Researching the historical record of the ownership of your church property

The suggestion to research the history of the ownership of your church property is part of Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr.’s call to the Annual Conference in preparation for a Act of Repentance at the 2016 session.

This research can add to your congregation’s historical self knowledge, and it can be an interesting task for those who enjoy researching old archives.  Of course, it is possible that you may simply find the absence of any record of remuneration to the original inhabitants of your area. By using local records, this perspective, back through time, may reveal some surprises.

The research can take time and is a multi-step process.  Plan for multiple research visits.  One complication is the means and structure of historical records change over time. With a little perseverance, you can trace the history of your church property. Some lands involve additional kinds of documentation histories than presented below, but here is an overview of some of what you’re likely to find.

Older Records

Boundary lines

Today we use parcel numbers and parcel maps to reference specific boundaries. Property lines, when recorded, were more roughly drawn during the early history of white immigration.  Most typically boundaries lines were based within a grid of 36 Sections, in which each is numbered according to a set pattern within parameters referenced within a Range and Township boundaries.  These references plot the location of the outside lines of the 36 section grid’s location, North or South (Township tiers) and East or West (Range columns) of survey lines that relate to a baseline (an east/west surveyed line) and a nearby Meridian (an actual longitude, used as a north/south demarcation).

The following link has a more detailed description of Township and Range boundaries, part of which is excerpted below:

See the Public Land Survey System

Each township is identified with a township and range designation. Township designations indicate the location north or south of the baseline, and range designations indicate the location east or west of the Principal Meridian. For example, a township might be identified as Township 7 North, Range 2 West, which would mean that it was in the 7th tier of townships north of a baseline, and in the 2nd column of townships west of a principal meridian.  A legal land description of a section includes the State, Principal Meridian name, Township and Range designations with directions, and the section number: Nebraska, Sixth Principal Meridian T7N, R2W, sec5[1]

Properties could be variously described, but were designated to be within a specific section, except that in cities, numbered Blocks were often used instead. Any parcel could be generally located in these ways, sometimes with a wide variety of additional language (i.e. the western half of Block Number X, etc.)

Tracing back ownership

Grantees and Grantors

Looking up property transfers that occurred in the Section and Township days usually involves finding the name of the buyer (called the grantee) or the seller (the grantor) in an index of transactions, (these are called “Index of Grantees” and the “Index of Grantors”) bound in large books that covers a certain time period, and arranged alphabetically by last name.  Although at first glance it appears that transactions are listed alphabetically, and then with some chronology, neither is always the case. Most of the index entries are in chronological order, within the pages listed by the first letter of the last name of the Grantor or Grantee. But you may have to look through all the listings beginning with that letter in the book’s list of grantees or grantors to assure yourself that the buyer or seller you are searching for is not listed for that time frame.


Each listing in the Grantor/Grantee Indexes of a title transfer lists the date, and also references a specific page number within a Book of Deeds (which is numbered).  It is the Deed books where the physical descriptions of the property are found. The Deed transfer records were drafted in a very stylized, handwritten manner.  Each listing begins with a date, and lists the grantor(s), the amount received, and the grantee(s), and the physical description.

Researching backwards in time, then, involves looking for a known owner, to find when they obtained the property, so the Index of Grantees is most helpful.  After referencing any transferred deed descriptions, one can then look again in the Grantee index for the next previous owner, going back serially to the earliest records.

Again, as the indexes are not entirely in chronological or alphabetical order, you may have to look through all the entries under the portion of the Index for the first letter of the last name for which you are searching.  Sometimes property was held by a list of individuals as Trustees of a church, or could be listed under the name of the church.  You may find Methodist Episcopal Churches (North or South), or other designations as precursors to your church.

In the end, it maybe that all one can find is a lack of any real evidence that payment was initially offered to any original, Native inhabitants. It will be interesting to compare notes at Annual Conference this year.

The place to start is your local county Recorder.  In addition to more modern records listed by parcel number, they will have the older records, which were bound in large books, but sometimes copied on to microfiche.  The microfiche can be more difficult to read, if the ink had faded, and it may be best to look at the actual Deed books instead. 

In some cases, the Recorder may have the microfiche, and the actual deed records predating what is available at the county recorder’s office may have been entrusted to a non-profit, for example to the care of a local Historical Society.  Local and regional Historical Societies can also be a critical stop in your research, as they can provide good advice and assistance to researchers.

In addition, CONAM Committee Members Doug Sibley and Kevin Murphy are willing to accompany folks in this process, to share information, and advise you in your research project to learn the earlier history of the land beneath your church.