Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Metes and Bounds Land Descriptions

As described in the last post, there are two main survey methods in the United States. This post will discuss briefly the system of “metes and bounds.” There is a lot to know about this system and one blog post isn’t going to cover everything. In fact, they offer week-long institute courses on this subject (See SLIG 2023 course line-up.)

The metes and bounds system is a centuries-old system that was used in England and brought over with the early colonists. The land descriptions are in a “narrative” style that begin with a particular point and work their way around the land parcel being described. The describe physical points and markers such as trees, rocks, rivers and creeks, and often they will mention neighboring land lines. These types of descriptions heavily depend on physical characteristics of the land and because of that, the land description can change over time or be difficult to re-survey because those markers are no longer there. Trees die or blow down in storms, rocks get moved, rivers and creeks change their shape during floods, and so on.

The land description is a series of calls that give a point of reference, a direction, and a distance. The description uses “metes” and “bounds”:

  • metes – angles of the property, and in what direction (45 degrees southwest)
  • bounds – boundary lines of the property, length (60 chains, along John Smith’s line)
Metes and bounds land description, drawn by author’s spouse.

A metes and bounds description will read like “Beginning at the great white oak, 45 degrees southwest, 30 chains to the felled maple; 76 degrees southwest, 60 chains along John Smith’s line to the marked oak; 5 degrees southwest 16 chains, to the big rock…” You will get odd shaped land parcels. These unique shapes are very helpful if you are trying to reconstruct an area or neighborhood because they should fit together like a puzzle.

The cool thing about these land descriptions is that the naming of the neighbors giving you an instant “FAN Club” member (Friends, Associates, Neighbors). You also get a rough idea of what some of the land might have looked like. (I’ve seen a land descriptions out of Texas that used things like an old axle or a railroad ties as the markers, because the land was desolate and there weren’t any trees or rocks to use as starting points!)

Vocabulary you will see:

  • Acre – 43,560 square feet, 160 square rods
  • Arpent – Similar to acre, used in French sections of US (LA, MS, AL, MO, FL). One arpent is .84625 acres. In MO, it was .8507 acres, or 192.5 square feet.
  • Chain – 66 feet long, with 100 links; one mile is 80 chains
  • Degree – 1/360th of the distance around a circle; used to measure direction; 0 degrees is North or South and other directions given in terms of degrees from N or S
  • Link – 1/100th of a chain, 7.92 inches long; 25 links = 1 rod
  • Perch – same as a rod
  • Pole – same as a rod
  • Rod – 16½ feet; measured as ¼ of a chain or 25 links
  • Vara – Unit of measure used in sections of the US settled by Spain; varying lengths; Texas vara = 33.3333 inches or 36 varas = 100 feet (the Florida vara a little larger, the Southwest vara smaller)
Surveyor’s chain, 100 links = 66 feet; photo taken by author.


  • 1 mile = 80 chains = 320 poles, rods, perches = 5,280 feet
  • 1 chain = 4 poles, rods, perches = 66 feet = 100 links
  • 1 pole, rod, perch = 25 links = 16½ feet
  • 1 link = 7.92 inches

There are software packages that will draw the calls for you. I don’t do enough metes and bounds work in my research to use them. I use my trusty protractor, ruler, and graph paper to draw them when I need to.

Author’s metes and bounds drawing supplies.

There is a lot more to know about this survey system. More than I have time to cover in this blog post. If you have research in areas that used metes and bounds and want to understand your ancestors more, take a land-platting class.

We will talk about the rectangular system next time.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Land Descriptions

When working with ancestral land records, there are a few things you need to know in order to attempt to find your ancestors’ land on a map. In the United States there are two types of land surveying systems. They are known as the “state land states” which use the “metes and bounds” system, and the “public land states” or the “federal land states” which use the “rectangular” survey system.

The states that fall into the state land state category are those states created from the original thirteen colonies and Hawaii and Texas. (As a side note, Texas has its own land survey system because Texas was a country of its own before joining the U.S., with their own survey system already in place. See the Texas General Land Office for more information.) Those states are:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
The states in red in the map above are State Land States, plus Texas and Hawaii.

The land obtained by individuals for the first time usually was given by the colony or state. Records for those first land grants are kept at the state level, usually at a state archive, though the locations will depend on the state. Again, the state land states were surveyed using the “metes and bounds” survey system.

The Federal land states or “public land states” was land obtained by the federal government after independence. This means the rest of the United States. Primarily the land west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. After the Revolutionary War, land claimed in this western portion by state land states were ceded to the federal government. Additionally, the United States obtained land through various means such as the Louisiana Purchase, the War with Mexico (1846-1848), and so forth.

The land in the public land states would then be granted to individuals by the federal government. Those records are held at the national level, and many are digitized and available at the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office website. The land in the public land states were surveyed using the “rectangular” survey system.

Map from Bureau of Land Management. This map shows the Principle Meridians and Baselines used in the rectangular survey system.

When looking at a land description, you can usually determine quite quickly if you’re reading a metes and bounds or a rectangular survey. We will discuss the metes and bounds system next and the rectangular system after that.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Bird’s Eye View

One of my favorite types of maps, especially for enhancing your imagination when thinking about your ancestors, is the bird’s eye view map. These are intricately drawn maps were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s to depict towns and cities from above. These maps might be called other names such as panoramic maps, perspective maps, or aero view maps.

These maps may not be drawn to scale but rather they depict streets, buildings, waterways, and city life. Many of these are so intricate that if you zoom in you can see horses and buggies, names on the ships in the harbor, people walking, and more. They are art the informs our ancestors’ surroundings. For me, they are almost like stepping into a time-travel portal. Almost. They are so much fun to look at and imagine with.

Here are a few zoom-ins on some of my favorites:

Zoomed in on Bowling Green, Ohio, 1888, with Oak Grove Cemetery in the upper right corner, Library of Congress
Zoomed in on Alexandria, Virginia, 1863, with names on steam ships, horses and buggies, and people on the pier, Library of Congress.
Zoomed in on Toledo, Ohio, 1876, showing the industry along the Maumee River, the Chief Justice Waite side-wheel steamer, and the swing bridge to let ships pass, Library of Congress.

I could go on… instead. I encourage you to visit the Library of Congress collection of panoramic maps or any online map repository, and see the fun for yourself!

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Migration

When my ancestors moved from Lyme, New Hampshire to Toledo, Ohio, what route might they have taken to get there? Given the time period, there might be several ways our ancestors could have gotten from point A to point B. Lyme is northeast of New York and the Erie Canal. When they moved to Ohio, the Erie canal was up and running. They could have taken a train or a wagon south from Lyme, then used the Erie Canal to travel to Buffalo, New York. From there, a steamship on the Great Lakes to Toledo is a viable route. This is the one that I like to think they probably took. However, without a diary, letters, or ticket stubs, I’ll never know. But we can make some inferences by looking at map and researching the routes.

There are a lot of different types of transportation that could come into play when assessing the options for your ancestors’ migration:

  • Indian Trails
  • Wagon Routes
  • Train Lines
  • Canals
  • Steamships
  • Roads and Interstates

When I try to decide how my ancestors may have moved across the country, I first try to find a map as close to the time of their movement as possible. I’ll try to find a couple of maps that show various different types of transportation.

For example, Samuel Cook Dimick moved his family from Lyme, New Hampshire, I set out to determine how they may have moved.

Base map from the National Park Service, Annotations by author.

Lyme, New Hampshire is approximately where the blue star is. They then would have made their way to Albany, taken the canal to Buffalo, then a steamship on Lake Erie to Toledo. How might they have gotten to Albany?

“Railroad map of New Hampshire accompanying report of the railroad commissioners, 1894.” From the Library of Congress.

This map is from 1894, it is not perfect, but it is near the time that they moved to Ohio. There appears to be a rail line that follows the Connecticut River south. They could have boarded near Lyme at a depot. Lyme is on the river. (Here is a link to the map at the Library of Congress so you can zoom in and scroll around.) Then you would just look for a similar map for Vermont, and Massachusetts and New York, until you’ve examined all of the possible rail lines.

What about when they made it to Lake Erie?

Map of Great Lakes, showing routes of travel and places of interest. Alfred D’A. McNevin, [1915]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

They moved to Toledo, Ohio; travel via the Erie Canal and Lake Erie seems most reasonable. But there were other options. What about wagon roads? Wagon roads were built on top of old Indian trails. Eventually they became well-known highways and interstates.

Old Lake Shore Trail is now Interstate 90 along Lake Erie.

It is a fun imagination exercise to try to determine the possibilities. Maps are a great way to do this kind of exercise.

Next time, we will look at one of my favorite kind of maps: the bird’s eye view!

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Plat Maps

One type of map that can be helpful to pay attention to are boundary maps. I’m usually focusing at the county level. I have a couple of ancestors who were “border dwellers” meaning they lived on or near a county boundary. Sometimes I find records for them in one county, sometimes another. What is going on there? Did they move? Or did the county boundary change? OR, a third option, was the nearest courthouse in the next county over? Some court actions did not have to be in the county where a person lived so it may have been more convenient to go to a neighboring county to file that record.

I usually use a county map that is at least at the township level, and I typically use them in conjunction with a landowner map. You have to know where exactly in the county (and township) someone lived to understand if they moved or if the boundary changed.

One of my favorite ancestors to research is Thomas C. Mitchell. After the Civil War, he lived in Montgomery County, Missouri, but right on the border with Audrain County.

Two landowner maps showing T.C. Mitchell’s proximity to the border.

Sometimes you cannot find a map for exactly the right time frame. Simply find the next closest and use that for your comparisons and analyses. In my example above, you can see the map on the left is from 1877 Audrain County and the map on the right is 1897 Montgomery County. I lined them up as best as I could using the train line as a guide.

These township maps show you the section numbers; Thomas lived in section 18 in that particular Township/Range. We know that each section is one square mile. That means that Thomas lived about 1.5 miles from the nearest town of Martinsburg. If he could do the business he needed to do, you can bet that he did it in Martinsburg. I have found many records for Thomas in Audrain County even though he lived in Montgomery County.

If your ancestor never moved but the county boundary changed, you have to look for records in both counties. The county clerks did not sit down and divvy up the records according to those that lived in the new county. They just kept the records in their original location. So, for border dwellers, always be checking nearby counties. A landowner and county boundary map can help you decide in which counties to look.

More map types next time…

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Finding Topographical Maps

One of my first places to look for topographical maps is the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website. Beyond just being a cool site to check out, it offers all kinds of digital maps. We will focus on the topographic (topo) maps for today, but I encourage you to check the site out for general interest if nothing else.

USGS Website – Scroll down the page
Find the topographic maps section.

When you click on that Topographic (topo) Maps section, you will be taken to an interactive map. Simply type in a location in the upper right search box, or click anywhere on the map and zoom in to find your location. A list will appear below the search box showing you all of the maps they have published for that area. When I searched for Lyme, NH, I found maps for the area going back to 1933.

Lyme, New Hampshire Topo map from 1933, showing “Demmick Hill”

Above is the section of the map showing Lyme where my Dimick ancestors lived. There is even “Demmick Hill” on the map where they used to cut ice blocks out of “Pout Pond” and slide them down the hill to town for people to use in their ice boxes before refrigeration. Because of this topo map, I can see where this event occurred with a better visualization of the landscape.

Another site to try is They also use the USGS maps, but you might find their search or website tools easier to use. For example, they have layers that you can turn on and off that might help you enhance what you are looking for.

Topozone Map of Lyons, Colorado, showing the layer options.

Another site that uses the USGS as well as other historical maps is called “Historical USGS Maps” and this site puts all of the maps on a large interactive map. You simply zoom in and move around to see what is available. Along the top they have a timeline so you can see the time periods for the maps available.

Historical USGS Maps example, showing timeline at the top and circling maps in the Toledo, Ohio area.
As you zoom in, the maps available appear, overlaid on the main map.

You can find websites for other countries as well (not at all meant to be an all-inclusive list, just some I’ve run across in my research):

Be sure to use Cyndi’s List for links to maps (and other topics). We will look at plat maps next time.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – More Thoughts on Topographical Maps

Last time we talked about topographical maps and using them to understand why ancestors might have migrated one way over another. Primarily looking at large land formations, like mountains. Let’s look at a topographical map on a smaller scale.

When you are looking at a topographical map, you will see lines that indicate changes in elevation, and if you “squint” at the map you can kind of imagine how flat or hilly an area might be. A topographical map shows you the contours of the land indicating mountains, valleys, rivers, vegetation (or the lack thereof), and other features. On a topographical map, you will see large swathes of green for vegetation, blue areas for water, grey areas for buildings and built-up areas. However, the contour lines tell the story of the three dimensional nature of the landscape.

Depending on the map, there will be a key that tells you at what elevation another contour line will be placed on the map. For example, if the map you are looking at uses a 10-foot contour spacing, then you will see a contour line for every 10 feet of elevation change. (i.e. a line will be in place at 0-, 10-, 20-, 30- foot change. A map might use a larger scale if the land is very elevated, showing the Rocky Mountains, for example. The lines on the map are only drawn for every interval of change, so every 10 feet, for example. If you have a relatively flat area of land, the map might be quite blank of the contour lines.

Let’s look at two examples. The map on the left is in Audrain County, Missouri, the map on the right is in Wood County, Ohio.

Topographical maps of Audrain County, Missouri on the left and Wood County, Ohio on the right.

You can see the difference in the land shapes even though I’ve zoomed in a different levels. Wood County, Ohio is very flat, whereas Audrain County, Missouri is much more hilly. I have ancestors that farmed on land from both of these maps. And each map gives me a bit of a different picture of how that farming might have happened. Audrain County land probably couldn’t farm right up to the river banks due to the steepness and vegetation. Those green areas indicate a lot of trees and vegetation where the white areas were clear and flatter, better for farming. And while there are some swaths of trees in Wood County, most of the thickest parts have been cleared out and the land is largely flat farm land for miles.

We will learn about where to find topographical maps next time.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors – Types of Maps – Topographical

When it comes to understanding ancestral migration patterns, it really helps to look at a map. The reason an ancestor ended up in a certain location might be explained by geography, and more specifically, topography. Using a topological map can be quite helpful in understanding some of the potential “whys” for things our ancestors did.

Topography is “the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.”1 Examining the physical features can explain a possible migration route or why they stayed in a particular location.

One excellent example of topography affecting migration is that of large mountain ranges. Let’s look at Virginia as an example. Let’s say you had ancestors in early Virginia and they wanted to move west to the “frontier.” They set off past Richmond only to discover a large mountain range in front of them. The Blue Ridge Mountains caused a lot of adventurous folks to head north or south to go around them.

Map of Virginia from

This barrier caused more settlements to the north and south. As I imagine it, you make a long journey to get around these mountains…why not just stop here a spell? And then just never leave. I imagine that happened quite a bit.

My ancestor, Samuel Cook Dimick, moved from Lyme, New Hampshire to Toledo, Ohio. One account says that after the business he was working for began shutting down (or he decided to quit working there, it isn’t clear) he was to move on further west (perhaps to Minnesota where his father owned some land). But someone told him of land for sale just one county to the south and he decided to stay in Wood County, Ohio. And that’s the reason I was born in Wood County, Ohio and not Lyme, New Hampshire.

We will continue our look at types of maps that can help us understand our ancestors’ decisions and circumstances next time.

1. Definition of “topography” from Oxford Languages (↩

Maps: Visualizing Ancestral Migrations

To understand our ancestors’ movements and decisions, sometimes consulting a map can clear up confusion. I have a simple example from my own research.

One of my favorite lines to research are the Dimicks. They moved from Massachussetts to Connecticut to New Hampshire and then later to Ohio. I find that I try to do too much in my head sometimes. My brain likes to try to convince me that I can remember things…corrrectly. Well, this demonstration just goes to show two things. One, I can’t remember much very well, and two, using a map is invaluable.

Here’s how I “thought” their migration went:

Gif demonstrating my imagination of how the Dimicks migrated.

It is an unusual migration pattern to cross back over a state you’ve already left. It’s not unheard of or impossible, of course, but usually, people migrated in more of a straight line. This realization got me to look at the exact locations of the Dimicks in each location.

When the Dimicks arrived in America in the 1600s, they lived in Barnstable, Massachussetts, which is located out on the hook of Massachussetts. Now this migration makes more sense:

The actual migration path of the Dimicks.

By looking at a map, instead of depending on my memory, the Dimick migration makes a whole lot more sense. This is now one of the first things I do when working on a project. I look at maps and get a good visual perspective on where all of the people involved were located.

There are several types of maps that can be useful for this. We will look at them in more detail next week.

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors

Several things have come together recently that have prompted me to focus on maps and genealogy. First, you may or may not know that I run some study groups along with my friend and colleague, Cyndi Ingle (of Cyndi’s List). One of the groups studies National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) articles. The article we read for the May study group was “Southern Strategies: Merging Identities by Mapping Activities and Linking Participants—Solomon Harper of South Carolina’s Lowcountry” by Rachal Mills Lennon. This was an excellent example of using maps and locations to not only track ancestors but, in this case, to prove that was believed to be several men, was actually one man through the use of locations and connected associates.

Second, I just recently gave a workshop on using Google’s MyMaps for analyzing and planning to the Colorado Genealogical Society. This is a workshop I give frequently and throughly enjoy because I demonstrate to participants how easy, exciting, and beneficial it can be to use Google’s MyMaps to analyze ancestors, plan research trips, or work on a personal narrative.

Third, I recently worked on a client project that depended on the proximity of two families to each other, and I used some maps to share that information with the client.

Throughout my workday I am consulting maps, especially for areas that I am not familiar with. In many cases, I am looking to see how close one county is to another and asking, is it possible that this family intersected with that family? Are those two counties reasonably close or are they on opposite sides of the state? Are these two counties close together even though they are in different states?

This confluence of activities will inspire the next series of posts on this blog and we will focus on using maps. Primarily, using maps to visualize your ancestors’ lives, locations, and migrations. We will take a look at some map collections, I will provide some examples from my own research, and we will look at using Google’s MyMaps to make your own maps as well.