RootsTech 2015

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Understanding Real Property Legal Descriptions for Genealogy: Rectangular Survey, Part One

Elements and units of the US Public Land Survey System: A) townships, B) sections, C) aliquot parts.
By Gretarsson (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
You may be familiar with the history of the first president of the United States, George Washington, but you may not be familiar with his early career as a surveyor and lifelong interest in maps, geography and cartography. See George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker from the Library of Congress. Quoting from this interesting article:
The George Washington Atlas, initially published in 1932 by the George Washington Bicentennial Committee, was the first attempt to compile a bibliography of maps drawn or annotated by George Washington. The atlas was conceived as part of the nationwide observance of the two hundredth anniversary of Washington's birth and identified 110 extant maps or surveys drawn or annotated by Washington.2 The editor, Colonel Lawrence Martin, chief of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, attempted to list all known Washington maps and brought more than twenty new items to light. These range from Washington's first survey exercise in 1747 to his last survey of the Mount Vernon lands and include pencil sketches, pen and ink drawings, roughly drawn field surveys, and finished survey plats. Recent research has uncovered additional items not included in the 1932 inventory.3
Surveying and surveyors have been an integral part of our cultures and legal systems since ancient times. The current Public Land Survey System (PLSS), as illustrated above, is merely the most recent method of systematically mapping out land using a rectangular survey. Most recently, the system has been combined with GPS (Global Positioning System) to achieve a very high degree of accuracy. See "A History of the Rectangular Survey System, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management."

From a genealogical standpoint, understanding rectangular surveys is extremely important. As I mentioned in my previous post on metes and bounds, genealogists are likely to find valuable information about the location of their ancestors from the following:
  • deeds
  • rental or lease agreements
  • probate documents
  • gifts or bequests
  • sales contracts
  • tax documents
  • mortgages
  • deeds of trust
  • land warrants
  • trust documents
  • wills
and many other documents. 

Here is an example of the legal description of a piece of property using the PLSS or rectangular survey system:
. . . the following described property, situated in the Parish of Vernon, Louisiana, to-wit:- Southwest quarter of Southwest quarter (SW ¼ of SW ¼) and West Half of Southeast quarter of Southwest quarter (W½ SE¼ SW¼) of Section Eleven (11), Township Four (4) North of Range Eight (8) West, containing sixty (60) acres of land, more or less, together with the residence, garage, barns and garden used by J. H. Kurth, Jr. for the past ten (10) years, and also the garage building now being used as a pipe storage room, but there is excepted from this sale all other buildings and improvements on said property which are expressly reserved by the vendor.
A rectangular survey begins with the establishment of a base point. From when I was much younger, I knew there was a sandstone marker on the corner of South Temple and Main Street in Salt Lake City, Utah that marked the base point for the rectangular survey in Utah. Here is a photo from the Salt Lake County Surveyors Office:
Salt Lake Base and Meridian Monument on the Southeast Corner of Temple Square
Salt Lake County Surveyor's Office 
Many communities in the United States have a road or highway named "baseline road." This road usually closely follows the original survey line running east and west. In effect, the rectangular survey is really an extension of the worldwide system of using latitude and longitude to determine exact locations on the earth's surface.

The definition of latitude (φ) and longitude (λ) on an ellipsoid of revolution (or spheroid). The graticule spacing is 10 degrees. The latitude is defined as the angle between the normal to the ellipsoid and the equatorial plane.
Historically, because of the limitations in the equipment being used, rectangular surveys did not do a good job of taking into account the curvature of the earth. Over long distances, the surveys would often start to drift. I am very familiar with a location in Arizona where two rectangular surveys meet and the section boundaries are off by nearly a quarter of a mile. 

The idea of the rectangular survey is that a baseline is surveyed running east and west starting at a base point established by observing the position of the stars or in other words, astronomical observations. Anciently, the instrument used to determine a person's position on the spherical earth was an astrolabe. The more modern instrument is called a sextant. Here is an image of an astrolabe:

A 16th-century astrolabe, showing a tulip rete and rule

Here is an image of a sextant:

Quintant Sextant or Lattice Sextant. Manufactured by Spencer, Browning & Rust. In the collection of the United States Geological Survey Museum.
Once a base point has been established, the initial survey line is made by using an instrument that tells the direction of the line. Historically, this was accomplished with a compass. In more modern times, that function is accomplished with the use of an instrument called a transit or theodolite. Here is an image of a transit:

By en:User:Rolypolyman - Photo taken and uploaded by contributor. [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The transit or theodolite is used to establish a straight line from a certain point to be used in the measurement of a map or land boundary. After a baseline in defined and mapped, another line is established at a right angle to the original baseline. This north/south line is called the Meridian. If you look at the first image above, you will see a diagram illustrating the baseline and meridian. All other measurements are taken from the point at which the two lines intersect.

In my next post in this series, I will explain how to read a legal description of a rectangular survey. Tune in again for more on this valuable subject for genealogists. 

Where did your ancestors live" -- An Introduction to City Directories

A Collection of the Names of the Merchants Living In and about the City of London, 1677,
New York Public Library:
One nearly constant feature of American life has been the mail order catalog and the city directory. Because of the availability of online searches and organization lists, the venerable telephone book has passed from common usage. But beginning in the 1700s or even much earlier, books that listed the names, addresses and ethnicity of all of the businesses and people in a town or city became very common. It was natural, when telephones were invented, to add the telephone number of residents.

These extensive directories are extremely valuable to locate and track the movements of your ancestors. Collections of old directories may be found in many archives, museums and libraries around the country. In addition, these types of directories were also published in many cities around the world. The image above shows the cover of a city directory from the City of London in 1677.

Here is a quote from the New York Public Library in an article entitled, "A History of City Directories in the United States and New York City" about the value of city directories to genealogists:
In New York City, city directories were printed between 1786 and 1934: the first telephone books began to appear in the late 1870s. Both forms of directory are interesting to researchers, historians and genealogists alike, for a number of reasons, not least because, like a census, directories tie an individual to a certain location at a particular point in time. Historical city directories are even more useful as a research tools than early telephone directories, because they are more inclusive: you don't need a telephone to be in a city directory. In addition to this, city directories offer up many more historical details. This post describes the history of city directories, how they might be useful to your research, and where you will find them at the New York Public Library.
Here is a list of useful references for finding city directories:

I have found collections of old city directories in some unexpected places. They even show up occasionally in used bookshops and thrift store sales of old books. There are hundreds of additional links on this subject. Just do a Google search on the terms "city directories historical" and you will find many, many more entries. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Genealogical Research Process

First Winter Snow by James Tanner
The first question I would ask is this: what is the goal of genealogical research? Next, what does it mean that a person is a genealogist or family historian? (Note: In this post, as I have in past, I use both the terms "genealogy" and "family history" as synonyms). If we were to conform with the common definition of a genealogist from the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary: "a person who traces or studies the descent of persons or families," most of us would find ourselves severely confined. I would use a much broader definition: "one who researches and investigates, records and organizes family relationships and history." We are certainly not limited to a particular line of descent or, in other words, limited to investigating descendants only. The vast majority of genealogical researchers investigate their ancestry going back in time, although those who trace the descendants of a specific ancestor are quite common.

My questions above go beyond a definition of genealogists or genealogy. What are our goals? If someone handed you your entire documented genealogy going back 12 generations, would you consider your "job" to be finished? Why or why not? I would submit that some of the reasons genealogical research has any attraction at all is because it is open-ended and difficult. From my perspective, if genealogy were easy, I would have no interest in it at all. So making genealogy "easy" is one way to substantially lessen its appeal. My mental analogy is comparing genealogy to mountain climbing. When George Mallory was asked why he want to climb Mount Everest, he responded, "Because its there." (From an interview "Climbing Mount Everest is work for Supermen", The New York Times(18 March 1923). In this sense, I agree with Mallory; I do genealogy because it is there. It is both a mental and a physical challenge. Since I can no longer climb the high physical mountains of my youth, I look to the infinitely higher mountains of genealogy in my old age.

When I climbed a mountain, the goal was easily defined: to reach the top. The goal in being involved in genealogy is more amorphous. It is even more difficult to define when you have reached your goal.

No one is born with the skill of doing research. It is true that we may be born with certain skills that endow us with qualities that make learning the things that are necessary to do research easier. But, nevertheless, research is a skill that must be acquired by practice. However, the analogy is better understood if you view climbing as an activity and the individual mountains as waypoints. I climbed my first mountain when I about seven years old. We were driving by a volcanic cinder cone on the Colorado Plateau called appropriately, Cinder Knoll,  and I asked if I could climb to the top. My father let me go and I ran up to the top of the hill. I can still remember standing on top and look out across the Plateau. I could see for miles. That process of opening up my view of the world changed my life. From that point on, a lot of what I did involved climbing and mountains.

I had a similar experience with genealogy. When I first began to investigate my ancestry, it opened up a new vista. I was transported from being time-bound individual into a part of the seemingly endless stream of family extending back into the past for generations. Just like with mountain climbing, I spent much of my time from that point on investigating my family. In fact, now genealogy has largely replaced mountain climbing. Although, I did spend an afternoon with my brother-in-law last weekend, walking in the canyon and talking about the cliffs and climbing.

There are many skills in mountain climbing. I began the process of really learning those skills when I found a book called the freedom of the hills. Here is the reference to the 50th anniversary edition:

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills : 50th Anniversary 1960-2010. Shrewsbury: Quiller, 2010.
In genealogy, my beginning in really learning the skills of genealogy began with a book. That book was:

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 2013.
Of course, my introduction was with a much earlier edition of the book. As this book points out, one of the most prominent activities in doing one's genealogy is that of research. Research is the equivalent of the physical activity involved in climbing.

In high school, or some equivalent educational experience, many of us were introduced to the world of "research" by doing a "research paper." This activity consisted mostly of taking notes on 3" x 5" cards and turning those notes into a short essay on some subject we selected, either from a list supplied by the teacher or from topics we made up and got "approved." As a result, many students (perhaps most) were soured on the whole concept of research. I find that very few people, outside of professions requiring research, voluntarily do research just because it is there.

But both climbing and genealogy share this same activity if we substitute the word "explore" for the word "research." Both involve the systematic investigation of the unknown. When we research our ancestors, we investigate, study, inquire, analyze, scrutinize and review what we do know and then move on to investigate etc. what we do not know with the expectation that we will learn more. As we climb the foothills of genealogy, we keep seeing glimpses of the elusive peak, just beyond view, and we keep going. The goal of genealogy is the process of learning and our increasing understanding of our own lives and how we fit into the stream of history. In this sense, we are climbing a mountain whose top we will never reach.

BYU Family History Technology Workshop

For an interesting introduction to the huge RootsTech 2015 Conference, Brigham Young University is holding a Family History Technology Workshop on the BYU campus the day before the big conference on February 10, 2015. This one day conference is described as:
The Family History Technology Workshop has been held for 15 years, at both BYU and at RootsTech in Salt Lake City. Attendees include researchers, software developers, and professionals, brought together by their shared passion for improving family history technology.
The 2015 Family History Technology Workshop will bring together developers, researchers, technology professionals, and users to discuss the future of family history technology and genealogical research. The workshop will feature developer sessions, lightning talks, technical presentations, panels, and demos to showcase emerging and future technologies.
 The program and schedule will be announced on February 1, 2015. Registration is now open and costs $60 which apparently includes a light breakfast and lunch.

Since I live less than five minutes away from the BYU Convention Center where the conference is being held, I decided to attend. This will make for a lot of blog posting and a longer RootsTech week.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Understanding Real Property Legal Descriptions for Genealogy: Metes and Bounds

English: Broadwater Farm: detail of the 1619 map of the Parish of Tottenham, Middlesex (now in the London Borough of Haringey)
One of the keys to accurate and complete genealogical research is finding the exact location of some event associated with an ancestor. Real property rental or ownership is one very good way to determine an exact location associated with your ancestor's life. Some of the documents you may find that might contain a property description, often referred to as the legal description (or even the "legal"), include:
  • deeds
  • rental or lease agreements
  • probate documents
  • gifts or bequests
  • sales contracts
  • tax documents
  • mortgages
  • deeds of trust
  • land warrants
  • trust documents
  • wills
and many other documents. Historically, land has been described in three different ways:

  • Metes and Bounds
  • Rectangular Survey
  • Subdivision Lot and Block

Sometimes, the differences between these systems are blurred and a legal description may contain elements of two or all three of the methods. The important thing to understand is that the legal description is a method of representing the boundary of the property in words. These legal description methods are not confined to the United States, they are used around the world.

The original method of establishing the boundaries of piece of real property was by reference to physical objects such as trees, rivers, lakes, rocks, or other such objects. For example, a prominent tree or rock outcropping would be chosen as the starting point and then measuring the distance to other physical objects. This type of description is what is meant by the terms "metes and bounds." Here is the definition of the terms from Wikipedia:
  • Metes. The term "metes" refers to a boundary defined by the measurement of each straight run, specified by a distance between the terminal points, and an orientation or direction. A direction may be a simple compass bearing, or a precise orientation determined by accurate survey methods.
  • Bounds. The term "bounds" refers to a more general boundary description, such as along a certain watercourse, a stone wall, an adjoining public road way, or an existing building.
Here is a commonly referred to example of a metes and bounds description:
Commencing at a heap of stones about a stone’s throw from a certain small clump of alders, near a brook running down off from a rather high part of the ridge, thence by a straight line to a certain marked white birch tree about two or three times as far from a jog in the fence going around said ledge and the “Great Swamp” so called, then in a line of said lot in part and in part by another piece of fence which joins onto said line, and by an extension of the general run of said fence to a heap of stones near a surface rock, thence aforesaid to the “Horn” so called and passing around the same aforesaid, as far as possible, to the “Great Bend” so called, and from thence to a squarish sort of jog in another fence so on to a marked black oak tree with stones around it and thence by another straight line in about a contrary direction and somewhere about parallel with the line around by the “Great Swamp” to a stake and stone mounds not far off from an old Indian trail, thence by another straight line on a course diagonally parallel, or nearly so, with “Fox Hollow” run, so called, to a certain marked yellow oak tree on the off side of a knoll with flat stones laid against it, thence after turning around in another direction and by a sloping straight line to a certain heap of stones which is by pacing just 18 rods more from the stump of the big hemlock tree where Philo Blake killed the bear, thence to the corner begun at by two straight lines of about equal length which are to be run in by some skilled and competent surveyor so as to include the area and acreage as herein set forth.
Unfortunately, I cannot find where this particular description originated. It may be made up for illustration purposes, but it is often referred to by those talking about boundary descriptions. The main problem with such descriptions is that the physical objects chosen to describe the property often are destroyed or move over time. For genealogists, trying to locate property from such a description can be a nightmare. Current property boundaries that were historically based on metes and bounds descriptions may have been supplanted by another, more recent survey method. However, even today when the waypoints (Waypoints are sets of coordinates that identify a point in physical space) for a description may have been established by exact survey points, unless the survey is tied into a rectangular survey, the description may still be referred to as a metes and bounds description.

Early in the European settlement of America, land descriptions might refer to adjacent property owners. If the genealogical researcher expands the scope of his or her inquiry, sometimes the land descriptions can give the names of other members of a the extended family or even the maiden names of married women. 

In subsequent posts, I will talk more about legal descriptions and their impact on genealogical research. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Where did your ancestors live? -- An Introduction to parcel maps

Sanborn Insurance Map of Provo Utah, 1908
My recently post on cadastral mapping points out an interesting fact: local tax records usually indicate where and when people lived in a particular place. Since determining the exact location of an event in an ancestor's life is often crucial in determining his or her identity, any resource that can give an exact location is invaluable.

My early experience with these important records was in researching town records in Rhode Island. I found that most of the documents associated with land or land transfers were in these records. In a quick search on, I find only six collections of digitized town records. So most of these records, at least on, are still available only on microfilm. A search on shows more town related documents, with over 600 falling in this category.

Beginning in 1867, the Sanborn Map Company began publishing insurance maps of cities in the United States. There are various collections online. The map above comes from a collection at the University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library. There are over 660,000 of these maps available, many online. The largest collections of these maps are in the Library of Congress and online. Search for "fire insurance maps" on Google.

The corresponding maps for the rural part of the United States are on "county atlases." These maps can be quite detailed and show individual parcels and ownership. For example, the Map Collection of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum CommissionBureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania State Archives contains Pennsylvania County Atlases and Maps from the 1850s-1870s.  Here is an example showing the individual property owners:

Map #334 - Map of Bradford County, Pennsylvania, 1858 Published by Wm. J. Barker, Philadelphia. J. M. Edsall, Assistant Publisher
You can download these maps and zoom in and see the individual lot owners.

Another way to approach this research is by searching in the online records maintained by individual counties. These are usually maintained by county recorders and/or assessors. There is a portal to these records maintained by Nationwide Environmental Title Research, LLC. For example, using their Public Records Online Directory, I clicked on Utah, then Utah County and found the website for the Utah County Recorder online. Within seconds, I found the chain of title to my own property in Provo. These records contained a legal description of the entire subdivision development. Here is an example of a legal description from that source:
Legal Description: COM N 40'48"W 1063.12 FT & E 405.72 FT FR SW COR SEC 29, T6S, R3E, SLM; 60.98 FT ALONG ARC OF 402.60 FT RAD CUR L (CHD N 6 DEG 54'33"E 60.92 FT); N 2 DEG 34'12"E 18.48 FT; ALON ARC 300 FT R CUR T L (CHD N 5 DEG 36'08"W 85.29 FT); ALONG ARC 20 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 28 DEG 43'08"E 27.02 FT); ALONG ARC 269.5 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 71 DEG 33'17"E 3.22 FT); ALONG ARC 269.5 FT RAD CUR TO R (CHD N 80 DEG 37'02"E 81.64 FT); N 89 DEG 19'12"E 186.9 FT; S 40'48"E 182.35 FT; N 88 DEG 27'42"E 199.63 FT; S 40'48"E 21.34 FT; S 89 DEG 19'12"W 485.31 FT TO BEG. AREA 1.36 ACRES.
This brings up another issue. In many cases, to interpret the land records you find, you will need to know how to read the legal descriptions and further, how to place those descriptions on a larger map. Very often, the county will include a way to look at the parcels and ownership. Here is an example from the Utah County Parcel Map:

Early land acquisition records in the United States are also a valuable genealogical source. In future posts, I will explain how to read the above legal description and others both recent and historical. I will also explore some of the other detailed land records in the United States dating back to the times of the earliest settlers. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The European Library Online

January: a man warming himself (at a fire)
Dutch collections Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
Citing from The European Library website:
What is The European Library?
The European Library is an online portal that offers easy access to the collections of Europe's national libraries and an expanding range of research libraries. It aims to meet the needs of researchers worldwide by providing the ability to:
  • Search over 200 million records
  • Access over 24 million pages of full-text content and more than 7 million digital objects
  • Find a wide range of material, including rare books, manuscripts, images and video
  • Export records to reference management services such as Mendeley and Zotero
  • Download metadata free of charge for data mining and exploitation 
What is the relationship between The European Library and Europeana?
The European Library is the aggregator of digital content from national libraries for Europeana. We deliver digital content from our member libraries on a monthly basis to Europeana. Some human and technical resources are also shared between the two organisations.
The majority of the items in the Library are free to access. Users can cross-search and reuse over 25,188,714 digital items and 165,471,423 bibliographic records.

I find that this type of online resource is virtually unknown among genealogists.