Finding land records at the courthouse can be tricky because counties use different systems to index them. And some don't index them at all.
Generally, though, two indexes are created for county deeds. One is for the grantors, or those selling the land; the other is for grantees, the buyers. The information in these indexes is limited. Resourceful researchers must read the deeds to get tidbits such as the names of adjacent landowners.
In some counties, the deeds have been abstracted. An abstractor goes through each deed for a specific time period and pulls critical information from it. That usually includes the names of the people buying and selling the land; a description of the land; names of neighbors; and perhaps a history of the land and each individual who owned it previously.
Abstractors publish their work with titles such as "Kinfolks of Johnston County North Carolina, Abstracts of Deeds 1759-1825." The index of such a book will contain the names of everyone listed on the deed, not just the grantor and grantee.
Early deed books used a simple, straightforward system, listing grantors and grantees, mostly alphabetically, at the beginning of the book. All surnames beginning with an "A" would appear together, but not strictly alphabetically, because the list was handwritten and was not re-alphabetized with each addition.
Some county deed records use the Cott or Russell index systems, recognizable by the lack of a straightforward alphabetical index at the front of the volume. Cott and Russell are similar in that both create subindexes. For example, if a county uses the Russell system, the index volumes will consist of tables formatted with letters of the alphabet running down the first column. Each subsequent column is headed by the key letters of l, m, r and t.
Searching for the surname "Mathis," look in the first column for the "M" row. Next look at the surname for one of those key letters in the Mathis name. The "a" is not a key letter, so look for the "t," which is a key letter. Following the "t" column down until it merges with the "M" row, the researcher will learn that the index for Mathis deeds is on page 45 of the book.
On page 45 the researcher will find a list of grantors or grantees with the name Mathis. Each Mathis entry will give a deed book volume and page number. The deed books are large, heavy ledgers housed on special filing shelves that can be rolled off with ease.
It never hurts to ask for help in a deed room, but don't be surprised if no one goes out of their way to assist. The deed room will be filled with lawyers or paid researchers searching land titles for modern-day real estate transactions. Untrained genealogists usually are viewed as pests, so go prepared and don't be intimidated.
Before setting out to visit the courthouse, researchers should study Christine Rose's "Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures." It's available through the Hillsborough County public library system. Go to www.hcplc.org and check the catalog.
Rose has a smaller publication "Courthouse Indexes Illustrated. " It fits nicely in a briefcase or file folder so it's handy to take on research trips. The book is available for $9.95 plus $2.50 postage at www.christine4rose.com. She also sells her courthouse research book for $21.98 plus $4.95 shipping/handling.