Saturday, July 18, 2020

Tracing Land Ownership and Discovering the Widow Kirk

For nearly two years, I've struggled to locate on a modern day map the 18th century Virginia farm leased by my suspected sixth great-grandparents Joseph and Sarah Kirk.

My efforts have been thwarted by the peculiar wayfinding descriptions from the Colonial-era deeds, which use the metes and bounds system that relies on ephemeral physical boundary descriptions like trees, wooden stakes, and, if you're lucky, more permanent features such as hills or waterways. (*Spoiler alert* I'm not so lucky!)

The Berkeley County Farm

On April 9, 1773, Joseph Kirk leased 100 acres in Berkeley County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Joseph died in about 1784, and his widow, Sarah, continued to live on the farm with their children.

Joseph Kirk leased 100 acres in Berkeley County, Virginia, April 9, 1773

Their landlord sold the farm in 1798 to a man named Nicholas Roush with the only encumbrance to the sale being "...the said Kirks lease till set aside..."

Excerpt of 1798 Roush land deed, mentioning Kirk lease

Personal property tax records for 1799 indicated that Sarah Kirk still lived on the farm. Her absence in 1800 and subsequent tax years led me to believe that she had left the property.

Her departure made sense to me because her son, Thomas Kirk (my fifth great-grandfather), had moved from Berkeley County to Brooke County, Virginia (also now West Virginia) in 1799. I assumed that Sarah had either died in that year or now lived with one of her children as an aged dependent. I was wrong.

Land Ownership Hot Potato 

I tried to trace the ownership of the Berkeley County farm forward in time, but immediately ran into roadblocks.

In 1816, an entry in the general index for Berkeley County's land deeds recorded that there was a division of Nicholas Roush's lands. He must have died and his real estate was divided among his heirs. With no record of it having been sold since its purchase in 1798, the Kirk land was presumably still among Roush's holdings.

To my great misfortune, the deed book for much of 1816 - number 28 - was lost! Missing from the Berkeley County courthouse, it was never microfilmed or digitized. Only the index survived to taunt me.

Berkeley County, (West) Virginia index to land deeds, book 28 lost

My research was confounded by the splintering of the property into smaller unrecognizable pieces during future sales. It was difficult to confirm which plots of land were part of the original Kirk farm because the modified wayfinding descriptions used by the metes and bounds system no longer matched the boundaries of the 100 acres Joseph Kirk originally leased.

My search for the farm stalled and eventually stopped.

Snooping on the Neighbors

Recently, I returned to Berkeley County's land records and began tracing the ownership of the adjacent properties forward in time. Perhaps the Kirks' neighbors would help shed light on the location of their farm.

In the illustration below, the yellow plot of land included the Kirk farm (combined with another farm that had been leased to Michael Close), which was sold to Nicholas Roush in 1816.

I was able to map out three neighboring farms and identify their owners into the early 19th century, pictured in green, blue, and tan.

She's Alive!

While tracing the ownership of the neighboring farms into the 19th century, I made some important discoveries.

In 1802, before Magnus Tate bought the property in 1805, John Evan Fryatt purchased from John Fryatt Sr. (presumably his father) the green-colored farm. The metes and bounds description of the property included an important and surprising clue.

While laying out the property line, the deed stipulated that one of the boundaries of the farm extended "to a stake near a black oak and white oak, corner to the part of this lot held by the widow Kirk..."

Excerpt of 1802 Fryatt land deed, mentioning widow Kirk

Excuse me?! "...held by the widow Kirk..." implied that Sarah Kirk was still alive when the neighboring farm was sold on October 22, 1802. That extended her tenancy and life in Berkeley County three years beyond when I thought she left or died in 1799.

Nearly three years later, on April 30, 1805, John Evans Fryatt sold the green-colored farm to Magnus Tate.

That land deed again mentioned Sarah, providing more important details. The farm's boundary extended "to a stake near a black oak and white oak corner to the lot formerly held by the widow Kirk..."

Excerpt of 1805 Tate land deed, mentioning widow Kirk

Formerly was the key word. By the spring of 1805, Sarah Kirk was no longer living on the farm that Joseph had leased 32 years earlier. She left the farm sometime between October 22, 1802 and April 30, 1805.

Was she deceased or did she move in with one of her children? It remains a mystery.

Although the question of what happened to Sarah persists, the value of researching the neighboring land deeds is clear. They helped me extend her life while also providing a likely bookend.

The work to find the Kirk farm on a modern day map continues, but it's edging closer to resolution (and victory). Stay tuned for more discoveries.


  1. Great find, Michael. Using color and referring to it in your analogy was very helpful to this reader.

    1. Tracing these plots of land has been tedious and confusing, so I need all the help I can get to keep things straight!

  2. I love land records for just this reason. You never know what you are going to find in them.

    1. These latest discoveries have motivated me to return to the neighbors in full force and see what else I can uncover. Fingers crossed there are more exciting discoveries awaiting.

  3. I am always fascinated by what you find in these land records. It's an area of genealogy that I've still not explored, but I enjoy learning about it from you.

    1. Sometimes I surprise myself with what I find in the land records, like these mentions of Sarah Kirk.

  4. Great Piece Michael. I always learn a trick or two to use on my own family research.

    1. Thank you, True! Here's hoping it pays off and you dig up something useful for your research.