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Volume 8, Number 11 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 June 16, 2016
Publisher's Notes In this article we discuss grids vs metes and bounds in Land Records. It is always good to understand the different methods when researching so that you know the pros and cons of each system. Land records are not always the easiest way to research but they can really be helpful. Let me know your thoughts, I always enjoy hearing from you.
James L. Douthat
GRID VS METES AND BOUNDS In our genealogical research, far too many times we find that land records are the only source of information as to where our ancestors lived. It is vital to know where, as well as when they were in a certain area as this leads us to search in other records for them. At the same time, these land records may be the only clue to which “John Smith” is different from the other three “John Smiths” in an area.
I had three Robert Douthats in Augusta County, Virginia about the same time in the latter part of the eighteen century. Each one of these had different bits of information concerning them and it took quite a while to separate them. It was no easy task. First I listed one per page and then began writing down those bits that I could identify with each, i.e. wife - children - land - etc. Once this was done they separated very nicely, but the land records were the clue. Thank goodness each had a different wife by first name at least, this gave me my first big break but the land nailed this all down very clearly.
There are two major systems of land records used here in the United States. One is the grid system and the other is the metes and bounds. The grid system came in later in our history and seems to be the most simple of the systems, at least on the surface. Normally, an area is divided into six square mile sections running north to south and east to west. The six square miles or 640 acres is fairly standard, but not the north - south - east - west denotation as we will discuss with Tennessee later. The main problem with this system is that many court clerks did not always understand the system and they would get mixed up on which was north or south as well as east and west. Where the grid crosses would cause the problem. Most of the states that have the grid system are those in flat country where the terrain was not a problem.
In the mountainous eastern portion of the country the grid system did not work very well due to the terrain. It is hard to draw a straight line on a curved land mass. For example, most of Tennessee is surveyed via the ‘metes and bounds’ system, but there are a few sections on the grid. Two in eastern Tennessee south of the Tennessee River in the two land Districts of Hiwassee and Ocoee. These two areas came into existence after the removal of the Cherokee in the late 1830s. The Hiwassee District was from the Kingston area down to the Hiwassee River between Bradley and McMinn Counties. The Ocoee is the area from the Hiwassee to the Georgia State Line and is slanted on a grid line to match the slope of the Tennessee River as it runs south in the area. This is one of the most difficult of the grids to understand. Thank goodness, the original land maps are still in existence at the Tennessee State Archives. Both are now in print in part. The third major area of the grid in Tennessee is the west Tennessee area or the Jackson Purchase. This however, is on flatter land and easier to understand. Both the Hiwassee and Ocoee Districts were in a very mountainous area.
The ‘metes and bounds’ system works very well in the areas where the terrain is very broken as it can be from a tree to a rock or the creek to the top of a hill. It is not as exact but it is the older system used in the eastern part of the states. To gain a true picture of the lands surrounding a particular portion of property, one has to lay out all of the surrounding plats of land and then you will frequently find overlapping lines. Trees grow and die - rocks are moved - creek banks change and now tops of mountain are taken down so the system is very difficult to understand.
In the late eighteenth century, North Carolina closed all of the land offices in what was to become Tennessee on 1 June 1796. Tennessee did not open land offices until the early nineteenth century. In an effort to establish their land records, Tennessee divided the state into a number of Survey Districts. A surveyor would go to a particular stream, creek or mouth of a river and start up the water course surveying each tract of land until the head waters were reached. At this point they would pick another water course and do the same thing until they had surveyed the entire district. The value of these records is not so much the land as those who helped the surveyor. He, as we have no records of any females doing this at this time, would hire local males and in some cases females to carry his sixteen foot chain that was used to measure a line. In many cases, the chain carrier lived on the property or was a neighbor. This may be the earliest record of that person that you will find. We now know where he or she was living at the time.
When you dig into land records, take the time to understand the system used in that particular area and learn about some of the problems encountered there. Many of the local historical and genealogical societies have discovered these problems and can help greatly with that understanding.
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