Some lands can be described according to a grid that includes townships, ranges, baselines, and meridians. However, other land descriptions are based upon local features. Those features, which are referred to as metes and bounds, must be named and measured. Measurements were generally given in rods, perches, or poles, which all equaled 16.5 feet.
Most southern tracts of land were surveyed and recorded using compass bearings, rather than using the metes and bounds systems. Therefore, those surveys can be better defined as “indiscriminate” surveys because they don’t utilize specific grid or specific local features.
Due to the fact that many pieces of property were measured using landmarks, some of which were moved or disappeared entirely with the passage of time, new land surveys often had to be taken. In those cases, landowners and their neighbors might redefine or remark boundaries according to memory. They were often accompanied by local officials. Remarking land in that way was known as “processioning.”
Southern lands were usually given to individuals directly, unlike lands in the New England states. The system in New York was a bit different. Generally, the wealthy received a large amount of land. They then subdivided it and sold it to other people. In Virginia and a few other southern states, extremely large tracts of land were granted. For example, in 1739, William Beverley was granted 118,000 acres and Benjamin Borden was granted 92,000 acres. Both grants were located in the Shenandoah Valley. Six other individuals or partnerships were also granted parts of the Shenandoah Valley by 1740.
Individual grant petitions were handled by land offices. Amazingly, the land offices in the colonies all survived, as did those in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In fact, the South Carolina and Virginia state capitals both burned during the Civil War. However, the records from the land offices were not destroyed. Almost all of the states from Pennsylvania south have land offices, which may exist as a part of another state office or as their own separate entities.
The government was not always in control of colonial land grants. For example, in some cases an English monarch controlled land grants, which were administered by a governor. That happened in Georgia after 1754, South Carolina after 1729 and New York after 1689.
In other cases the monarch gave certain private citizens that power, rather than giving it to a governor. The North Carolina Granville District of Earl Granville and the Virginia Northern Neck Proprietary of Lord Fairfax are two examples of that.
A third scenario was when private citizens were given control of the government by the monarch. The land was then distributed. That occurred from 1733 to 1754 in Georgia under the trustees. It also occurred under the Penns in Pennsylvania.
When the government and the proprietors were separate entities, records were often recorded separately in the land offices. North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey records, for example, were recorded separately. However, North Carolina and Virginia records were later incorporated into government archives. Several other states underwent similar compilations and incorporation of information.
First land titles were given out in a number of ways, but most of them involved four parts. Those parts were the petition, the warrant, the plat/survey, and the patent/grant.
Petitioning for land simply meant requesting that land be given. Someone who petitioned was required to present a reason why they were entitled to take possession of the land. They may have paid it, been given it as part of a government order, or served in the military, which entitled them to land after service. Another possibility is that they may have qualified for a headright land bounty, which could occur when someone brought a new immigrant to the area, particularly in the South. Any of those qualifications had to be presented to the proper officials in the colony or to the clerk at the land office.
If there are no conflicting or prior claims on a piece of land, a land warrant can be obtained. That entitles a person to have an official surveyor map out a certain plot of land.
When a surveyor creates a drawing of a specific plot of land, that drawing is known as a survey, or sometimes a plat. A plat must be certified by the surveyor, who must guarantee that the legal description of the land, acreage amount, warrant and other aspects of the land survey are all in proper order.
When the proprietor or government first passed on or sold a piece of land to another party, they had to do so by creating a grant or patent. That record is the start of the land’s existence as a privately-owned piece of land. In other words, it is the original title deed of the land.
A copy of the patent was typically bound into an official record volume after being submitted by the proprietor or the government. There were also plat volumes recorded, in some instances. Occasionally, copy from the surveyor was also included in such records. For example, several loose surveyor surveys are in the records at the Land Office in North Carolina. Permanent warrant records were only kept by certain land offices, not all of them. Since the warrant was considered to be the formal authorized records, most petitions were not kept. However, colonial headrights and other council minutes may contain information about petitioners.
The granting of colonial “headrights” occurred whenever an immigrant settled in the area during a specific period of time. For example, at a certain time Virginia was granting 50 acres to anyone immigrating to the area. The problem occurred when sailors began claiming 50 acres every time they came to Virginia. They would then turn around and sell each piece of land to someone else. Many indentured servants were also brought to the area during that time. Whoever paid for their passage was granted the 50 acres of land. The person who claimed and kept the land was not always the person who had the headrights, since land could be sold and bought quickly in those days.
Although there were no official headrights granted in New England, free land was given as an incentive for immigrants to settle in the area. Most proprietors in the South didn’t give headrights either. However, the Calverts were an exception, since they were interested in profiting from land sales. At one point, Britain tried to get the colonies to give indentured servants land after they finished serving. However, that didn’t occur very often. Even though all of those headrights limitations existed, the lists of headrights are still useful in researching immigrants who came to the South from Britain.
Patent documents often allow researchers to pinpoint where a grantee was located at a given time in history. However, the grantee’s relatives were not usually listed on the patent documents.
Surveys done in the 1600s were not necessarily completely accurate. They often simply involved rectangular land marks and listed the distance from the nearest river to that rectangle of land. The acreage was also listed. However, some bounds were given. Unfortunately, many of them have changed or moved over the years. So, they must often be located by means of their relationships to surrounding properties.
The 32-point compass card was used for creating certain colonial land descriptions. However, that wasn’t very common. When the system was used, it involved separating 90 degrees into 8 different sections. The result was 8 sections of 11 degrees each with 15-minute sections. The old protractors and rough angles of the early surveyors translates to N being 0 degrees. 11 degrees is represented by E, while NNE is 22 degrees. N is 34 degrees and E by N is 11. E is equal to 9 degrees. In cases where the angle is halfway between NNE and NE by N, the angle is NE by N.
During survey and deed research, it’s important to determine whether or not it is necessary to record detailed bounds. It may be easiest to photocopy them or refer back to the originals later, but some records may not be easy to access again. Also, the costs of photocopies can quickly add up. It may be more beneficial to simply abstract the information that you need, such as the surrounding neighbors. Then you can order description copies for adjoining properties as needed at a later time.
The distance and bearings are sometimes given, along with the name of a nearby property owner. For example, the document may say something like “with Francis Lilburn’s line,” which can give an idea of the location of the property in relation to other properties. In that way, adjoining landowners can be identified, which can give researchers valuable information. It may even be prudent to sketch tract maps in order to better determine lineage.