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.