How to Complicate a Plain Ol’ Deed-book Citation


Elizabeth Shown Mills


Reader pbaum has raised an issue issue often faced by those who comb history's nooks and crannies: 

Say I have 10 or more land entries mentioned in the main text, but none are specifically discussed. I want them included in my endnotes since the details of each would otherwise be lost or at least not included. Does this mean I would include the full citations for all 10 land entries in one (rather large) endnote? If so, what form would this take; begin each entry as a separate paragraph within the note?

Hmhh, this could be answered in a variety of ways, depending upon the exact scenario we’re dealing with. I suspect pbaum's situation involves several of them. So let’s start with the simplest possibility and then complicate it a bit more with each new example.

If an assertion in our text needs to be supported by citations to multiple documents from multiple unrelated sources, then the standard way to handle this in the reference note is to cite the first document in full, end that citation with a period, cite the next document in full, put a period, cite the next document in full, put a period, etc.

       1. Whatever County, North State, Deed Book A: 188–92. Whatever County, Deed Book B:  152–55. Thatother County, South State, Deed Book A (1789–1800): 39. That Other County, Deed Book E (1805–08): 18–19.

If those documents are all from the same deed book, the standard way to cite them would be the same way we cite multiple pages from any book: Identity the book, then cite the page numbers, with commas separating them.

     1. Whatever County, North State, Deed Book 1: 23, 54, 79.

If that reference note needs to cover a number of documents from multiple deed books, we would do this:

     1. Whatever County, North State, Deed Books 1: 23, 54, 79; 2: 18, 253; 4: 84, 257.

Note that the last example (a) uses the plural to refer to the book series because more than one book is being cited; and (b) uses a semicolon to separate the references to each book, while a comma continues to be used to separate pages within each book.

If, after citing a relevant document, we want to cite several others that don’t document the statement in the text but are still relevant to thorough research on the matter, then a common approach would be to put the references to the tangential sources in a separate sentence and introduce it with an explanation of some sort. For example:

     1. Whatever County, North State, Deed Book 1: 23.  Also see Deed Books 1:54, 79; 4: 84, 257.

If we think our readers (or ourselves at a later date), might not grasp the connection between the situation being discussed in the text and the deeds that are cited under “also see,” then we might be more explicit.

     1.   Whatever County, North State, Deed Book 1: 23.  Also see Deed Books 1:54, 79; 4: 84, 257, for the documents by which John Smith’s administrator sold his timber, oil, and gas rights to various companies.

If, when we cite all those tangential records, intuition tells us it would be wise to identify the specific parties involved in each document, then it might be handled this way:

     1.   Whatever County, North State, Deed Book 1: 23.  For the sale of John Smith’s land to neighbors, by his estate administrator, see Deed Books 4: 54 (Tom Clark to Al Jones); 4: 84 (Tom Clark to Sam Stout), and 4: 257 (Tom Clark to Vince Vance).

If we feel it is important to include the dates of the documents, this would be a standard approach:

     1. Whatever County, North State, Deed Book 1: 23.  For the sale of John Smith’s land to various neighbors, by his estate administrator, see Deed Books 4: 54 (Tom Clark to Al Jones, 23 January 1857); 4: 84 (Tom Clark to Sam Stout, 13 April 1857), and 4: 257 (Tom Clark to Vince Vance, 29 December 1857).

There is also a much-more problematic situation that pbaum might be envisioning, although it’s one EE would rarely recommend.  Sometimes, on rare occasions when a particularly thorny situation requires it, we might also put an abstract of each deed into the reference note. In that instance, we would do as pbaum suggests, and put the details of each deed in its own “paragraph" or use some other writing device to make a clear break between details of each deed.

Let’s say we are doing a study of a farm that is now a historic property. The reference note might be constructed this way:

     1. Whatever County, North State, Deed Book 1: 23.  Five years after John’s death, his executor, Tom Clark, divided John’s land into 5 parcels and sold them to neighbors. The various dwellings and service buildings were then divided as follows:

  • “BIG HOUSE” PARCEL:  SW¼  of SW¼ of S23, T7N, R5E, sold 23 January 1857 to Al Jones (Deed Book 1 : 54)
  •  MANAGER’S PARCEL:  SW¼  of SE¼ of S23, T7N, R5E, sold 13 April 1857 to Sam Stout (Deed Book 4: 84)
  •  INDIGO-PROCESSING SHED PARCEL:  Fract. A, SE ¼ of SW ¼ 4: 257, sold 29 December 1857 to Vince Vance (Deed Book 4: 257)
  •  SPRING HOUSE PARCEL:  Fract. B, SE ¼ of SW ¼ 4: 257, sold 3 February 1858 to Jim Jones (Deed Book 5: 27)
  •  Etc.

Putting all these details into our reference notes is never an ideal situation. Even if the abstracts can be kept as brief as those above, plugging in ten of them would make an unwieldy reference note.  

Worse, if the property were in a state-land state rather than a public-land state, so that identification of each tract required us to include a paragraph-long metes-and-bounds description, then the essential details for each document would be considerably longer. If the deeds are from a state in which the metes-and-bounds description of each parcel has 9 or 13 or 27 “calls,” we’d have utter chaos.


Bottom Line:

Source notes are for sources.  They are not the place to “store” our abstract or transcription of a document.  The place to maintain our abstracts or transcriptions should be our research notes  or our research report—not our reference notes.


PHOTO CREDIT:  "Mortgage and Warranty Deed," CanStockPhoto ( : accesssed 15 January 2016), photo csp2524998, uploaded 7 October 2009 by bronwyn8;used under license.

Submitted byJadeon Sat, 01/16/2016 - 15:26

pbaum does not say that the "entries" are deeds.

A single plot could be denoted in:

--Warrant for survey based on settlement;

--Survey of tract;

--Entry of land recorded;

--Caveat of a neighbor handled in Chancery Court;

--Resurvey ordered by Chancery Court;

--Sale recorded by Deed;

--Conveyance by recorded will;

--Partition among heirs of the will's devisee, now deceased;

--Sales by some of the heirs of parts of the tract (most to one person);

--Petition by heirs of the majority landholder, deceased, for partition;

--Tract deemed too small to equitably divide amongst the heirs, and sold by Court order (depending on time and State [which could have changed over time], could be handled in a Court of Common Pleas, a Circuit Court in Chancery, an Orphans Court, or other . . . .)

These events could be referred to in a narrative stating that most land first owned by Aaron Firstholder ended up in possession of Boaz Littleinterest, 3rd husband of 2nd cousin of the principal subject of the narrative.  Perhaps worth noting in the author's opinion, but not-so-much demanded by the focus of the text.  Bare citations of the source-records would not necessarily be useful for a reader.  So endnotes, including discursive ones, can be the method preferable to footnotes.  Readers interested in Boaz or in prior tract owners might be grateful.


Jade, yes, indeed, there are many different types of records that deal with land. You've started a nice list above that will undoubtedly have some of our readers thinking, "Whoa! I've been missing a lot."

In this case, Pbaum did not specify a type of land record. For want of specificity, today's posting takes the most common type and demonstrates different ways of handling it.

Submitted bypbaumon Sat, 01/16/2016 - 15:38

Dear Ms. Mills,

As usual your explanations are very clear, very helpful and perfectly answer my question!

Thank you so much for your time and assistance.

With kind regards.


Submitted bywfallon Tue, 10/26/2021 - 07:17

What would be the best way to handle the second layer of this citation if the deed books were viewed as images on FamilySearch? Ten different deed books might span ten different film numbers. This attempt seems like a mess:

Aroostook County, Maine, Deed Books 1:54-5; 2:89; 3:107; 21:47; digital images, "Deeds 1839-1866; index 1808-1879," FamilySearch ( : accessed 26 October 2021) > FHL DGS 8570296 > imgs 35-6, 335; FHL DGS 8570297 > img 60; 8570306 > img 47; Register of Deeds, Houlton.

I'm also not sure if I should use the full name of the catalog entry as the title in the second layer. I opted for it because readers can use that as a search term to get to the right place.