Saturday, December 6, 2014

Finding Clues in Land Records

When and where did my 4th great-grandfather Burr Zelah Dornon die? The investigation continues. Recently, through the online community, I was able to connect with a distant Dornon cousin who's also interested in this question.

In October, she was able to visit a Lawrence County, Ohio library and locate a small collection of land records that shed more light on Burr's dealings in his final years.

Do these land records provide subtle clues about Burr's death?

Bookend Records
Readers of this blog are familiar with the ongoing research into Burr's death (see Running From the Rebels and Stone Broke). The historical documents we've located to-date have enabled us to narrow his passing to a six-year window.

Burr and his family are living in Jackson County, Virginia (soon to be West Virginia) on July 7, 1860 when the U.S. Federal Census is enumerated.

B.Z. Dornon Family enumerated in Jackson County, VA 1860

According to his son Andrew, we know that the Dornon family fled Jackson County in 1862 when the Confederates briefly took control of the county. The family fled west to Ohio where they had previously lived.

The marriage of Burr's daughter Anna helps us to bookend his life. Anna Dornon and Albert Benedick (my 3rd great-grandparents) obtain a marriage license in Lawrence County, Ohio on October 20, 1866. 

The marriage record indicates that they demonstrated, "consent of the mothers of the above named parties and that their fathers are dead." Burr Zelah Dornon is alive July 7, 1860, but has passed away by October 20, 1866.

Anna Dornon & Albert Benedick - Ohio Marriage License October 20, 1866

Land Records
My Dornon cousin was able to locate two records where Burr purchases land in Lawrence County, Ohio in July and August 1856.

First, on July 29, 1856, he pays $300 for two tracts of land - one consisting of 40 acres and the other 60 acres. The land is being sold to settle the debts of the recently deceased John McComas.

July 29, 1856 $300 Land Purchase by Burr Z. Dornon

I was able to locate journal entries from the Lawrence County probate court overseeing the settlement of Mr. McComas' estate. On July 29, 1856, the probate judge approved the sale of  some of Mr. McComas' property and "ordered that said petitioner [James White who is the appointed administrator of John McComas' estate] execute and deliver to the purchaser [Burr Z. Dornon] a deed in fee simple for the real estate..."

John McComas probate record, FamilySearch pg. 272

The next month, on August 18, 1856, Nathaniel and Matilda Burcham sell 40 acres to Burr Dornon for $75, "paid by means of John McComas deceased." I'm not exactly sure what this wording regarding payment means.

Burchams sell land to Burr Dornon for $75

These are the only land records found that mention Burr by name. The next set of land records are dated June 3, 1863. On this date, Burr's eldest son Albert pays $120 for land belonging to two of his siblings: Mary Susan and Joseph. Curiously, the land's description matches the land descriptions that Burr purchased in 1856.

Did Burr die and bequeath this land to his children? And why are both of them selling land on the same day to the eldest son? Is Albert the appointed administrator of his father's estate?

Albert Dornon pays $60 to sister Mary Susan for land

Albert Dornon pays $60 to brother Joseph for land

On July 30, 1873, over a year after the death of Burr's wife Sophronia, their son Lorenzo pays $200 for 100 acres of land belonging to Burr's heirs: Abigail, Lucinda, Andrew and Anna. These are the remainder of Burr's children. Again, the land description matches the land bought by Burr in 1856. It seems they are all parting with their inheritance.

Lorenzo Dornon buys land from Burr's Heirs
The critical document that remains missing is a probate record for Burr Dornon. Can we infer that he died before June 1863 when two of his children are selling their stake in land that he purchased in July 1856? I speculate yes.

If a probate record doesn't exist, what other documentation could help answer this question? Perhaps tax records? For each year I find him paying taxes we know he's still alive, and when those payments stop we can assume he passed in that year, right?

The questions persist and the search for answers continues.


  1. I can think of a couple of avenues to investigate. First, I would look for guardianship records for his minor children. Second, look at civil court records to see if he or his wife are being sued for recovery of debts. Alternatively, is his wife suing in her own name for recovery of debts. I think, though, that the land records you found are a good indication that he had indeed died as they appear to be selling shares of an undivided estate.

  2. Thank you for the research recommendations, Michael. has an online collection of journals from the Lawrence County, Ohio probate court. Unfortunately, it's not indexed, so my review is slow-going. But the books seem to cover guardianship and debt issues. I'm hoping his name surfaces sooner or later.