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Research Aid: Property Abstracts

A property abstract catalogues, in chronological fashion, all legal documents pertaining to a parcel of land. Included are references to deeds, mortgages, wills, probate records, court litigation, and tax sales–the essential legal proceedings that affect property ownership. The abstract reveals the names of all people who have owned the property, how long each owner had it, and how much it sold for when it changed hands. Only rarely, however, does it mention buildings or capital improvements to the property. The abstract is a good starting place for research of a historic building because it deals with real property and not specifically the buildings and other improvements. The abstract also confirms that there are no outstanding liens or back taxes.

Most properties in Wisconsin have had their chain of title abstracted, although the practice has recently become less popular, and owners have turned to a simple title guarantee. Usually, either the property owner or a mortgage holder has custody of the abstract; but a previous owner might hold an out-of-date version. For historical research purposes, an older abstract is as useful as a current one; thus it may be worth determining whether a property owner or mortgage holder has the abstract.

Following are fictionalized sample abstract entries used for illustration. Not all Wisconsin abstractors use this particular format, but all include the basic information.

United States to Jacob Bayley; Patent: Dated 10/12/1830; Recorded 11/17/1842; S-Pat-130

Grants: The North West quarter of the South East Quarter of Section seventeen (17) in Township eleven (11), North, of Range eight (8) East, Wisconsin Territory, containing forty (40) acres, according to the Official Plat of the survey of the said lands, returned to the General Land Office by the Surveyor General.

Most Wisconsin abstracts begin with a similar entry. In this example, Jacob Bayley received a patent, an official title from the government for the named parcel. The patent may be found recorded in volume S of patents, page 130. The entry in no way implies that Bayley built a house or other structure on the land, nor that he ever lived there. A significant portion of Wisconsin land was patented by speculators who had no intention of improving or residing on the property, but held it hoping for a profitable resale.

Jacob Bayley and Prudence, His Wife to Timothy Bedel; Warranty Deed: Dated 3/13/1856

Recorded 3/20/1856; Consideration: $60.00; A-D-6

Conveys: The North West Quarter of the South East Quarter of Section seventeen (17) in Township eleven (11), North, of Range eight (8), East, Columbia County, State of Wisconsin, containing 40 acres.

According to this entry, Bayley sold the parcel to Timothy Bedel. Prudence Bayley’s name was included in the deed as a matter of course to remove any question of her retaining claim to the property, such as right of dower. The $60 selling price suggests that there were no substantial improvements on the property when the sale occurred. The United States Government sold land for $1.25 per acre, and the $1.50 selling price seems only to reflect slightly increased land values over time, the vagaries of the real estate market, or the character of the land. This document may be found recorded in volume A of deeds, page 60, Columbia County Registry of Deeds.

Timothy Bedel and Elizabeth, His Wife to William Smith; Mortgage: Dated 6/12/1861; Recorded 7/1/1861; Consideration: $2,000.00; Mortgages: all of the property recorded in #2.14-M-126

In this entry Bedel mortgaged the parcel to William Smith. It would be difficult to draw any direct conclusions from this mortgage. Perhaps Bedel was building a house on the property at a cost of around $2,000. Perhaps improvements between 1856 and 1861 made the parcel worth at least $2,000 and Bedel needed the money for another project. This document may be found in volume 14 of mortgages, page 126, Columbia County Registry of Deeds. When the mortgage was paid off, a satisfaction or mortgage document was similarly recorded.

Last Will and Testament of Timothy Bedel; Dated 9/18/1876; Admitted to Probate: 3/18/1877; Recorded: 7/22/1893

“I will and direct that all my just debts and funeral expenses shall be paid out of that portion of my estate most readily available for that purpose, having care to conserve the balance of my estate. I give, devise and bequeath to my wife, Elizabeth Bedel, to have and to hold as long as she shall live, all of the real estate of which I shall die seized, including the stone house and all other buildings, for her use, provided that she does not convey said property to anyone except my son, Moses Bedel, and that upon her death she shall give, devise and bequeath said property to my son, Moses Bedel. I give, devise and bequeath all of my personal property to my wife, Elizabeth Bedel, and my son, Moses Bedel, to divide between themselves in equal shares, or to sell and divide the proceeds thereof between themselves in equal shares, as they shall see fit. I hereby appoint…”

This entry contains the first specific mention of any buildings on the property. Actually Bedel had built the stone house in the spring of 1861 with a short-term construction loan. Once the house was complete, he mortgaged it for $2,000 to pay off the loan. It would have been impossible, however, to have gained this information from the abstract alone. Further information on the house could be found by investigating the probate records pertaining to Timothy Bedel’s estate, which included a room-by-room inventory of the contents in the stone house. Probate records are kept by the Register of Probate at the county courthouse.

Comment and Summary

Each financial entry in an abstract can provide information. A substantial increase in price in two consecutive sales, for example, from $500 in 1880 to $4,000 in 1885, usually indicates capital improvement on the land sometime during that period. Be cautious, however, when using financial transactions to date buildings. Many factors other than construction can affect property value. Among them are general economic inflation or a speculative market, caused, for example, by a railroad locating a depot in the vicinity. Thus, it is important to be aware of the history of the area in question, and particularly its economic fluctuations.

Some property abstract entries yield more historical information than others, and it is often a good idea to make a trip to the courthouse to read the entire document. Abstractors usually include the most important information, leaving out the legalistic verbiage; but, after all, your concerns are different from those of the abstractors, and what may have appeared trivial to them could be of importance to you. Unfortunately not all properties in Wisconsin have abstracts. If you find that an abstract is not available for the property you are researching, it is still possible to gather the information that would have been included. In Wisconsin, virtually everything that might be entered into a property abstract may be found in the Register of Deeds and Register of Probate offices at the appropriate county courthouse.