Beginner's Guide to Island Land Records By Ann Coles


Used with permission. For research and private study only. View the original article as it appeared in the Island Magazine, No. 25, Spring/Summer 1989.

On 23 June 1767, Prince Edward Island's 67 townships were distributed by lot to some 100 inpiduals with claims on the Crown's largess. Ever since, the history of our land has been the history of our Island and its people. No student of Island history can ignore the part the land and the accompanying "Land Question" have played in our public history. But not everyone realizes that the study of a small, inpidual parcel of land — say, 50 acres on Lot 21 or Town Lot #F-12 Third Range in Georgetown — can add essential details to the history of one's own family. If sought out, the Island's land records can contribute immeasurably to the story of our ancestors, supplying names, dates, and details that, for the most part, are available nowhere else.

For the uninitiated, land records can be a dark and confusing place. It does not have to be this way. The following is intended as a brief introduction to an important source for family historians. The most obvious way to proceed is to trace the ownership of a given piece of property.

Daring Deeds and Other Records

What documents comprise land records? Included in this group are deeds, mortgages, Crown Grants, leases, wills, and, though they are not in themselves legal documents, cadastral maps. Wills actually fall under the heading of probate records, but they must be included here because land could pass by will alone with no accompanying deed prior to 1939.

Key to Sources


While not legal land records as such, the various proprietors' ledgers or rent books could be included in the list of records the researcher should consult. These led-gers were kept by the land agents to record payment of rent, and are often the only clue you might find that an ancestor lived in a certain area. From the ledgers you will also learn what amount of rent was paid and, sometimes, the method of payment. Rather than cash, rent was often paid in produce or, as in the case of one of my ancestors, with "feathers."

At first glance, the sheer number of these records may be enough to send the fledgling researcher scuttling back to newspaper research. At least the newspapers are legible and when ancestor-hunting begins to pall, you can always bone up on Island history or catch up with the life of Jiggs and Maggie. Take heart! You can chart a course through this seeming tangle, and probably come out with invaluable information for your family history. Keep in mind, after all, that land records are considered primary source documents. Thus, any information found there will have enhanced validity.

Beginning genealogists are always told to start with themselves, the known, and work backwards into the unknown. So it is with property search. First, determine the lot — because of the manner of their original granting, our townships came to be referred to as "Lots" — and location of the old family homestead. Next, arm yourself with all possible clues as to ownership. A trip to the Map Library located adjacent to the Queens County Registry Office will provide you with an aerial photograph of the land and the tax number. From this number, the present owner can be determined. Locate the same property in the Meacham's Atlas of 1880 and the Cummins Atlas of 1927 (both excellent examples of cadastral maps). You now should have a record of three owners over the past 109 years. The remaining task — a substantial one — is to fill in the gaps.

PlanLots_53-4_KingsCo.pngGoing Backwards

Equipped with your three reference points, you should now proceed to the Registry Office for the appropriate county: Kings, Queens, or Prince. The records for Kings and Queens Counties are located together in the Queens County Registry Office in Charlottetown; Prince County has an office of its own in Summerside, the county seat. Copies of land transactions (except for actual leases) for all counties are available in each location. Start your search in an index called "Conveyances TO," and begin with the present. Even if you know the owner to have been in possession for the past number of years, his deed may have been registered only recently. In title searching, making assumptions and attempting shortcuts can prove to be a waste of precious time.

The Conveyances TO are listed alphabetically, and you should be searching for the present owner's name before working your way backward through time. This is not quite as straightforward as it appears. From 1900 to the present, you will be working with a "third letter index." Surnames are arranged alphabetically according to the first and third letter of the surname, instead of the first letter, or first and second letter. Thus, Coles and Collins have been grouped under "CL" (the first and third letters), while Compton has been listed as if it were "CM." For a name beginning with that popular Island prefix "Mac," go to the "Mac" section, then, ignoring the prefix, search according to the first and third letters of the remainder of the surname: thus, MacDonald under "DN," MacLean under "LA," MacKay under "KY," and so on. But back to our search.

Find the entry for the present owner and determine that the land referred to in this deed is the same parcel as the one you are searching. After all, an owner may have several parcels received by inpidual deeds. The entry will tell you who the land was purchased from, the liber (book) and folio (page) where the actual deed is recorded, the number of the document, what was purchased, and the location of the land. Record this information, then turn to the book and page indicated to find the document itself. Read through the document and look for clues to past owners. Sometimes older deed numbers or even original lease dates have become a permanent part of the property description.

Continue back through the TO index, determining each successive owner of the property in question, until your search has passed the 1939 boundary. Time now for a more concrete example. Let's take that 50-acre parcel of land on Lot 21 mentioned in the introduction. William MacKay sold the land in question in 1942, but you are unable to locate a deed for him. You have just encountered one of the major obstacles in title searching. It is time to don your Sherlock Holmes hat and put your clues together. By consulting Meacham's Atlas, you learn that Robert MacKay was situated on the same property in 1880. Off you go to the wills. Sure enough, when Robert died in 1906, he willed his 50-acre homestead to his eldest son, William. A definite link has been established, and you now know William's position in the MacKay family.

Why was there no deed for this transaction? Prior to 2 October 1939, land could pass by will alone with no deed required. Worse, still, the will did not have to describe the land in any way. Land could pass through many generations by this method. For this reason, it can be extremely difficult to search out ownership of land that was freehold for any length of time, since there are fewer ways to trace the thread of ownership through successive land transfers. The problem is acute in areas where early proprietors were willing to sell land to their tenants. For example, the Montgomery family, proprietors of Lot 34, began selling land to their tenants at reasonable rates in the early 1800s. The same difficulty exists when searching land granted freehold to Loyalists in the 1780s.

In these situations, cadastral maps can prove their worth. These maps, which can vary in size from several plots to an entire lot, were prepared for the use of the proprietor in approving leases and collecting rents. Unfortunately, the map record is far from complete, and while many areas are covered by extant maps, many others are not. The maps, which bear the date on which they were surveyed and drawn, were frequently updated to reflect changes in ownership. This is reason for caution. The fact that Robert MacKay is shown on an 1844 map of Lot 21 does not necessarily indicate that he was there in that year. Examine the writing and the ink closely for signs that updating might have occurred. 

CrownGrant_PEI.pngCrown Grants  

We are now back to Robert, who willed his land in 1906. But how did he get it? Perhaps by will or, if freehold, by deed. More likely, though, he received his land by Crown Grant. It is best to search these next. (You should also look for more maps, since some of them record Crown Grant numbers.) The Crown Grants were issued by the provincial government to tenants following its takeover of proprietors' estates. This process began in earnest after passage of the Land Purchase Act in 1853 and continued after the Land Purchase Act of 1875 into the latter part of the century as the government bought up the large landowners' estates and re-sold the land at bargain prices to the tenantry. The grants were recorded separately in their own series of books, to which there are, for some unknown reason, two overlapping "TO" indexes. This is one place where you can try a shortcut. For each lot, a ledger was kept to record payments made to the government. All of these ledgers have survived except those for Lots 17, 25, and 52. Each ledger has its own index and contains a double page for each debtor, showing amount owing and payments made. At the top of the lefthand page you will be told the acreage involved and sometimes the name of a previous owner. The right-hand page will give the actual number of the grant; with luck, you will find the original lease number recorded at the bottom. Using the ledger does present one problem. New landowners had roughly ten years to complete payment for their grant. Should a buyer decide to sell before purchase was completed, his name was stroked out in the index and the new owner's name entered opposite. For example, if John Smith sold to Robert MacKay, the entry would have "Smith" stroked out and "now Robert MacKay" written in, but there would be no corresponding index entry under "MacKay." If Robert did not receive a Crown Grant, your next step would be to search for a deed to him. Before 1900, you will be using a chronological first letter index. This creates a little more work but does allow you to search for several


names at once. Let's get back to the Crown Grants. Between 1873 and 1900 you find 15 index entries for conveyances to a Robert MacKay in Queens County. Remember that on the right-hand page of the index there is a brief description of the land involved in each transaction and the number of the lot wherein the land is located. Of the 15 entries involving a Robert MacKay, only three are for land on Lot 21. This immediately reduces the number of entries you need look up. 

Leasing Arrangements

Now to the leases. The Crown Grant ledger tells you that Robert received Lease #209 for Lot 21. Accordingly, you go off to the Public Archives of Prince Edward Island, where lease information has been microfilmed. When proprietors first leased land to a tenant, that transaction was recorded in the appropriate indexes to the leases, both under TO and FROM. Unfortunately, there is no set of books comparable to the deed books, wherein actual lease information was recorded. The tenant received the only copy of the lease. Subsequent transfers of this lease were rarely recorded in the index. Instead, the grantor and grantee (seller and purchaser) came to an agreement, then went to the nearest Commissioner of Deeds and had their agreement recorded on the body of the lease itself. This lease paper then became the property of the new owner. No other record of this transaction was made. Over time many of these leases have gone missing, taking with them the history recorded thereon. It is actually surprising that so many leases survived from the period of their creation until the time — sometimes generations later — they were finally exchanged for a Crown Grant.

In this instance, you are in luck. Lease #209 has survived the test of time. It is made out to one James MacKay and is dated 30 August 1817. What does this mean? To all appearances, you have just added another generation to your family, plus your ancestor's date of arrival on Prince Edward Island. But beware the genealogical sin of assumption. For various reasons (among them primitive travelling conditions) proprietors' agents usually made infrequent visits to each settlement in their charge. A tenant might be in actual occupation of a parcel of land for several years before a lease was drawn up and issued. All you can be sure of at this point is that James MacKay was here on and before 1817. Nor can you be certain at this stage if James MacKay is the father of Robert. Once again, there are more questions than answers.

Let's construct another scenario. You find nothing recorded on the lease to indicate a transfer of property to Robert. Next you look for a will or administration for James; there is none on record. What now? Another examination of the available indexes may tell you the rest of the story. This time you are working with the index created prior to 1873. It is called the General Index because it records all transactions, whether deeds, mortgages, or memorials of judgment, for the entire Island with no subpision by county. Some leases also managed to get recorded here instead of in their own books.

In Conveyances TO you find a deed dated in 1869 from a group of people to Robert MacKay. You have stumbled on a gold mine. Families often agreed on which of the children should inherit the family homestead. They avoided the courts by executing a "Quit Claim Deed." Such deeds are invaluable for the genealogist, since they list all heirs of the deceased, along with their addresses, occupations, and the names of their spouses — far more information than most wills provide. When found, such deeds can solve questions that may have plagued a genealogist for years.

To and From 

Until now we have been working solely with the Conveyances TO indexes. Title searchers chiefly use Conveyances FROM to prove good title and to ensure that no small parcels have been sold from the original property. For the family historian, however, some of the best finds result from browsing through the Conveyances FROM books. Taking a family surname, the researcher may scan through the Conveyances FROM until something of interest catches the eye. When an entry contains two or more names, followed by "et aux," it is a clue that a family may have made some kind of group transaction. Another tip-off is a surname entry, with a list of initials appended, indicating that several people of the same surname were involved in a transfer of land.

Key Dates in Land Research

1764-65 During the winter, Samuel Holland surveys the Island, piding it into 67 townships of about 20,000 acres each, 5 parishes, and 3 counties. He also lays out the sites for three county seats.

23 July 1767 The numbers of the-67 townships are placed in a box, drawn at random, and assigned to inpiduals and groups with claims on the government. For next century, much of the Island is owned by largescale proprietors, who lease farms to tenants on varying terms. The Land Question is born.

1853 First Land Purchase Act passed. Island government begins to buy out properties of cooperating largescale proprietors for re-sale to tenantry.

1873 After this year, the Island is treated as three counties.

1875 Second Land Purchase Act. Proprietors owning more than 1,000 acres compelled to sell their holdings to Island government. Government issues Crown Grants to tenants, who become owners of their leasehold property.

1900 Third letter indexing of indices becomes the rule rather than the exception.

2 Oct. 1939 After this date, land can no longer be passed by will alone, but must have an accompanying deed executed.

1 Jan. 1979 Dower interest done away with and the Matrimonial Property Law brought into effect.

A personal example might be illustrative here. An entry reading "FROM John Dixon and wife, et. aux." caught my eye during an excursion into the Conveyances FROM ledgers. Upon investigation, I discovered that Sarah (Roper) Dixon and her siblings had joined together in a release of their interest in the estate of their late father, Daniel Roper, to his son Harry. This was an exciting revelation, as there was no family tradition about the identity of Sarah's father or even that he had once lived on the Island. Without this knowledge, I would never have thought to look for a will for him. Not only did the Conveyance FROM entry add another generation to my family tree, it gave me another whole family to explore.

The Roper example occasions another observation. According to the deed, Daniel Roper died in 1809. Yet his estate was not settled until 1836, 27 years later. Never fall into the trap of assuming that a document will be registered within a year or two of the event it records. For a number of reasons, estates often were not settled for many years. Perhaps the family members were not aware of the required procedure or perhaps they were waiting for the death of the mother before piding up the homestead. They may have been waiting for younger siblings to come of age or for others to come home "from away." Sometimes deeds were executed but not registered until the owner went to sell or otherwise dispose of the property. In summary, it is best for a researcher to keep in mind the possibility of late registry. Do not abandon the search until you have looked through the records for 30 or 40 years from the time of the transaction. 


Land records tell a story of land ownership. They can also provide a valuable thread leading back through the labyrinth of family history. Beyond that simple list of owners, the byproducts of land searches potentially include useful secondary information. Here are a few of the possibilities.

A study of land records can help trace the movements of our ancestors from one community to another or from country to city. In this way, the researcher can establish time frames that open up other avenues of research, for example, church records for an area that hitherto was not thought to be relevant. The address listed at time of lease or purchase is usually the purchaser's previous residence, and may even state where in England or Scotland our ancestor came from.

In addition to location, land records often list occupations, another boon for the family historian. Just because great-grandfather died as a farmer does not mean he was always, or solely, a farmer. He may well have been a blacksmith or shoemaker until he obtained enough money to pay for his farm.

What was the name of great-great-grandfather's wife? If he sold land, her name will be included when she resigned her dower interest. Unfortunately, this does not apply to transfers of leases. Besides names, original documents such as leases or wills often provide a copy of ancestors' signatures. Not only are these fun to collect, the script can be a clue to the signer's level of education. Similarly, a document signed with an ancestor's "mark" may indicate that he could not (or was unable to) sign his name.

What about economic status? Was great-grandfather well off or did he carry a heavy mortgage to the local storekeeper? Was he involved in a monetary dispute with a neighbour? The mortgages or memorials of judgment may hold the story of this aspect of his life.

Rules and Exceptions 

The foregoing has been a rather simplistic overview of a title search: what it entails, what it can reveal, and what can go wrong. You may be asking what else our ancestors could possibly have done to confound and confuse us? The answer is, unfortunately, many things.

One major problem arises when an unmarried woman received property, then married and sold the land. The conveyance seldom, if ever, includes her maiden name. Such land was often sold by husband and wife with the parties signing off in such a manner as to suggest that the husband was the actual owner. There is no way around this problem other than to study maps and wills for possible solutions, then follow up on each possibility suggested by those two sources.

Mortgage sales represent another exceptional case. Land lost through a mortgage sale will show as a "conveyance from" the sheriff, though the name of the mortgagor will appear in the body of the document. Likewise, deeds given by executors or trustees will be indexed under their names with the name of the deceased mentioned in the document itself. Thus, the actual owner will not be found in the index.

Such examples illustrate an important point, one that bears repeating. It can be frustrating, if not impossible, to search a property working from past to present. Present to past is the surer method to follow.

Special attention should be paid to cadastral maps. Though not legal documents, they can be revealing and can play a key role in problem-solving. A personal example: while searching for something else on an 1844 map of Lot 21, I noticed the name James MacKay written on the old family homestead. I had always been told that my earliest MacKay ancestor was "Alexander." James's name on the lot map was the first clue I had that my information might be wrong. Suspicion became certainty when I later discovered a Quit Claim Deed that included my great-grandmother as one of James's daughters. So much for the years I spent tracking down information on Alexander, who turned out to be James's cousin.

Many people ask, "Can I tell from the deeds when a house was built?" The answer is: maybe yes, maybe no.

Each deed has a consideration clause. In early days, it read, "in consideration of $1.00," but inflation has taken over and this now reads $5.00. The consideration in deeds transferring property from father to son often read "natural love and affection" (arguably more valuable than $1.00.) In olden times, just as now, people were hesitant to have the monetary value of their business deals made public, but the consideration given sometimes represented the actual selling price of the land. If the selling price was much greater than the purchase price for the same land, you may be safe in assuming that a house had since been constructed or some major improvement to the property made. 

Closing the Books

Why bother with land records at all, some may ask, when the work is hard and the returns are not guaranteed. At worst, you may come out of your search without much to enrich the story of your own family. Even then, you cannot fail to increase your understanding of the "Land Question," that issue of so much concern to our ancestors. After all, to understand our forefathers we must try to understand the times in which they lived. In that sense, a study of the Island's land records can be a worthwhile and rewarding experience. At best, you may discover valuable nuggets of information as well as a new set of research leads. In closing, a word of caution to those planning to rush out and begin a records search of the old family homestead. Land registry offices are not dark rooms filled with musty books and documents tucked away and forgotten. Rather, they are places of business, where many legal researchers practise their profession. The registry staff are there to help and to guide you, but they cannot do your work for you. Nor have they the time to teach you other than in a limited way. Therefore, do your homework before you go. Familiarize yourself with the registry system by using the microfilm records at the Provincial Archives. As far as possible, know exactly what you are looking for and how to go about finding it. Proceed in this manner and you will be welcome to come back another day.

A Glossary of Land Terms

Administrator(s): person or persons assigned by law to settle the estate of an inpidual who died without a will.

Cadastral Map: map of an area showing land boundaries and land owners.

Chain: a land measurement equalling 66 feet.

Crown Grant: the sale of land (purchased by the government from proprietors) by government to tenants.

Crown Grant Ledgers: a series of books for each township or proprietors' estate, summarizing the transactions by which a tenant purchased land from the government. (Ledgers for Lots 17, 25, and 52 are missing.)

Deed: a document recording the legal transfer of land from one owner to another.

Deed, Quit Claim: a deed releasing any and all interest a person might have to a parcel of land.

Deed of Trust: a deed from one or more persons to another person or group of people to hold the interest in a parcel of land for a third party.

Dower: the part of a man's estate allotted by law to his wife or widow.

Executor(s): person or persons named in a valid will to settle an estate.

Folio: a Latin word, meaning "page."

Freehold, Fee Simple: land owned as opposed to leased.

Intestate: one who dies without a legal will.

Leasehold: land held by lease and for which the tenant paid rent. On Prince Edward Is- land, the terms of a lease could vary from 40 to 999 years. Leasehold interest could be as- signed or conveyed to another.

Liber: a Latin word, meaning "book."

Link: a land measurement equal to 7.92 inches. There are 100 links in a chain.

Lot: on Prince Edward Island a term meaning a township. Generally equal to about 20,000 acres.

Loyalist Lands: lands granted by the Island government to persons or groups of persons classed as "Loyalists" for their allegience to Britain during the American Revolution. These lands were owned, not leased.

Moiety: a half part.

Primary Sources : sources of information created by those with actual knowledge of, or who participated in, an event. Recorded at the time of, or shortly after, the event.

Probate Records : Records held by the probate court having to do with the settling of estates of deceased persons.

Rod: a land measurement equal to 16 1/2 feet.

Squatter: one who settles on unoccupied land without legal claim to it.

Tenant: one who occupies land owned by another.

Testate: having made a valid will before death.