Tag Archives: mapping

Maps: Visualizing Your Ancestors -Rectangular Survey

Last time we talked about the metes and bounds survey system that was used in the eastern states (colonies prior to our nation’s creation). This time let’s look at the survey system used the the rest of the United States, in the public lands states, called the “rectangular survey system.”

This survey is based on a grid system using a series of baselines and meridians across the U.S.

USGS BLM Map of Baselines and Meridians

If you ever learned about how to find a point on a grid in math class you, learned that (2, -5) meant that you go right 2 points on the X axis, and down 3 points on the Y axis.

Grid system from math class.

The rectangular survey works the same, except that we use the cardinal directions instead of positives and negatives, and the directions are referred to as townships and ranges such that a square from the grid is called “township 2 south, range 3 west.’ Each of these township/ranges is 36 square miles.

Example showing the location of township 2 south, range 3 west

But wait, there’s more…

Inside each one of those township and ranges, the land is further subdivided into 36 1-square mile sections, numbered 1-36. AND THEN, each one of those 1 square mile sections is further divided into “aliquots.” Those smallest sections are divided into halves or quarters depending on how many acres someone received.

The rectangular system divisions.

So, when you find a land description for a rectangular survey system piece of land, it will read like this: N 1/2, SW 1/4, of section 14 in township 2 s, range 3 w (or north half of the southwest quarter of section 14 in township 2 south, range 3 west). The land description might also mention the principle meridian though not always. From context of where the land is located, you can often figure it out without naming the meridian (refer to the first map in this post).

It is because of this grid system of surveying that this is the view out your airplane window when you fly over the midwest:

Photo by author.

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.