"I have been practicing law since 1974," said Randal Harrison, "and I have never been involved in a case where someone was claiming a title based on unrecorded deeds that were over 200 years old and not having possession of the property." Not my specialty, but I'd guess there aren't many cases like that.
But there's one in Twiggs County, Georgia, because a guy from Colorado showed up and told 35 homeowners that, surprise, he owns all their land. Allan Evans says his ancestors owned all this property back in the Civil War era, and claims it has been passed down to him although no member of his family has lived in Twiggs County since 1931. He has tax and census records proving his ancestors lived there, but apparently no evidence at all to support his current claim.
According to Evans, this evidence was unfortunately destroyed when the county courthouse burned down in 1901. Which it did:
All the county records were destroyed and there is [sic] liable to be some serious complications.
JEFFERSONVILLE, GA– Feb. 7 – The county court house here was burned last night, together with all the county records, dockets, furniture and everything…. The most valuable records were in the clerk’s office and had no protection. It will be almost impossible to establish these records. No insurance on the building or furniture. The origin of the fire is unknown….
Many complications will very likely arise because of the destruction of the records of Twiggs Superior Court, and many suggestions were heard among the lawyers yesterday as to what would have to be done about it….
It is said that … new records will have to be made. It is thought that if a party has a deed which was recorded, but the original has been lost, he will have to undertake to get a new deed. This may be a difficult task in some cases. As a matter of fact, many things in the future will cause Twiggs County people and others having business in Twiggs County to remember the fire which occurred Wednesday night.
So said the Nostradamus of Twiggs County, lo these many years ago.
I found this article on a local genealogy site that has a lot of historical information (although it is not, of course, official). There are references to an Evans family going way back, but it's not disputed that some member of the family lived in the county until 1931. Documents transcribed for the site also state that a number of people brought in deeds to have them re-recorded after the fire, and a "J.T. Evans" is listed as "grantee" on a number of those deeds. Still, unless there is evidence showing that Twenty-First Century Evans has legal title, none of this would be conclusive.
He had a chance to present that evidence last Thursday, but so far as I can tell he didn't produce anything convincing at the hearing, in which he unwisely represented himself. The reports don't go into much detail, but do note that Evans "was repeatedly told by the judge not to interrupt lawyers for the other side, and to maintain decorum by standing up when addressing the judge." As this local news report shows, he also wore a short-sleeved Polo-type shirt that he didn't even bother to tuck in. So he didn't exactly endear himself to the folks down there, not that they would have been too fond of him anyway. The matter was heard by a special master, who will make a recommendation to the judge.
According to Kevin Underhill, a lawyer or blogger or something in San Francisco, who is also me, that recommendation will be to deny the claim. This is due primarily to what we lawyers call "not having any evidence," but Evans probably also loses due to the doctrine of "adverse possession," which as I recall provides that someone who openly occupies land for a sufficient period of time (often 21 years) is considered to own it. The idea is that even if there is a legal owner out there somewhere, at some point the law will consider his claim waived in favor of somebody who has occupied and improved the otherwise vacant property without objection from said owner. That would certainly seem to apply here, although the court will probably not need to reach that issue. See "lack of evidence," supra.
Also, dude, it's a courtroom. Tuck in your shirt.