Land Deed Witnesses: Clues to Family Relationships

Land deeds provide more information than the locations of where our ancestors lived. They abound with mentions of the FAN Club – friends, associates, and neighbors. One area often overlooked by researchers in favor of more direct evidence found in land records are the individuals who witness the land transactions. This may be because witness relationships to the those buying and selling the land are not always as obvious as others mentioned elsewhere in the document and thus constitute indirect evidence.

In my experience, witnesses to the land transfer tend to be a friend or family member of the grantor; a neighbor; or the spouse or other family member of the attorney, justice of the peace, or county judge acknowledging the transaction. Friends or family members of the grantee seem rarer.

Yet, witnesses can be just the clue needed to break through stubborn genealogical brick walls. Some researchers shy away from indirect evidence because it is, well, not direct. However, if you can build enough indirect evidence, you can develop a stronger proof argument. To be honest, it takes considerable time and effort to research witnesses, and it may not often pay off. But you just need one to work out for it to be worthwhile. You never know what you can discover. Consider the following two examples.

Finding the Maiden Name of my 18th Century Ancestor: Phebe (Penrose) Wilson
In Pennsylvania, marriage licenses were not required prior to 1885 and similar church records can be difficult to come by. My 5x times great grandmother, Phebe (d. 1842), married William Wilson (d. 1804) about 1783 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and her marriage was not recorded – at least not in the traditional sense.

Phebe was a Quaker, and her husband was not, which put her at odds with her faith and church. Quaker meeting minutes from the Richland Monthly Meeting in Bucks County record Phebe as marrying outside the Quaker faith and “expressing her sorrow” for doing so.[1] Unfortunately, Phebe was mentioned in the minutes by her married name with no other clues as to her maiden name.

In 1804, her husband died in New London, Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1807, Phebe sold his land to William Streaper and moved to Richland, which is presumably where she lived at the time of her marriage to William Wilson.[2] The transaction was witnessed by W. (Walter) Finney and Isaiah Penrose. Walter Finney was the subscribing judge.

A broad search in Ancestry.com for an Isaiah Penrose anywhere in the U.S. during this time period revealed only one individual. He resided in Richland at the same time of the land transaction.[3] Further research identified that Isaiah Penrose died in 1817. In his will, he stated that “the remainder of my estate be equally divided between my three sisters – Phebe, Mary, Martha – but no last names are given.”[4] This mention suggested Isaiah may have been her brother, but being indirect evidence, I needed more to build my case.

A review of family trees on Ancestry suggested Isaiah may have been the son of Jonathan Penrose, who died in 1797.[5] In reviewing Jonathan’s estate file, he bequeaths “unto my daughter Phebe the sum of 33 pounds, six shillings, and eight pence”.[6] Unfortunately again, no married surname is given in this reference for Phebe. However, a “book debt against Phebe Wilson” for £5.10 is listed among Jonathan’s inventory of goods, chattels, and credits. Also, Mary, Martha, and Isaiah are additionally mentioned in the will indicating I found the correct family.

Based on the indirect evidence, I felt confident to proclaim Phebe’s maiden name as Penrose. Once established, I was able to discover several triangulated autosomal DNA matches through several of Phebe’s newly identified siblings.

Finding the Potential Father of my 18th Century Ancestor: Mary (McMasters) Boyd
My 5x great grandfather, William Boyd (1753-1836) married Mary McMasters (1755-1832) in 1778 Bucks County, Pennsylvania.[7] The parents for both William and Mary are unknown. However, William served in the Revolutionary War and wrote a 10-page letter in 1832 in support of his federal pension application where he provided two clues as to the potential identity of his wife’s father.[8] William stated he was living in Northampton Township, Bucks County at the time of his enlistment in 1776-1777 and that he twice served as a substitute for Hugh Edams, who was also of Northampton.

In exploring the possible connection between William Boyd and Hugh Edams, I reviewed all land records in Bucks County for Hugh as well as his brother Gayen and their father James, who, according to local tax records, were the only male Edams during this time period. In the search, I found one land transaction where James Edams purchased 60 acres of land in Northampton from Andrew Gilkeson in 1784. The purchase agreement was witnessed by James McMasters, William Simpson, and Robert Mearns Jr. while the exchange of funds between Edams and Gilkeson was witnessed by Thomas McMasters and William Simpson.[9]

I was able to quickly rule out James McMasters (1736-1806) as the potential father of Mary (McMasters) Boyd because James’ 1806 will mentioned that his daughter Mary was unmarried.[10]

This left Thomas McMasters as a potential candidate for Mary’s father. Thomas was the correct age to be Mary’s father as he was likely born before 1727 as evidenced by him witnessing the will of John Wells in 1748.[11] Mary (McMasters) Boyd was born about 1755.[12] Establishing a further connection between Thomas McMasters and James Edams is that Thomas is believed to have had a son named William McMasters, who was listed as single and living at the residence of James Edams in 1782 according to local tax records.[13] This is two years earlier than the witnessing of the transfer of funds between James Edams and Andrew Gilkeson.

While more research is needed to build a more complete argument for Thomas McMasters as the father of Mary (McMasters) Boyd, his appearance as a witness for James Edams is important given the association between Mary’s husband and the Edams family. It seems that the McMasters, Boyds, and Edams were well acquainted with one another. The Boyds and the McMasters owned no land and future records indicate both families were poor making them more difficult to locate in other traditional records.[14] It is possible that the Boyds and McMasters resided on (or nearby) James Edams’ large estate, which totaled more than 400 acres in Northampton, Bucks County.

Summary In Brief
Land records can provide more than the locations of where our ancestors lived. While witnesses to these transfers constitute only a very small part of the overall transaction, they divulge not so obvious relationships if we are persistent and willing to put in the effort to reveal their true identity.


Don’t miss new blog posts. Complete the form below to be notified every time I post a new blog.

[1] U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935, Phebe Wilson, 20 March 1783, Richland Monthly Meeting, Men’s Minutes, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 167, image 86 of 115; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 7 April 2022), citing Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Quaker Meeting Records.

[2] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, land deed, Phebe Wilson and Barack Michener to William Streaper (1807), Book A3, Vol. 39, p. 437-439, Recorder of Deeds, West Chester; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 238-239 of 308, film 8083334. And U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935, Phebe Wilson, 20 March 1783, Richland Monthly Meeting, Women’s Minutes, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, p. 67, image 38 of 100; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 7 April 2022), citing Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Quaker Meeting Records.

[3] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, U.S., Tax Records, 1782-1860, Isaiah Penrose (1806), Richland, image 8 of 23; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 6 April 2022); citing Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, Title No. 102, roll 18.

[4] Bucks County Registry of Wills, 1713-1906, Isaiah Penrose (1817), Vol. 9, pg. 223, image 134 of 256; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 6 April 2022).

[5] Family tree citing family relationship of Isaiah to Jonathan.

[6] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no 2775, will, Jonathan Penrose (1797), Richland, Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Doylestown.

[7] U.S. Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1970, Willm Boyd and McMasters (1788), Newtown Presbyterian Church, Baptisms, Births, Marriages, 1769-1812, p. 20, image 22 of 148; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 14 March 2022); Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[8] Pension Application, William Boyd, Sergeant, Revolutionary War, “Declaration of William Boyd in order to obtain the benefit of the Act of Congress passed June 7,1832”, dated 9 April 1833, Pension Application S.22,127, Pension Office, War Department, Washington, DC; online database with images, Fold3 (www.fold3.com, accessed 31 July 2018).

[9] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, land deed, James Edams from Andrew Gilkeson (1784), Book 22, p. 146-148, Recorder of Deeds, Doylestown; database with an image (www.familysearch.org), image 413-414 of 640, film 8067826.

[10] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no 3380, will, James McMasters (1806), Upper Makefield, Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Doylestown.

[11] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, estate file, no 608, will, John Wells (1748), Solebury, Recorder of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Doylestown.

[12] Chester County, Pennsylvania, Poor House Admissions Index, 1800-1910, Mary Boyd (1830, aged 75), Chester town, Book RQS, Item ID 1800; database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 8 April 2022).

[13] Bucks County, Pennsylvania, U.S., Tax Records, 1782-1860, William McMasters (1782), Northampton, “single, at James Edams’, image 8 of 18; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 8 April 2022); citing Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, Title No. 102, roll 15.

[14] Chester County, Pennsylvania, Poor House Admissions Index, 1800-1910, William Boyd (1832, aged 79), Chester town, Book RQS, Item ID 1813; database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 8 April 2022). And McNealy, Terry and Frances Wise Waite (1982), Bucks County Tax Records, 1693-1778, Doylestown, PA: Bucks County Genealogical Society; Thomas McMasters (1775, Warwick, “poor”).

Published by Rick T Wilson, PhD

As the Family Pattern Genealogist™, I detect and analyze patterns in genealogically relevant data using DNA and other traditional records.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: