What You Can Find in the Library Part VI: Deeds and Indentures

Hannah D. Cox, Archivist/Librarian

In this blog post, we are looking at the difference between a deed and an indenture and sharing some images of both from the Library’s collection. The Library has well over 300 items in the Deeds and Indentures Collection, with some dating back to the 17th CenturySeveral of our earliest deeds are also in Dutch, and involve transactions between the Dutch and local Native American tribes. We are in the process of cataloging these materials individually, although that project is currently on hold while we are working from home. Once we resume, researchers will be able to search our catalog to find these wonderful items and a complete finding aid will be available on our website 
Indenture, Schuyler, Livingston, et. al., 16 April 1709
Indenture, Schuyler, Livingston, et. al., 16 April 1709
What exactly is the difference between a deed and an indenture? These kinds of documents are frequently lumped together as “deeds,” when in fact they are two very distinct things. Per the Society of American Archivists online glossary, a deed is “a document that details an agreement relating to the transfer of ownership of property, especially real property, from one individual to another.” An indenture is “a formal agreement between two or more parties, usually a written document with a serrated edge.” (The glossary goes on to explain that the serrated edge on an indenture was used to help prevent forgeries.) What this essentially means is that a deed is the proof of actual ownership of the property, like the title you receive from your bank once your car is paid off. An indenture, on the other hand, is like the payment agreement you make with your bank in exchange for them giving you a loan.  
Deed for Three Islands in Hudson River Opposite Green Island, May 31, 1664 (in Dutch, see here for translation)
Deeds and indentures are often found in archival collections because they show the transfer of property over the years. These documents usually include such information as where the property was located, its boundaries, the parties involved in the agreement, and witnesses. Deeds and indentures are often used by researchers to determine how land was subdivided, to whom, and in what year, but can prove frustrating when property boundaries are referred to as “John Smith’s old oak stump,” or “the stream.” Genealogists find that deeds and indentures can have an added benefit in helping to research relatives, as witnesses were often close friends and family members of those directly involved. This can help immensely when attempting to locate female relatives because her male relatives were often among the witnesses to an agreement.  
Beyond their research value, deeds and indentures from the last few hundred years are often elegant and beautiful documents. The lovely handwriting, misspellings, time period and language variants on spellings, and flowery language, periodically make these documents challenging to read, however. In many cases, official seals were affixed to the document to prove its legality. As seen below, these seals were sometimes quite large and ornate. This one is approximately 4 inches in diameter! 
As always, please contact us with any questions. Next week we will be taking a closer look at our Ephemera Collection in Part VII of this series. 
7 May 2020