Where Two White Oaks Used to Grow
A Case Study In Using a Computer to
Unpuzzle the 'Metes and Bounds of
Your Ancestors' Land - And Finding It

By Richard A. Pence

© Copyright, 1995

It is frustrating trying to find the present location of the land upon which an ancestor lived--especially when the land boundaries were marked by rocks and trees. Frustrating and puzzling. But it can be done.

One way, of course, is to follow each recorded sale of the land in the deed books down to its present owner. But that's tedious work. Moreover, the shape and size of the original survey or land described in the first deed likely has changed so much that what you are left with is only a piece of the original, perhaps tacked on to what was once an adjoining parcel. And even if the boundaries have stayed intact, you still may be faced with trying to find those "two white oak trees" still standing after a couple of hundred years.

The title of this article, in fact, comes from the description in an 1822 deed; it acknowledges that by then, the oaks of the original 1749 survey no longer existed.

Perhaps an easier way is to use your home computer to help you find where the original property was located - right down to the very spot.

The following case study describes a process by which I recently was able to precisely locate a land grant to an ancestor and then print out a map of this grant and the adjoining grants to two of his brothers.

This particular land is located in what is now Page County, Virginia, near the town of Stanley. It was a part of the "Northern Neck" grant to Lord Fairfax. At the time it was surveyed in 1749, it was located in Frederick County; during most of the time my ancestor lived there, it was in Shenandoah County. Thus, a knowledge of the history of the area was essential to locating deeds for the land and, indeed, in defining the area itself. (See sidebar story on "Software That Can Help You Locate Places" for help on this topic.)

Fortunately, the original Northern Neck warrants and surveys are available at the Library of Virginia and these are also abstracted in a book (Peggy Shomo Joyner, Abstracts of Virginia's Northern Neck Warrants and Surveys, Frederick County, 1747-1780, Vol. II, Portsmouth, Va., 1985). Land boundaries aren't given in the abstracts, but adjoining land owners are usually noted.

STEP ONE was to obtain copies of the original surveys, complete with drawings and the "metes and bounds." If original surveys are not available to you, you should be able to get much the same information from the earliest available deed involving the land. You might be lacking the surveyor's sketch (which usually includes the course of streams or notable landmarks other than the ubiquitous oak trees), but the deeds should contain nearly the same metes and bounds as the survey.

In order to help you locate the land, you likely will need copies of the surveys or deeds for lands that adjoined your ancestor. In this case I not only obtained the survey for my ancestor, Henry Pence, but the surveys of the adjoining grants to his brothers, Lewis and Jacob, as well as two other adjoining grants. As it turned out, the latter two were simply insurance; the surveys for the three brothers were sufficient to locate the land.

STEP TWO was to obtain a topographic map of the area. Since this land happens to be near the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, I was able to get such a map at a nearby store that caters to hikers. However, topo maps are readily available from the U.S. Geological Survey (see details in the box at the end of this article). If you can generally describe the area (name of a town or river), the USGS should be able to tell you which map you need. When you order maps, specify "7.5 minute quadrangles" (primary series); these are 1:24000 scale (1 inch equals 2,000 feet) and usually bear the name of a town or other feature in the map. (The USGS will send you a free state index map showing the names and numbers of each quadrangle.) The topographic map should also solve the problem of not being able to find streams or some general landmarks not shown on most general present-day maps.

STEP THREE was to use the surveyor's description to create an outline of the property. For this I used a freeware program called Mapper (see software descriptions at end of article).

With Mapper you enter the surveyor's coordinates and distances and the program will show you the shape of the property on the screen or print it out. It also will print to any scale you wish, limited by the size constraints of your computer screen. To get an outline that is the same scale as your topographic map (1:24000) set the scale in Mapper's print screen at 2.64.

After entering the surveyor's directions and distances, I then had Mapper print out the outlines of each of the land grants to the same scale as on the topographic map. It helps if you can print these on transparent paper such as onionskin; if you can't, then you can trace the outlines onto such paper. I then scissored them out and pieced them together with transparent tape. If it is not obvious from the shapes of the outlines, you will need to carefully examine the surveys or deeds for information on where the lands adjoin.

I also marked these pieces with streams or other topographic features mentioned in the surveys (one survey, for instance, referred to the land as being "at the foot of a mountain"). The combined outline of the grants is shown below.

I then used these survey outlines and tried to match them to the topographic map. By trial and error, I eventually found almost precisely where these lands were located. Back-lighting the maps makes this step easier. Remarkably, the boundaries of some of the land today are marked by roads. For example, a road marks part of the western boundary and all of the northern boundary of the land grant of my ancestor, Henry Pence.

For this step, the more adjoining surveys/deeds you have the more easily you will find a fit. For instance, one of the properties may border a stream and you can fit it up against that.

CAUTION: Streams tend to shift over time, as was the case in this exercise. After trying to fit the surveys against a stream and discovering that other landmarks then seemed out of line, I finally concluded that the stream that once marked a portion of the border of my ancestor's land had shifted a couple of hundred feet to the south in the 245 years since the original survey. A close examination of the contour lines on the topographic map tends to confirm this: The contour lines indicate what likely was the previous stream bed. Roads or other manmade objects can also alter streams.

The FINAL STEP was to get a "presentation map" that could be used to show relatives and others the location of these ancestral land grants.

This was done with a program called MapExpert. This program makes available maps of the entire U.S. in almost any scale and with excellent detail and precision. Its details, in fact, closely coincide with those of topographic maps. (I first tried a much cheaper map program, but its details and alighments were not nearly precise enough and the printouts were not nearly as clean as those of MapExpert.) It also has the features you need to overlay property boundaries on its map segments.

For this step, you must first translate the surveyor's directions into directions of the compass (1 to 360 degrees) and his "poles" or other distances into miles. In Mapper you can type in the actual surveyor's directions: "South 15 degrees West for 160 poles" is entered as S15W,160.

For MapExpert the equivalents are 188 degrees (south is 180 degrees and 15 degrees west of that is 195, and 6 less than that is 188; see next paragraph for an explanation of the subtracted 6 degrees) and .5 of a mile (a pole equals 16.5 feet; multiply 80 times 16.5 and divide the result by 5,280 to get the miles--don't worry, your computer calculator can do this for you!).

What about the "missing 6 degrees"? Before you begin plotting your map on MapExpert, you need to make an important adjustment: You need to account for "declination." Declination is the difference (in degrees) between "true" north and "magnetic" north. This figure will be given on your topographic map. For the topographic area in this case study, the declination was about 6 degrees. Remember: the surveyors were using magnetic compasses while MapExpert's layouts are aligned to true north. This meant that each of the previously calculated directions from surveyor's directions to compass point had to be reduced by 6 degrees. The following table shows the calculations and adjustments for the grant to Lewis Pence. From left, original directions on survey, magnetic north equivalent, true north equivalent, distance (in poles) in original survey, distance in miles:

       Direction                   Distance
------------------------- ----------------
Survey MagN TrueN Poles Miles
N40E 40 34 250 .78125
N50W 310 304 300 .9375
S40W 220 214 120 .375
S10W 170 164 80 .25
S40W 220 214 60 .1875
S50E 130 124 258 .80625

As stated earlier, from previous experimenting, I had determined an almost precise spot from which I could start an overlay on MapExpert. I put on the screen a map of the area and scaled it to the desired size.

Getting this map is simple: Click on the "city" icon, type in the name of the nearest town, click on the correct one of several towns of that name listed, click on SEARCH and the map soon appears. (You can also call up maps by topograhical names, such as those of rivers or streams.) Clicking on the point you are interested in will center this point on the screen.

I then used one of the program's drawing tools to mark the "known" starting point, brought up a "point window" and typed in the previously calculated distances and directions for each of the boundaries - and the lines appeared on the screen precisely where they should.

After I had all the boundaries placed, I filled in the surveys with a cross-hatch pattern, labeled them using the text tool, identified other points of interest and printed it out: Presto, a precise map of the surveys overlaid upon a current map of the area, complete with explanatory information. The resulting map is shown below.

MapExpert allows overlays you create to be saved and when you call them up, they jump precisely to the original spot on the map - even if that spot is not on the screen at the moment! I had a map showing a town about 10 miles away on the screen, called up the overlay, then panned down to the area of the surveys. There was the overlay!

Note that the expensive part of this process is the creation and printing of the final map. You should be able to fairly accurately locate the property just by using the relatively inexpensive topographic map and the Mapper (or similar) program.

The first time you try this process it won't be as easy as I have tried to make it sound. A lot of experimentation was needed before it produced results. But I consider the results spectacular - and after the first such foray it becomes a relatively easy exercise.

Software Mentioned In Article

MapExpert 2.0

Apparently this program is no longer available from DeLorme, its producer. Instead of MapExpert, the company lists a product called DeLorme Topo USA. Check the web site below.

DeLorme Mapping
Lower Main Street
P.O. Box 298
Freeport, ME 04032
Orders: 1-800-452-5931
DeLorme Products Page

Mapper 5.1, 6.0

DOS program by Russ Holsclaw. Version 5.1 was a shareware program once widely available, but I could not find a copy on the Internet. Mapper v. 6 was used for this article and at the time this article was written it was a commercial program available from the author for $24.95 plus $2 s&h:

Black Oak Systems
7472 Mount Sherman Road
Denver, CO 80503
See Computer Programs for Drawing Plat Maps for additional information.

Deed Mapper 3.0

A program not used in this case study but similar to Mapper is DeedMapper, available from Direct Line Software, 71 Neshobe Rd., Newton, MA 02468. Program description and ordering information is available at the Direct Line Site.

A Bit About Maps

The U.S. Geological Survey will respond to written or phoned requests for information about present and past place names in the U.S. Write, call or fax:

U.S. Geological Survey
523 National Center
12201 Sunrise Valley Dr
Reston, VA 22092
Voice: 703-648-4544
Fax: 703-648-5548

Topographic Maps

Topographic and other maps may be purchased at any Earth Science Information Center of the USGS (Anchorage, AK; Fairbanks, AK; Denver, CO; Menlo Park, CA; Reston, VA; Rolla, MO; Salt Lake City, UT; Sioux Falls, SD; Spokane, WA; Stennis Space Center, MS; Washington, DC). For phone numbers or address, or to order, call the 800 number below. The 7.5 minute maps are $2.50 each when ordered from the USGS, slightly higher when purchased commercially. There is a $1 surcharge for orders under $10.

USGS Branch of Distribution
Box 25286, Building 810
Denver Federal Center
Denver, CO 80225
1-800-USA-MAPS (24 hours)

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has two free pamphlets on its map holdings: (1) Geography and Map Division, the Library of Congress, and (2) List of Publications, Geography and Map Division. Write:

Geography and Map Division

Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20540

The National Archives

For information on maps in the National Archives' Cartographic and Architectural Division, write for a free brochure (General Information Leaflet #26) to:

Publications Sales Branch
National Archives
8th and Pennsylvania Ave, N.W.
Washington, DC 20408

Go to MAPS for the Library of Congress maps web site and a selection of other sites featuring maps or links to other map sites.


Software That Can Help You Locate Places

Before you can "map" your ancestor's homestead, you first face the task of locating the jurisdiction it was in and where the surveys and deeds relating to it can be found. The disappearance or changing of place names or the alteration of county boundaries can complicate this task. Or maybe you simply can't find what you're looking for on a contemporary map. Here are several pieces of software that can help you over the finding hurdles.

Geographic Names Information System

The U.S. Geological Survey has a CD-ROM disk called Geographic Names Information System, a digitized gazetteer of the United States. The CD-ROM comprises three databases from the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS): The National Geographic Data Base, which contains almost 2 million entries for areas in and under the jurisdiction of the United States, the Toponymic Map Names Data Base, an inventory of all USGS published topographic maps at various scales, and the Reference Data Base, a collection of annotated bibliographies of all sources used in compiling information for the National Geographic Names Data Base. There are 154,243 populated places (cities, villages, towns, subdivisions). Also included on the disk are most named topographic features (streams, creeks, rivers, lakes, swamps, mountains, etc.) and such other named places as churches and cemeteries. The database includes 57,782 places that no longer exist, including many churches and cemeteries. For each location, the name of the 7.5 minute topographic map is given.

Requires CD-ROM drive. Price, $57, including s&h. Order by mail to:


507 National Center

12201 Sunrise Valley Dr.

Reston, VA 22092

FAX orders: 1-703-648-5548

Include your Visa or MasterCard number and expiration date and your return address. Delivery takes about two weeks. For more information on USGS services and publications and how to call for specific information, see a file called USGEOSER.*, available on the NGS's BBS (703-528-2612)."

County Reference Guide

This program gives the date of formation, parent county and child county (hard-disk version) for each county in the U.S., plus the records available in each county and a brief history. A sort of "Handy Book" on disk. Helpful for quick reference while you're at your computer.

Available for DOS and Windows. DOs requires version 3.0 or higher, 512K RAM and graphics monitor; Windows 3.0. DOS hard-disk version includes "child counties," requires 1.5 megabytes of disk space.

Ordering information: $14.85 plus $1 per order for s&h; add 50 cents s&h for each dditional item ordered. Specify Window, DOS "regular" or DOS "hard disk."

Advanced Resources, Inc.

144 Parish Square, #144

Centerville, UT 84014

Phone 801-776-4348

Animap County Boundary

Historical Atlas

AniMap includes over 2,000 maps which show the changing boundary lines in each of the 48 adjoining states in the U.S. from Colonial times to the present. Also has a U.S. map showing development of the states and territories from the original 13 states. Maps can be printed or exported. A spot can be marked and the succeeding maps will show where that place was in each year.

Requires Windows 3.0 or higher, VGA or SVGA display, 3.5 high-density floppy drive, hard drive with at least two megabytes of available space for the program and one state group, 10 megs for program and all state groups; mouse recommended.

Ordering information: The program includes a master program and six regional state groups, as follows:


2. AL, FL, GA, KY, NC, SC, TN

3. IL, IN, IA, MI, OH, WI

4. AR, LA, MS, MO, OK, TX

5. KS, MN, MT, NE, ND, SD

6. AZ, CA, CO, ID, NV, NM, OR, UT, WA, WY

Price for the basic program is $39.50, which includes the master program, a U.S. map which shows how states and territories developed and when, and one state set. Each additional state set is $15. Master program and all state sets is $95. Order from:

The Gold Bug

Box 588

Alamo, CA 94507

Phone 510-838-MAPS

City/County Finder

A set of state DOS text files collected by the author from public-domain FIPS files (Federal Information Processing System). These files give the county in which each city or town is located as well as its longitude and latitude. FIPS data supposedly provides a number for every geographic unit that has been given a place name by federal board, but data varies from state to state; some include geographic areas, subdivisions, etc., while others seem to include only cities and towns.

Available for downloading from GENEALOGY ONE, the NGS BBS, in a group of seven files under the name FIND*.ZIP (about 2.1 megabytes). Included in the download package is a TSR shareware program called PC-Browse that allows you to search for a city while entering data in other program. The unzipped files require a little over four megabytes of space when unarchived. Use of PC-Browse as a TSR search program depends on how much space your current application requires.

--Richard A. Pence