Survey Systems and Terms
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This article was originally written by [Mary McCampbell Bell], CG, CGL
It is important to set the scene in the early colonial period. According to Sarah S. Hughes in her classic work, Surveyors and Statesmen,1 the immigrants came from England where the fields were nicely marked off with hedges or fences. Virginia was open territory filled with creeks, marshes, and ridges, and it was not easy to transfer specified acreage and rectangular dimensions to this terrain. And until the land was surveyed, it could not belong to an individual. The indiscriminate surveys were the result of a land policy where the individual was allowed to select land prior to any official surveying. This practice allowed the best land to be taken up first, thus explaining the patenting of irregular shapes. People re-patented their original acreage to add adjacent land (the “overage” or “plush” is the newly patented land). In the patent margins, there is usually a notation that indicates “new” land, “old” land (previously owned land), and “escheated” (land reverted to the Crown, usually due to lack of heirs) and “lapsed” land (land not seated within the three-year limit).
The early surveys, crude in comparison to the twentieth century, used a rudimentary technology, primarily the thirty-two-point compass, from 1635 until the 360 degree compass card became accepted in the 1670s. Even into the 1700s, patents and deeds in the Tidewater counties often used a combination of both compasses. The thirty-two-point compass card, also called the Mariner’s Compass Rose, measured angles down to a quarter point, whereas before surveyors could only measure right angles. It used the names of the wind directions, such as North or North by East. Dividing each ninety-degree quadrant into eight parts gives eight 11-degree, 15-minute sections. The compass using magnetic North was marked by 360 degrees and divided into 90 degree segments instead of 32 points. If the call was “N by E” then it translated into “N11¼°E”. This method of describing calls became the standard practice by the 1690s. (When platting, simply round the fractions off to the half or whole degree when using a ruler with a scale of tenths). The directions are shown thus:
Early surveys were often grossly inaccurate. An error of one link, or about eight inches, in three to five chains was considered normal.2 According to Hughes, the 320-pole formula was widely used to survey along the shorelines. Two sides of a roughly rectangular survey (parallelogram) would extend into the woods approximately one mile or 320 poles (one pole equals 16.5 feet) and the sides parallel to the water measured a distance in poles half the total number of acres specified in the patent. The early surveys tended to measure in whole poles, and fractions were rarely used. Whenever the term “and thus into the woods” is used in an early patent, it indicates the 320-pole formula was used and the measurement is one mile. Since copying mistakes were common, it is wise to copy the full land descriptions. An illustration of this is the survey and plat made by George Washington on 30 March 1752 for Daniel Osborne of Frederick County, Virginia. The last call of the survey clearly states “N 65° W 100 poles,” yet when it was platted, it was obvious the call should have been N 65° E 100 poles.3
- Sarah S. Hughes, Surveyors and Statesmen: Land Measuring in Colonial Virginia (Richmond, Va.: The Virginia Surveyors Foundation, Ltd. and the Virginia Association of Surveyors, 1979), Hughes quotes the English surveyor, John Love, who wrote in his work, Geodaesia: or the Art of Surveying and Measuring of Land Made Easie (London, 1688), about the problem of transferring a specified acreage and rectangular dimensions to a terrain cut through with creeks, marshes, and ridges.” [p. 1] Hughes makes the point that since people were allowed to select their own land, it did not have to be contiguous to settled land nor be any regular shape. The irregular shapes show that people wanted to have the best land they could acquire within their patent bounds. (pp 4–5).
- “Changing Chains,”. Article reprinted from 1986 Reflections, a publication of First American Title Insurance Company. Printed in Backsights magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society. Viewed online 29 April 2004).
- George Washington, Land Survey for Daniel Osborne, Frederick County, Virginia, 30 March, 1752, Lilly Library, Manuscript Collections, University of Indiana http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/history/history5.html.