How to Identify Land Lots
This article is designed to go over the basics of land surveying in the Wiregrass, so that researchers will be able to locate individual land lots and mark them on Google Earth. The Wiregrass Region has several different land survey systems. A little history of the various systems will be given before moving on to the how to section.
Metes and Bounds System
The metes and bounds system was used historically in the British Isles and later in the British Colonies. It was also used in Georgia prior to the 1800s. Areas of Georgia that were opened up to European American settlement before 1800 typically use the metes and bound system. With this system the boundaries of a property are described a step at a time. A compass bearing is given along with a distance to go. The distances are typically described in chains, links of a chain, and poles. The system has the boundaries marked with landmarks (rocks, trees, streams, roads, and other objects). Landmarks can disappear over time. Because of those issues other systems were developed to divide land up into square lots of equal sizes that are then numbered.
The Wiregrass rarely uses the metes and bounds system as its primary system with the exception of some eastern areas Brantley, Charlton, and Wayne Counties in Georgia. The metes and bounds system is occasionally used when square lots have been subdivided. A metes and bounds platter can be found here.
During Florida's Spanish periods, some land grants were given to private citizens that used the metes and bounds system.
Public Land Survey System
The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is used in most of Florida and all of Alabama. The PLSS divides land up into square units of six miles by six miles known as townships. Townships are described as being north/south of a base line and east/west of a principal meridian. In Alabama there is the St. Stephen's meridian. In Florida there is the Tallahassee meridian. Each township is divided up into 36 square sections. Each section is one mile by one mile. Therefore each section is 640 acres. Sections are often divided up into smaller units. Sections can be divided up into halves, quarters, and occasionally further.
The Wikipedia article on the PLSS covers the details of the system very well.
County level township and range maps for Alabama can be found here.
County level township and range maps for Florida can be found here. Florida was surveyed into PLSS townships in 1825. The original surveys and field notebooks can be accessed here. They are not typically as detailed as the Georgia field notebooks. The PLSS in Florida is sometimes interrupted by Spanish land grants.
Township and range sections are also marked USGS maps. One can be viewed here.
Georgia Survey Systems
Georgia and a strip of Florida on the Florida/Georgia border use a system of large land districts divided up into land lots. The size of the individual land lots is dependent upon if a land lot was originally in Appling County (490 acres), Early County (250 acres), Irwin County (490 acres), or Wayne County (490 acres). Georgia does not use the mile as the base unit of measurement for dividing up land lots, instead chains form the base unit. For counties where land lots are 490 acres, they ideally measure 70 chains (0.875 miles) by 70 chains. For counties where land lots are 250 acres, they ideally measure 50 chains (0.625 miles) by 50 chains. As will be shown later on, not all land lots met with the ideal dimension due to variations in surveying quality.
With the exception of Wayne County (surveyed in 1805) most of the Georgia Wiregrass was surveyed into land lots in a period from 1819 to 1820. Some areas of the Okefenokee Swamp remained undivided into land lots after the 1850s.
The surveys began in Summer 1819. The surveyors faced sweltering heat, swamps, and curious and some hostile Natives.
Land District 10 of originally Irwin County had started to be surveyed by Robert Cunningham in 1819, but he quit after a few days following encounters with the local wildlife. His equipment was hidden in a tree trunk and later destroyed by Natives. Cunningham was eventually replaced by Charles McKinnon who had surveyed Land District 4 of originally Irwin County. McKinnon started his survey of Land District 10 in March 1821. He encountered a flooding Alapaha River and stopped his survey. It was discovered in 1825 that the survey was incomplete. McKinnon finished the survey 1827.^
Part of the Land District 11 of originally Irwin County had to be resurveyed in 1829 William B. Taylor due to poor land surveying conducted by John H. Broadnax (sometimes seen as Brodnax) in 1818-1820. The problems of surveying in that area were known by at least 1827, when locals started to complain to the governor of Georgia. While resurveying Land District 11, Taylor discovered that land lot corners were inaccurately placed, that borders between Land District 11 and neighboring districts deviated by several degrees from what they should have been, that land lots were misnumbered, and that large sections appeared to have not been surveyed at all. In December 1829, the Georgia General Assembly decided that implementing the resurvey would not be practical since it cause many land owners to lose their land and the improvements they had built upon it. It was decided to use what corners that Broadnax had created in his original survey without regards to the acreage that actually existed therein. ^
Broadnax was sued by the state of Georgia in 1830 for his bond after his survey was found to be "improper and inaccurate." In December 1833, the Georgia General Assembly passed "AN ACT for the relief of John H. Broadnax of Troup county" which forgave his debt from the poorly conducted survey and forfeited bond.
The survey of land District 16 of originally Irwin County conducted by A B Shehee extended over a dozen miles into Florida, but seems to have been accurately run otherwise. While surveying, his team encountered Native Americans who warned them about hostile Native hunting along the Alapaha and Suwannee Rivers. His team also had the marks they left on trees destroyed by Natives in the area. His team had started in November 1819, but abandoned their work after a group of Natives stole some of their horses and pointed guns at the part. Thomas Hardee surveyor for Appling County's Land District 7 and Peter L. Jackson surveyor for Irwin County's Land District 12, also had Natives deface their surveyor marks on trees. In response to these troubles, Governor John Clark requested help from Major General Edmund Gaines and the United States Army. The Army removed Natives from the land in December 1819, and surveying began again with slightly less trouble.^
The Georgia Fractions
In 1798-1799, Andrew Ellicott surveyed the border between the United States and Spanish Florida. The line he surveyed is still the current border for Alabama and Florida. The border between Georgia and Florida was left un-surveyed for years due to Native Americans interfering Ellicott's survey. It was nominally a straight line between the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers and the headwaters of the St. Mary's River as defined by the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795). Ellicott only marked the location of the headwaters of the St. Mary's River with a mound (now known as Ellicott's Mound), but left the rest of the border unmarked.
The actual location of the headwaters of the St. Mary's River and if Ellicott's Mound was properly located, was debated for decades.
In December 1818, William Montgomery Green was hired by the state of Georgia to run the boundary line. After running into hostile Natives and lacking provisions to continue, Green discontinued his survey in June 1819.
In 1820, Georgia appointed James C. Watson to survey the border. The Watson Line was the border used as the border when the land lot lines for Appling County, Early County, and Irwin County were surveyed. Georgia used this line for making their land grants.
In March 1821, John H. Broadnax also attempted a survey of the line.
In 1825, the territory of Florida had Daniel F. McNeil survey the border. The McNeil Line ran north of the Watson Line. Florida used this line for making their land grants.
In 1827 an expedition went to survey the Florida-Georgia line and the Okefenokee Swamp. For more information see The Journal of Thomas Spalding. The surveyor for the team was John McBride and the partial line established is called McBride's Line. After another expedition in July 1827 in which John McBride surveyed the course of the the three branches of the St. Mary's River, some in Georgia tried to claim that the actual headwaters of the St. Mary's River was located near Ocean Pond near Olustee Florida.
In the late 1859, Florida appointed Benjamin F. Whitner and Georgia appointed Gustavus J. Orr to run a line to settle the border dispute. The Orr-Whitner Line was north of both the McNeil Line and the Watson Line. In 1872, the United States Congress approved the Orr-Whitner Line border. The strip of land between the Orr-Whitner Line and the Watson line still uses the various Georgia survey systems instead of the PLSS system. They are called the Georgia Fractions. They are marked on most USGS maps and on township and range maps of Florida.
The map below from 1895, depicts the land districts in South Georgia with the the 1895 county boundaries.
How to identify land lots
The land district/land lot system still forms the basis of property lines in the Georgia section of the Wiregrass. Most tax assessor online databases in Georgia list the land district and land lot of pieces of property on the report screen of a piece of property. Below is an example:
It can take some time to develop the ability to recognize the land lot boundaries as they exist today. As one gets closer to cities, the land lot lines can become unrecognizable. Land lot lines are most visible in rural areas where farming is still active. It can be easier to identify a column or row in a rural area and then go in a straight line (east-west north-south) towards the urban area. Occasionally, roads will follow the path of the land lot lines. If a road goes straight for over a mile and is also running parallel with north-south or with east-west, it might be following a land lot line. Railroads often go straight for miles, but rarely follow land lot lines. Power lines will also go straight for miles, but also rarely follow land lot lines.
[Note: While the land lots lines for Appling, Early, and Irwin County were run roughly parallel to latitude and longitude, Wayne County land lots lines are at an angle to north-south]
The land lots and land districts are visible upon the original land plat maps available from the Georgia Archives, but they lack modern county lines, cities, and other geographic fixed points that can help a person establish their bearings on them. The Georgia Archives also county maps that depict the land district and land lot lines, while also depicting most of the fixed points that people are familiar with. Those maps are available from the Georgia Archives here.
Google Earth Pro is a highly valuable resource when trying to identify land lots. The combination of measuring tools, satellite imagery, and the ability to draw polygons on the map provides one with the tools to identify and mark land lots.
The above picture is of a rural area of Brooks County, Georgia. Straight lines that go for miles are normally indicative of a land lot boundary line. When straight lines intersect other straight lines that can be indicative of a corner of a land lot. This section of Brooks County was originally part of Irwin County. From earlier we know that land lots in Irwin County were of 70 chains by 70 chains, and that 70 chains equals 0.875 miles. We can see that distance between one of those straight line intersections and another of those straight line intersections is about 0.87 miles. One could then assume that those are indeed corners of land lots. One would be accurate in making that assumption in this instance.
If one goes on to measure the distance from one corner to another line intersection expected to be a corner, one finds that something is off.
The distance between these corners is 0.93 miles and not the expected 0.87 miles. Nevertheless, it is still a corner of a land lot. Surveying in the 1800s was not as accurate as it can be today. Swamps and rivers can sometimes be to blame for poor surveying, but other mistakes happened.
When that land lot is marked and measured it comes to 524 acres. The ideal acreage for this land district should have been 490 acres. Variations in acreage are somewhat normal. Some land districts were better surveyed than others, also some rows and columns within a land district were better surveyed than others within the same land district. On most land lots maps, land lots will appear as a uniform size and shape, but not be so on the ground. The on-the-ground shape of land lots normally gets diverges greatest from the ideal shape of land lots near swamps and rivers.
Identifying land lots in areas that are heavily wooded and have not had their land used for agriculture in decades if ever can be difficult if not impossible. Often these land lots are owned with surrounding land lots by a company involved in the lumber industry, and have been treated as a singular parcel for decades.
Land District 11 in Irwin County (now Echols, Lanier, and Lowndes Counties) was extremely poorly surveyed in 1819-1820 by John H. Brodnax. Because of this tax assessor websites for those counties do not always list the land districts and land lots for those areas.
The map below is a selection from one located at the Lowndes County Courthouse. It depicts the actual land lot boundaries. The section depicted does not have perpendicular land lot corners. Some of the land lot boundaries also follow the path of Mud Swamp instead of remaining true to course.
The eastern most land lot column for LD 11 (not depicted) is heavily distorted on the ground. The land lots for that column are 119 chains (1.47875 miles) east to west, and contain 866 acres instead of the ideal 490 acres acres. The southernmost row for LD 11 (not depicted) is also distorted on the ground. Their north to south lines are typically only 15 chains (0.1875 miles) to 25 chains (0.3125 miles). Those land lots rarely contain over 150 acres. It is important to be on the lookout for instances where land lots do not meet with the standard for that land district.
1. Farris W. Cadle, Georgia Land Surveying History and Law, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 226-227.
2. Farris W. Cadle, Georgia Land Surveying History and Law, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 231-232.
3. Farris W. Cadle, Georgia Land Surveying History and Law, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 224-226.