A week ago, I blogged here about how I started out looking for possible online records for property owned by my paternal grandparents, particularly that owned by my grandfather, Robert Lewis Robbins, as I wasn't sure if or when my grandmother's name would be on any deeds. My purpose was to find some evidence for the oral history that my father and aunt have shared with me about family property. As I mentioned in Part 1, my online search led me to online records about my grandfather's parents and siblings; in turn, sharing those web pages with extended family has produced more oral history about those years, which is very exciting (I'm having a hard time keeping up with recording all of this!). But I also wanted to share in this post about some of the actual evidence of property ownership I did find online.
First of all, I went to FamilySearch to see if land records were available through the Family History Library for the locations and time periods I wanted. In the FHL online catalog, I did a place search for Ottawa (county) and Michigan, the county in which I know for sure that my grandfather owned at least three pieces of property. The catalog was not real helpful. I know that my grandfather bought his probable first piece of property after World War II, at 185 River Street in Coopersville (which reminds me...I need to figure out where he and Grandma lived between their marriage on 12 Oct 1940 and his enlistment in the service on 13 Oct 1942...a rental? with family? own home?). The deed records for Ottawa County end in 1939, and the mortgage records end in 1940; both are only indexed until 1901. This information will be helpful when I search for my grandparents' parents' land records, but not for my purpose at hand. There is a land atlas book for 1987 - 1989, which I can only view on site if I go to Salt Lake City. Again, it may be interesting, but won't provide exactly what I'm looking for, since I already know where the land my grandparents owned during that time was located.
My next try was to go to the Ottawa County Clerk's Office online. I simply Googled it as such: "ottawa county clerk" michigan. I used Michigan as part of the search term, because I figured there might be another county by that name in another state. When I found the site, I looked for the county assessor's department. I didn't find one, but I did find the Register [sic] of Deeds. Note to Ottawa County webmaster: a register is an item in which documents are recorded; a registrar is an official in charge of making sure documents are registered! From here, I could do a Property Search for Public Users, which was free limited access to the records. I could search by Owner Last Name, Parcel Number, Property Address Number, or Range of Property Address Numbers, as well as limit my search by Active or Inactive Parcels, or both. When I searched by Owner Last Name (Robbins) and both kinds of parcels, I found the information for the house my grandfather had purchased for his widowed mother to live in sometime around 1972 (131 Madison, Coopersville). The details stated that the property had been purchased before 1975. I also discovered that my grandparents had bought additional lots around the original property. For a very reasonable cost ($1.50 each), I can order deed searches for each parcel. I also was able to find rather current (from 1999 to the present) information on the 185 River Street property in Coopersville, as well as the surrounding three lots Grandpa bought later. I believe my grandfather sold these parcels on River Street when he retired to my uncle, along with the body shop business; my uncle sold everything in the 1980s, so the current owner's name is a stranger to me. I've put all these items on my "Records To Purchase" list, and printed up all the information I could off the website. The only thing I need to do is figure out how to find the parcel or address information for the lake cottage on Crockery Lake which Grandpa once owned in order to order those records as well.
My next searches were in various Texas counties where my grandparents "snowbirded" and later retired (along with several of my grandfather's siblings). I didn't know the county names for some of them: Glen Rose, Corpus Christi, Rockport, Fulton, San Antonio. So I used the county finder (U.S. Town/County Database) at RootsWeb, and came up with Somervell, Nueces, Aransas, Aransas (again), and Bexar counties, respectively. The Somervell County Clerk's Office has no records online; in fact, their website was pretty bare bones. Nueces County had tons of information, but I had to go through a free, but slightly time-consuming, registration process. It was worth it, because although I didn't find anything from 1982 through the present on my grandfather or his brothers, I did find a piece of property one of his sisters had co-owned with what looks like friends. The Bexar County Clerk's site brought me property information for my granduncle and his son, and the Aransas County Clerk's site gave me my grandmother's current property information.
One thing that I learned about looking at county clerk websites: each is as different from each other as can be, even within a state. Some county clerk's offices don't even have a website, or one that is well done (as modeled in the Somervell County, Texas example, above). Some have greatly detailed information, while others have the basics. Some offer all details for free, while others ask for payment for all or part of the information. Here in Spokane County, I can view online current (three years old or less) photographs of the property, and in Clark County, Washington, I was able to find very old photographs (c. 80 years old) and a footprint of the home of my parents-in-law, with information about additions to the main structure. On some websites, you need to find the assessor's or appraisal information, while on others, you must look for deeds, taxes, or just plain property records.
Most of the records you'll find at online county clerk websites are fairly current information, usually no more than five years old, with most being closer to three. It's not often helpful to find ancestors' records; however, it can be a way to find out who the current owner of an ancestral home is, or see a current photograph. It can also lead you to being able to purchase older records, as I discovered with my grandfather's properties.