren District Library...

Nameless Picture of the Day
unknown woman
 friend of Maurice Adams, Keeler
circa 1925

Can you identify the woman in this photograph?   Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.