Land records are one of the main sources that we rely on when researching our ancestors. However, there are times when the land descriptions begin to defy the understanding of our brains. Whether they are in metes and bounds or township surveys, very often the land description means nothing to us, other than to determine that yes, our ancestor did indeed own land in a given county, township or state.
One of the often overlooked aids to grasping the concept of the land that your ancestor owned and worked are the published plat maps. If you do a search in the Family History Library Catalog (or many other library catalogs for that matter), you will often find that published plat maps are included. I suspect that you have discounted these published plat maps, primarily because they have been published within the last ten to twenty years. You have overlooked a valuable aid in your research if you do.
Land descriptions often mean nothing more than proof that our ancestors were indeed in a given location at a given time.
What are Plat Maps?
Plat maps are those maps that show the layout of the land and the divisions of land ownership. If the particular state you are researching in uses the metes and bounds system to describe the land being purchased, then it is likely that the plat maps will look very unique. An excellent class to learn how to plat such land descriptions is often given by Mary McCampbell Bell, CGRS at national genealogical conferences. Also, there are software programs available such as Deed Mapper, which offers you a way to enter the land descriptions and will then convert them to a graphical map, to view on your computer or to print out.
When you are working with public domain lands, however, then you will find that the land descriptions refer to the location of the land based on the township survey. In the township survey you will find words such as:
Putting these all together you can determine if your ancestor owned 40, 80, 160, 320, or 640 acres of land. This is useful in that you know how prosperous he was, but when it comes right down to it, this clinical division of the land makes it harder to picture in your mind.
Understanding Land Entries
Above I mentioned the words you are likely to see in a given land description that is based on the township survey. Below is an example of just such an entry:
The southeast quarter of the northeast quarter of section Twenty-one (21) in Township (4) four south Range four (4) East.
Clear as mud, right?
In order to understand this land entry you need to have some idea of how the land in the town is set out, and the best way to do this is to look at a plat map for that county. This will help you to see where that land is situated. The plat maps take a given town, and divide it into the various sections. From here it divides them into quarters and then from that point, you can easily determine where your ancestors land was in a given quarter or half.
Published Plat Maps
As I mentioned earlier, I have found that many tend to discount the more recently published plat maps. They think that because it is current it cannot be of help. While this may be true of those states that relied on metes and bounds, it is not true of the public domain states with their townships and ranges.
While the plat map published in 1984 may have entries for individuals that mean nothing to you, the important part, the townships and ranges, and the sections have been drawn out, making it easy for you to then take the land description and plot your ancestors land on the map for any given town.
Each township is first identified by a township and range. This is the location of that particular town in the given county. In a plat map, the name of the town is given, but so is the Township and Range. In our example above, this is Township 4 South, Range 4 East. The record I got this from was out of Jefferson County, Illinois. That particular township and range corresponds to the town of Moore's Prairie.
Working with Sections
Once you have located the correct map for the township and range supplied in the land description, you then need to locate the correct section number. The township is divided into 36 equal squares, each consisting of a total of 640 acres. The numbers begin in the upper right hand corner, going to the left for six sections. Then you move down one row, and go from left to right for sections 7 to 12. This pattern is repeated until you reach section thirty-six.
Finally, you need to divide that specific section into quarters, and then depending on the land description, each quarter into quarters again. Depending on what type of a published plat map you are working with, it is likely that it will already show you many of these quarter section divisions, as the names of those who currently own the land (well, at the time the plat map was published), will be shown with their acreage on the plat map.
If you have many individuals in a given township who owned land, you may want to copy that page of the plat map more than once so that you can have a separate map for each individual or each family name. Then you can highlight the land using various methods. I tend to use colors to differentiate between individuals. And then I include a key to who is what color. Inside each box, I include a number and then either at the bottom of the map or on the back, I list each number and list the date of purchase and the location for that land deed (and when it was sold if my ancestor sells it).
Whether you are dealing with metes and bounds or townships and ranges, you may want to consider platting your ancestors land. This gives you a visual representation of the land that he owned. And as you dig further into the land records, you can see just how his land may have been further divided as he sold, or how it grew as he acquired additional land. And remember, that when working in metes and bounds, any published plat map will work, as you need the township, range and sections. Anything after that you can easily write over or work around.