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Using Maps and
Understanding Deeds


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Why this Page?

Sooner or later, most people researching their genealogy come across Deeds of Ownership, Maps and other legal paperwork for our ancestors. In many cases, a few questions arise over some of the wording or even what maps to look for next to further help in showing where these properties lie.

This page is not a complete explanation of all that a person will need to know in understanding these, sometimes confusing, documents.. but it will contain enough data to help you in understanding what you are seeing a little better.

In addition to the more technical end of things, this page will also show information concerning Ireland Land Ownership.

For Those interested in Private
Ownership of Land in Ireland:

Irish Land Question was name given in the 19th cent. to the problem of land ownership and agrarian distress in Ireland under British rule. The long-term result of conquest, confiscation, and colonization was the creation of a class of English and Scottish landlords and of an impoverished Irish peasantry with attenuated tenant rights.

In the 18th cent., under the Penal Laws, Roman Catholics—the vast majority of the Irish population—were prevented from acquiring land. Tenants’ improvements were discouraged because they led to higher rents. Eviction on short notice was also a problem. The securing (1829) of Catholic Emancipation brought into the British Parliament Irish Catholics who sympathized with the miserable tenantry, and the terrible Irish famine of the 1840s focused attention on the land question. In 1849, Parliament passed the Encumbered Estates Act, which provided for the sale of mortgaged estates. However, its liberal purpose was defeated by speculative purchasers who made the rents even more extortionate from the tenants’ point of view.

The Irish Tenant Right League, established in 1850, demanded the “three F’s”—fair rent, fixity of tenure, and freedom of sale. The violence of the Fenian movement, the extension of the franchise by the Reform Act of 1867, the movement for Home Rule, and assistance from the Liberal party, headed by William Gladstone, furthered the cause of the tenant. Gladstone’s Land Act of 1870 protected the tenant from arbitrary eviction and provided some compensation for improvements.

A major agricultural depression beginning in the 1870s brought a new crisis. The National Land League, founded under the leadership of Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, conducted a campaign of boycott and violence that influenced the passage of the Land Act of 1881, called the “Magna Carta” of the Irish farmer. It recognized the three F’s and provided a land commission to fix a “fair rent.” Thereafter land purchase by the tenant became the predominant issue. The Ashbourne Act of 1885 and supplementary acts of 1887 and 1891 provided a loan fund of many millions of pounds for tenants who wished to purchase their lands.

Difficulties remained because the Anglo-Irish magistracy, which favored the landlords, did not satisfactorily implement the new laws. The Irish National League, an outgrowth of the suppressed National Land League, advocated withholding of rents from extortionate landlords. Its activities, too, were suppressed. The Irish Agricultural Organization Society, fostered (1894) by Sir Horace Plunkett, began to encourage agricultural cooperation and improved farming methods; this led to the establishment (1899) of the Irish Dept. of Agriculture.

The agitation of the United Irish League, under William O’Brien, demanding compulsory sales by landlords, led to the Wyndham Act of 1903 and the Amended Land Purchase Act of 1909. The Wyndham Act, which provided loans to tenants at reduced interest for the purchase of land and gave bonuses to landlords who sold, proved, in effect, a solution to the Irish Land Question. In 1907 the Evicted Tenants Act provided for the compulsory sale of land needed for evicted tenants. By 1921 two thirds of the land in Ireland had become the property of Irish tenants, and a compulsory law transferred the remaining portions soon after the establishment (1922) of the Irish Free State.

A Few Survey Measurement used in Ireland

  • Acre - The (English) acre is a unit of area equal to 43,560 square feet, or 10 square chains, or 160 square poles. It derives from a plowing area that is 4 poles wide and a furlong (40 poles) long. A square mile is 640 acres. The Scottish acre is 1.27 English acres. The Irish acre is 1.6 English acres.

  • Chain - Unit of length usually understood to be Gunter's chain, but possibly variant by locale. Chains equal to 2 poles (one half the standard length) are found in Virginia. The name comes from the heavy metal chain of 100 links that was used by surveyors to measure property bounds.

  • Colpa - Old Irish measure of land equal to that which can support a horse or cow for a year. Approximately an Irish acre of good land.

  • Engineer's Chain - A 100 foot chain containing 100 links of one foot apiece.

  • Furlong - Unit of length equal to 40 poles (220 yards). Its name derives from "furrow long", the length of a furrow. See Gunter's chain.

  • Gunter's Chain - Unit of length equal to 66 feet, or 4 poles. This unit was apparently defined as one tenth of a furlong, a common unit of length in the old days. The mile was redefined from the old Roman value of 5000 feet to 5280 feet in order to be an even multiple of furlongs. A mile is 80 chains.

  • Hectare - Metric unit of area equal to 10,000 square meters, or 2.471 acres, or 107,639 square feet.

  • Hide - Old English unit of area usually equal to 120 acres.

  • Link - Unit of length equal to 1/100 chain (7.92 inches).

  • Perch - See pole .

  • Point - A point of the compass. There are four cardinal points (North, South, East, West), and 28 others yielding 32 points of 11.25 degrees each. A survey line's direction could be described as a compass point, as in "NNE" (north northeast). To improve precision, the points would be further subdivided into halves or quarters as necessary, for example, "NE by North, one quarter point North". In some areas, "and by" meant one half point, as in "NE and by North".

  • Pole - Unit of length and area. Also known as a perch or rod. As a unit of length, equal to 16.5 feet. A mile is 320 poles. As a unit of area, equal to a square with sides one pole long. An acre is 160 square poles. It was common to see an area referred to as "87 acres, 112 poles", meaning 87 and 112/160 acres.

  • Rod - See pole

  • Rood - Unit of area usually equal to 1/4 acre.

A couple added terms useful for surveys in the U.S.:

  • Labor - The labor is a unit of area used in Mexico and Texas. In Texas it equals 177.14 acres (or 1 million square varas).

  • League (legua) - Unit of area used in the southwest U.S., equal to 25 labors, or 4428 acres (Texas), or 4439 acres (California).

  • Pueblo - A Spanish grant of less than 1000 acres.

  • Rancho - A Spanish grant of more than 1000 acres.

  • Vara - Unit of length (the "Spanish yard") used in the U.S. southwest. The vara is used throughout the Spanish speaking world and has values around 33 inches, depending on locale. The legal value in Texas was set to 33 1/3 inches early in the 1900's.

Standard Survey Terms

These terms are sometimes found on maps, but mostly are found in deeds and property description.

AliquotThe description of fractional section ownership used in the U.S. public land states. A parcel is generally identified by its section, township, and range. The aliquot specifies its precise location within the section, for example, the northwest quarter of the southeast quarter.
Benchmark A survey mark made on a monument having a known location and elevation, serving as a reference point for surveying.
CallAny feature, landmark, or measurement called out in a survey. For example, "two white oaks next to the creek" is a call.
Conditional lineAn agreed line between neighbors that has not been surveyed, or which has been surveyed but not granted.
CornerThe beginning or end point of any survey line. The term corner does not imply the property was in any way square.
DeclinationThe difference between magnetic north and geographic (true) north. Surveyors used a compass to determine the direction of survey lines. Compasses point to magnetic north, rather than true north. This declination error is measured in degrees, and can range from a few degrees to ten degrees or more. Surveyors may have been instructed to correct their surveys by a particular declination value. The value of declination at any point on the earth is constantly changing because the location of magnetic north is drifting.
GoreA thin triangular piece of land, the boundaries of which are defined by surveys of adjacent properties. Loosely, an overlap or gap between properties. See also strip.
LandmarkA survey mark made on a 'permanent' feature of the land such as a tree, pile of stones, etc.
Line TreeAny tree that is on a property line, specifically one that is also a corner to another property.
MerestoneA stone that marks a boundary. See monument.
MonumentA permanently placed survey marker such as a stone shaft sunk into the ground.
OutAn 'out' was ten chains. When counting out long lines, the chain carriers would put a stake at the end of a chain, move the chain and put a stake at the end, and so on until they ran "out" of ten stakes.
Point of BeginningThe starting point of the survey. Also known as the `First Station'.
PlatA drawing of a parcel of land.
RangeIn the U.S. public land surveying system, a north-south column of townships, identified as being east or west of a reference longitudinal meridian, for example, Range 3 West. See township.
Searles SpiralA surveying technique used by railroad surveyors in the the late 1800s and early 1900s whereby they approximate a spiral by use of multiple curved segments.
SectionIn the U.S. public land surveying system, an area about one mile square. The sections are organized in rows and colums and are labelled by numbers, for example, Section 36 of Township 13. See range and Township. See Aliquot.
StripA rectangular piece of land adjoining a parcel, created when a resurvey turns up a tiny bit larger than the original survey. The difference is accounted for by temperature or other effects on measuring chains. See also gore.
TownshipIn the U.S. public land surveying system, an area six miles square, containing 36 sections. The townships are organized in rows and are identified with respect to a reference latitudinal baseline, for example, Township 13 North. See range.
Witness TreeGenerally used in the U.S. public land states, this refers to the trees close to a section corner. The surveyor blazed them and noted their position relative to the corner in his notebook. Witness trees are used as evidence for the corner location.

Some Older Surveyor Slang

This section is what I call aa "fun" section, for rarely will you see these most of these terms written on Official Documents.

  • Balls - Slang for numeric .00, as in 4-balls (4.00)
  • Double nickel - Slang for .55, as in 6-double nickel (6.55)
  • Elevation - The height above sea level which is calculated for any survey point.
  • Ginney - A wooden dowel 6-9 inches in length with a sharpened end. Set in the ground to mark survey points.
  • Hub and Tack - A 2" by 2" stake that is set in the ground and that contains a nail ("tack") that precisely marks the point being set.
  • Legs - the Tripod which a Survey Instrument sits on.
  • Punk - See railroad.
  • Railroad - Slang for eleven, as in 42-railroad (42.11).
  • Rodman - The person holding the rod. This person may also be known as a chain carrier or chain man.
  • Shoot - Taking a Survey Measure for line of site distance and or elevation.
  • Spike - Usually a 60 penny nail used to mark survey points in hard ground.
  • Zero - Zero degrees, minutes, and seconds. A perfect zero.

Types of Maps you may utilize:

The maps shown below are primarily intended to provide an example of what the map may look like.


Click on map for a larger view
Typical Road MapThe Road Map is very useful for locating towns and cities. Since many modern roads follow old roads and trails, the Road Map can not only direct you to the places you want to go, but it can give an idea of the ways your ancestors may have travelled.

Click on the image for a larger View
Place Maps.Details shown on these types of maps may include buildings, lots, streets, alley ways, and street furniture (such as telephone kiosks, lamp standards, fire hydrants). These maps may also be known by other names, depending on where you live.

Click on map for a larger view
Aerial PhotosAerial Photos are considered Maps, despite the fact that many find it hard to think of a photo as a map. :) These maps are at an approximate scale and measurements can be made on them with an accuracy good for that Close Enough job - and in addition you can actually see landmarks to help you outline a particular area.

Click on the map for a larger view
Typical Ordnance Survey MapThis is a copy of original Ordnance Survey Map 76, containing the numbers and boundaries of holdings as cited in Griffith's Primary Valuation. You also may utilize similar style of maps, known as Survey Maps, which shows more specific areas or individual properites.
No Map AvailableParcel Map“Parcel map” means a map showing a division of land of four (4) or less parcels (with specific exceptions) as required by this ordinance, prepared in accordance with the provisions of this title and the Subdivision Map Act.
No Map AvailablePlot Plan“Plot plan” means a plan graphically describing proposed and existing buildings, structures, lot lines, and other required information submitted in conjunction with an application for discretionary or ministerial review and approval.
No Map AvailableTentative Map“Tentative map” means a map made for the purpose of showing the design and improvements of a proposed subdivision and the existing conditions in and around it. You won't find many Tenative Maps in Genealogy.
No Map AvailableFinal Map“Final map” means a map showing a subdivision for which a tentative and final map are required by the California Subdivision Map Act or this title, prepared in accordance with the provisions of this title and the California Subdivision Map Act, and designed to be recorded in the office of the County Recorder. You may not find many Final Maps in Genealogy either.

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