Through an incredible journey, Jon Cryer discovered that his 9x great-grandfather, James Adams, came to America as an indentured servant. After a disastrous attempt to repel the English from his beloved Scotland, James Adams and other Scots were captured, shipped to Massachusetts against their will, and compelled into approximately 7 years of indentured service for Saugus Iron Works starting in 1650. What happened to this man who came to America with nothing, not even his own freedom? How did his family ascend to prosperity, to the point where one of his descendants became an Emmy-winning actor?
The answer to discovering James Adams’s fate after his indenture was over is the same answer for anyone wishing to document their ancestors in Colonial America: historical deeds. Deeds are invaluable because many records used for genealogy (vital records, censuses, etc.) were nonexistent in colonial times. Deeds can name an ancestor’s relatives, and the size and value of their property. Deeds are made even more important as people sometimes chose to use deeds instead of wills as a mechanism to transfer land and personal property to their heirs.
Such was the case for James Adams. Thanks to a deed created in 1698, we see that he rose from indentured servitude to enough prosperity to own his own land and pass support to his children. On 12 May 1698, James Adams deeded his home and land to his son, James Adams Jr. The deed specified that James Adams Jr. was to provide a “suitable house” for James Adams Sr. and his wife, Priscilla. James Adams Jr. was also obligated to “maintain them both with a sufficiency of food, raiment, and what else is necessary for their comfort all during the time of their natural life and at death a decent burial.” Finally, the deed dictated that James Adams’s daughters were to each be paid twenty shillings a year, up to a total of twenty pounds. This record is a perfect demonstration of using a deed in place of a will: the deed bequeathed James Adams’s land and money as effectively as if he had done it through a will.
A complication arose when James Adams’ Jr. sold the land to a neighbor named John Heald — while James Sr. and his wife were still living. How would James Sr. and his wife be taken care of, if the land no longer belonged to the family? On 30 Nov 1700, James Adams Sr. secured his future by signing a deed with John Heald in which both parties acknowledged that Heald had made the purchase but was still committed to additional obligations to James Adams Sr. James Sr. made sure each of his daughters were still cared for, and required John Heald to pay four pounds to each of them after James Sr.’s death. The 1700 deed also clarified that James Sr. and Priscilla would live “in the dwelling house that said James Adams, Sr., hath built . . . and lived in.”
Thanks to these deeds, we see that James Adams came a long way from being simply one of “35 Scots” sold to Saugus Iron Works in America. Not only did he overcome the trials of capture, imprisonment, and forced servitude, he gathered enough land and wealth to remain in comfort the rest of his days. He also took care of the next generation, ensuring his children had support and would not suffer the same desperation he had faced. James Adams planted the seed of many prosperous generations in America, which would eventually make up Jon Cryer’s impressive legacy.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists: When looking for deeds, ask these questions-
Who made them? Determine the jurisdiction administrating land records for the location and time period you are interested in. For the Colonial period it could have been a local governmental body or a private business or person given land rights through the British Crown for example. Later they were most often kept at the county level, but remember county boundaries often changed over time. County histories and maps are very helpful for this.
Where were they kept? The answer to this question is usually a county courthouse, but not always. A jurisdiction shift or threat to the records for whatever reason may have caused a repository change. Again, check your historical resources.
What survived? Unfortunately, not all US land records have survived over time. Courthouses burn, blow away or just blow up. Clerks decide to clean house and water pipes burst. Things happen. Fortunately, land was a hot commodity and you had to prove that you owned it before you could sell or bequeath it. Because of this, deed records were very often recreated after a disaster, sometimes years after so give yourself a wide date range when looking for them.
How do I access them? The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has the largest collection of US land records on film and many have been digitized and are accessible on line. Local genealogical societies, states, and counties are also working to make their information more accessible. Ancestry has digitized many books containing indexes and abstracts as well as actual land records which are searchable by location.
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