In 1871 almost every building in the city of Chicago burned to the ground in the famous Chicago Fire.

Supposedly, widow O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern –and the rest is history. The City Hall & Cook County Buildings also burned to ashes taking with them, all public records. 

In Chicago at the time, were several “conveyancers” who like their “notary” counterparts in most countries  researched titles to real estate, did surveys, and assisted in the closing of all local real estate deals. Before the fire almost all titles to property were recorded by public officials who maintained maps showing the exact boundaries of all properties. In most, but not all cases, these records were public. This is still true in most of the world.

At the time of the Chicago fire, one such conveyancer saw City Hall burning. He realized the immense potential value of his records and maps. They could be (and were) the only duplicate set of real estate title records. As the Chicago population was evacuating, he held a gun to the owner of a horse drawn wagon and  forced him at gunpoint to load up the records and take them to a safe place in the countryside.

To make a long story short, when the smoke cleared, with all public records of deeds & titles in ashes, no one could identify, much less prove ownership of their burned out Chicago property. The conveyancer saw an opportunity. Using his maps, records, and several surveyors that he employed to mark lot boundaries, he successfully proposed a joint venture with several other conveyancers who had some rescued records and maps he didn’t have. Then as the population returned to rebuild Chicago, he advertised a new product: 


For a fee, these conveyancers who later took the name Chicago Title and Trust Company (CTT), would  guarantee and actually INSURE that their client owned and could legally occupy, lease out and/or sell property. All of the private and public holdings were now identifiable with certainty. But only by CTT. If any right was successfully challenged in court, CTT would pay their insured, the full value of the property.

As public records no longer existed, the predecessor of the Chicago Title & Trust Company (CTT) had an instant monopoly on all the handling of all local real estate deals. The original conveyancer (later known as CTT) wisely made peace with other conveyancers and convinced the State Legislature in Springfield, Illinois to pass the Burnt Records Act. This law gave CTT’s imprimatur (Title Guaranty Documents) the same standing as that of the former Public registrar of deeds and titles. 

As time passed, CTT developed many other products & services. They would act as “escrow agent” on both land and personal property deals. A seller would deposit a deed & keys to a property, pending the buyers deposit of suitable payment. When everything was properly in place, CTT Escrow Service would simultaneously deliver an insured title document to the buyer and deliver the money to the seller. The need to have a trustworthy buyer and seller was removed by using this escrow service. CTT would also manage income property “in trust” for widows and minors. Another of their many products and services was allowing buyers to hold title to property in the name of CTT as a land trust. Why? 

The purpose of this was to conceal ownership and to allow subsequent transfers of any property without record of sale in the public records. Title could stay in the name of (for instance) “CTT Land Trust # 1234” even though it was bought and sold twenty times by different “beneficial owners.”

Why am I telling this brief history? To explain how the “Land Trust” came about and how it protected privacy and avoided transfer taxes. For the full story of how title companies took over the handling of almost all property transactions in the USA, check out below the free report “Chicago Title & Trust Company.” That whole story is a separate lesson from the Land Trust story:

The long & short of it is that concealment of the ownership of real estate (and other assets) can be accomplished with a land trust. In Europe, the same thing is accomplished by putting property in the name of a Liechtenstein Anstalt. In different countries the title holder or corporate straw man could have different names. CTT served as sort of a straw man, and the Anstalt did the same thing. Purpose? The “beneficial” or “real” owner is concealed. And that, in a nutshell, is how property ownership can be concealed – still today. In recent years, tax authorities (but not creditors or the general public) have gained theoretical access to all such arrangements. How? Because new laws have instituted reporting requirements that require naming beneficial owners and reporting property income or sales. There is currently a game of cat and mouse going on as some individuals have found other ways to circumvent the new rules and retain both privacy and tax-free income. The entire story is too long & complicated to take up here. However, I’m glad to discuss at length the current status of privacy & related things with consulting clients.



Chicago Title & Trust Company – History

In October 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire laid waste a large portion of the city and destroyed all of the official Cook County real estate records stored in the office of the county recorder, there were three abstract firms in business – Chase Brothers and Co.; Shortall and Hoard; and Jones and Sellers.

When the fire spread into the present Loop district and consumed the public buildings and records, three companies – Shortall and Hoard, Jones and Sellers, and Chase Brothers and Co. – had snatched their records from the inferno. Soon they were housed together in the untouched western outskirts of the city.

Less than three weeks after the conflagration, the Chicago Times made the following editorial statements:

“There has been absolute destruction of all legal evidence of titles to property in Cook County. The annoyance, calamity and actual distress that will arise from this misfortune are not yet properly appreciated. Something equal to the necessities of the case must be done quickly.

“We have in Chicago three firms – Shortall and Hoard, Jones and Sellers and Chase Brothers and Co. – who have saved nearly all of their papers, including the indices to every piece of property in Cook County, and actual abstracts to a large proportion of this property. We have one firm – J.H. Rees and Co. – who has saved copies of all the maps and all the plats ever made of Cook County property.

“Nobody has hesitated, heretofore, to accept their copies of the records as official – why should not some equitable plan be provided now, by which these copies, carefully compared and compiled, should become official?”

Burnt Records Act
Eventually, this consolidation took place under the somewhat expanded title of Chase Brothers, Jones, Sellers, Shortall and Hoard. In April 1872, the Burnt Records Act was passed by the Illinois Legislature, and the existing abstract records of the three companies were made admissible as evidence in all courts of record. These were part of the framework on which Chicagoans began to rebuild a greater Chicago.

The combined books were moved to a store building on the north side of Lake Street between Peoria and Green streets. After a time, the old firm turned the business and a lease of its books over to the newly organized firm of Handy, Simmons, Smith and Stocker. This firm became Handy, Simmons and Co., and this was followed by Handy and Co., under which the business was continued until 1887. The title abstract business in Chicago was forever altered by the Great Fire of Oct. 8-9, 1871. The dramatic rescue of title books from doomed abstract businesses proved a greater public good when all official land records were lost. John G. Shortall, who forced a passing wagon driver at gunpoint to load his records, would thereafter be remembered for more than the arrangement of legal conveyances.

Legal Grant of Trust Powers
In 1887, Illinois passed the General Trust Company Act, which granted qualified corporations the right to act as executor, administrator, guardian and trustee, and as fiduciary in other capacities. In that same year the Handy firm was succeeded by the Title Guarantee and Trust Co., which qualified as a trust company under the new act.

Thus, Chicago Title and Trust Co. derives its trust powers by succession from the first trust company authorized under the General Trust Company Act of 1887.

First Title Policy
In 1888 came another action giving Chicago real estate owners a new and far more complete protection of their titles to real estate. The Title Guarantee and Trust Co. issued the first title guarantee policy in Illinois, protecting the owner against loss if the title as guaranteed was found invalid.

It was a new kind of protection, more commonly known today as real estate title insurance. To Chicago it brought a new element of stability in property ownership. Now, since titles were insured, Chicagoans needed no longer fear that the ghost of a former owner would rise out of the past to threaten the ownership of their homes or businesses. Loans were more available to property buyers and home builders, and Chicago’s growth was given a new impetus. The company was now settled on Washington Street between Dearborn and Clark streets, where it and its successors were to be until 1947. Three years later, in 1891, the name of the company was changed to Chicago Title and Trust Co.

Through the years, Chicago Title and Trust Co. has grown along with Chicago. It was not until the 1920s that the scope of the company’s business was extended beyond Cook County, Ill. In December 1930, a small regional office was established in Springfield, Ill. In the late 1940s, Chicago Title and Trust Co. moved to 111 W. Washington St. and continued developing and expanding its extensive statewide organization.

The 1950’s was a decade of looking beyond the borders of Illinois. These efforts were so successful that on Aug. 30, 1961, a separate entity was created to do national title insurance business as a wholly owned subsidiary of Chicago Title and Trust Co. – Chicago Title Insurance Co.

In 1969, Chicago Title and Trust Co. itself became a wholly owned subsidiary of Lincoln National Corp. in Fort Wayne, Ind. On June 27, 1985, Lincoln National Corp. and Alleghany Corp. announced that Alleghany, a New York-based publicly held company, had purchased all of the outstanding stock of Chicago Title and Trust Co. Through its subsidiaries, Alleghany also is engaged in the businesses of mining and filtration, and property and casualty reinsurance. 

In 1992, Chicago Title and Trust Co. and Chicago Title Insurance Co. moved their corporate headquarters to the new Chicago Title and Trust Center, located at 171 N. Clark St. in Chicago. The 50-story post-modern edifice is located on a historic parcel of property, the site of the city’s first city hall and municipal courthouse and one of its predecessor companies.

Moving Forward
In 1995, the company restructured its financial services businesses under a new name: Alleghany Asset Management Inc. Alleghany Asset provides mutual fund and investment management and advisory services and is composed of Montag & Caldwell, Inc. (Atlanta), The Chicago Trust Co. (also established in 1995) and Chicago Deferred Exchange Corp. Alleghany Asset has total assets under management in excess of $21.3 billion.

During 1997, CT&T celebrated its 150 year anniversary. Our company was honored by the city of Chicago and the Illinois State Historical Society, as well as the state of Indiana and others.

In October of 1997, CTT introduced CastleLink, the company’s single source mortgage service for major national mortgage lenders.

On December 17, 1997 Alleghany Corp. announced its intention to establish the title insurance and real estate-related services businesses conducted by CT&T as an independent, publicly traded company through a spin-off to Alleghany stockholders.

On June 17th this spinoff was complete and Chicago Title Corporation became an independent, publicly traded company with the ticker symbol “CTZ”.

For the full year 1998, they achieved record financial performance, with all market sectors contributing to these results.

Being a public company they continued to grow through many acquisitions. The company announced 10 acquisitions in 1998 and early 1999. This included a number of companies that broadened their presence with national originators and servicers.

 In 1998, Chicago Title Corporation acquired Universal Mortgage Services Inc., now known as Chicago Title Field Services, which provides property inspection, preservation and maintenance services nationwide. Shortly thereafter, we entered the business of providing foreclosure and re-conveyance services with the acquisition of California-based Consolidated Reconveyance Co.

The acquisition of Westfall & Company, a mortgage servicing company, further enhanced the servicing sector of the residential mortgage business. They also acquired two of the largest and most experienced escrow providers in California, Escondido Escrow and Ranch & Coast Escrow. The former is also one of the leading timeshare escrow organizations in the nation.

Their title agency acquisitions were deliberately focused on growth markets with higher-than-average housing turnover rates, including United Title of Nevada, which has operations throughout the state, and Yuma Title and Trust Co., one of the leading title agencies in Yuma County, Arizona. In early 1999, they completed three other significant acquisitions when we purchased Phoenix-based Security Title, the largest independent agency in Arizona, as well as Blue Ridge Title of Charlottesville, Virginia and Island Title of Oak Harbor, Washington.

Another source of strategic growth is alliances. Again, only a national company with their scope and resources was a serious candidate for the kind of activities that allowed them to penetrate markets in such new ways. At year-end 1998, they announced a new strategic alliance with Cendant Corporation. 

Chicago Title would have a preferred relationship facilitating title insurance transactions for Cendant’s  COLDWELL BANKER®, Century 21®, and ERA®, franchises and their clients. Also in 1998, Chicago Title Credit Services signed a letter of intent with TransUnion to enter into an affiliation arrangement through which TransUnion and its affiliates may use our merged credit reports.

Chicago Title Corporation achieved a major milestone in 1999 when it signed a definitive agreement on August 1 to be acquired by Fidelity National Financial, Inc., creating the pre-eminent company in the title insurance industry. The historic merger was finalized in March 20, 2000.

The strategic rationale for this merger was one of superlatives. Fidelity and Chicago Title have nationally recognized and respected brand names, a history of quality service, and excellent financial performance. The combined organization is the largest in the industry in terms of revenues, profits, market share, assets and claims-paying reserves.

Furthermore, the combined company is the largest title insurer and provider of real estate related products and services in the world; distinguished by an unsurpassed distribution system comprised of over 1,000 offices and 7,000 agents, leading market share in excess of 30%, geographic diversity, complementary business mixes and the strongest financial position in the industry.

Fidelity National Financial, Inc. (NYSE:FNF), is a leading provider of title insurance, specialty insurance, claims management services and information services. FNF is one of the nation’s largest title insurance companies through its title insurance underwriters – Fidelity National Title, Chicago Title, Ticor Title, Security Union Title and Alamo Title – that issue approximately 28 percent of all title insurance policies in the United States. FNF also provides flood insurance, personal lines insurance, and home warranty insurance through its specialty insurance business. FNF also is a leading provider of outsourced claims management services to large corporate and public sector entities through its minority-owned subsidiary, Sedgwick CMS. FNF is also a leading information services company in the human resource, retail and transportation markets through another minority-owned subsidiary, Ceridian Corporation. More information about FNF can be found at