In many Georgia counties, the lack of — or gaps in — many public records is blamed on the Union Army’s monthlong march through Georgia in the winter of 1864 when, in fact, the real reasons are a century and a half of complacency on the part of some officials entrusted to protect and preserve such records, lack of proper recordkeeping techniques, shoddy and inept recordkeeping practices, corruption, fraud, intentional alteration or destruction of records, and the lack of appropriations required to properly store and preserve such records.
Fortunately, that is not the case in Liberty County.
Colonial records of St. John’s, St. Andrew’s and St. James’ parishes, from which Liberty County was formed, date back to 1732. Those records are not housed locally but are stored in the Georgia Department of Archives in Morrow. (For more information about the archives, go to www.georgiaarchives.org.) There are handwritten indices for those records in the Office of the Clerk of Superior Court of Liberty County.
Also stored in the state archives are land grants from King George II, James Oglethorpe and the other trustees of Georgia to European immigrants who were willing to colonize Georgia and establish homesteads, and “headright grants” in which, as an inducement for persons to migrate to Georgia, the governor, beginning in 1783 by authorization of the state Legislature, was permitted to grant 200 acres of land to the head of a family, plus an additional 50 acres for each other person in the family, including slaves.
Local land records created and filed after this period date to 1777, when Liberty County was formed. Until 1986 — when I implemented the county’s first automated, computer-based system for filing and recording land records — all county land records, including land and headright grants, were transcribed by the clerk, meaning that the clerk created and filed an exact replica of the original document conveying ownership or security interests in the real property. Typewritten transcriptions began soon after the typewriter was invented and became affordable; then, when Xerox created the copier, photocopied records became standard.
Handwritten land records and their indices are very hard to read because most were written in Old English and ornate cursive styles (depending on who the clerk at the time was). The paper on which the records were recorded was not archival quality and, in many instances, the ink used to transcribe records has bled, faded or waned with time. The same factors have diminished the quality of typewritten records. However, using a magnifying glass and exercising a lot of patience, almost all land records can be deciphered.
Copies of land plats and their indices dating back to 1777 are on file locally in the clerk’s office. Historical plats are often vague and provide minimal information about the actual location of the property they were meant to delineate.
For example, plats of land and headright grants are often drawings of a geometric shape, such as a square or rectangle, with the number of acres in the parcel indicated and the names of owners of adjoining properties at the time denoted but with no specific information provided to indicate the actual geographic location of the property.
The only way to determine for certain where the property is located is to conduct a comprehensive search of all deeds from the time the land was initially granted to a landowner until a subsequent deed or plat is identified that provides more-precise information about the property’s location.
Older plats were created at a time when land was measured in rods, a unit of length that equals 5½ yards, or 16½ feet. The measurement equaled one-fourth of a surveyor’s chain.
It was a convenient method for measuring land because whole-number multiples of a rod equal 1 acre of a square measure. (The perfect acre is a rectangular area consisting of 43,560 square feet, or 160 square rods). Often, rod measurements are inaccurate, with parcels of land surveyed using that method frequently containing acreage more or less than measured. The result was that landowners were often disappointed — or, on the other hand, elated — when they went to sell their land and have it resurveyed only to discover that they either owned more or less land than they originally acquired.
Plats created during the past decade provide detailed information about the metes and bounds of property, including specific and intricate geographic coordinates for property lines. Using modern surveying equipment, the actual location of a parcel of land is much more precise, and actual property lines can usually be pinpointed within a fraction of an inch.
All land records filed in the clerk’s office since 1777 have been digitized and are being re-indexed on the office’s real-estate management system so that anyone can access such records online anytime at www.gsccca.org, the official website of the Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority, the state entity that provides access to real-estate information for all 159 counties in Georgia.
Manually created and automated real-estate and personal-property records of the county may be viewed and copied on-site in the real-estate vault of the clerk’s office in the Liberty County Justice Center at 201 S. Main St., suite 1200, in Hinesville.