A Little History on Surveying and Land Records : Country Property and Acreage Homesites

A Little History on Surveying and Land Records

by John Price on 07/07/10

A Little History on Surveying and Land Records

If you look at old surveys or at the deed to your home you will find a legal description.

It probably says Lot x of xyz subdivision Located in Section cd and in Township ef North and gh East as recorded in the land records of abc county in the State of Missouri.

Just what does all that mean? I have put letters in where numbers belong.

Lot 10 of Beautiful Acres Located in Section 25, Township 43 North Range 3 East in Jefferson County Missouri.

The system started back in the days of Thomas Jefferson, and does not apply to the entire US, but it does apply to Missouri. A township is roughly 36 square miles containing 36 sections. A section is roughly 1 square mile containing 640 acres. I say roughly because the size changes depending on where you are in the township. Think about a globe and a flat map of the globe. The globe is round and the map is flat. Adjustments are made to sections every 6 miles to account for the curvature of the earth. But in general a section is 640 acres, and one mile square.

A section conveniently divides up into 40 acre parcels. The Northeast Quarter of a section is literally the northeast 1/4 th and contains 160 acres give or take. The northeast quarter of the northeast quarter is just that. It is the northeast quarter of the 160 acres and contains 40 acres. Back in the day, a homesteader would be given 40 acres and a mule for settling on a piece of land. It took about 40 acres to support a family with subsistence farming and that is about what one farmer could manage with a mule.

If you have seen old deeds you will see old measurements in chains, rods, and links. Newer surveys are in feet but the old measurements made sense, and an old deed will refer to the old measurements. A mile was 80 chains. 80 chains by 80 chains is 640 acres. 40 chains by 40 chains is 160 acres and 20 chains by 20 chains is 40 acres. That is pretty convenient math. That is a lot simpler than 5280 feet by 5280 feet equaling 640 acres. 4 rods by 4 rods is 10 acres. The old measurements made the math easy before computers and calculators. And in the old days, in rural areas, who owned less than 5 or 10 acres? They were very convenient units of measurement.

You might see something else in your deed. In addition to saying Section, Township and Range, it might refer to a US Survey. US Surveys generally pre dated United States ownership of the land and referred back to old Spanish and French Land Grants. They became US Surveys when the United States recognized the individual grants as being legitimate land holdings. They are generally in creek or river valleys and were the prime land worth surveying 200 years ago. There are lots of those in Jefferson County. They show up on old maps.

Old deeds, not part of a subdivision have what is called a "metes and bounds" description. It is literally a path around your property described with compass bearings and measurements. It might say go north 300 feet, then east 200 feet to a creek, then in a southerly direction along the stream bank, etc. It's actually more technical and will have more precise measurements, but the point is that the legal description says something similar to an old treasure map, but with precise measurements. Go north 300 feet, then turn to the right and go 200 feet and then follow the creek. The legal description in metes and bounds literally walks you around the property. Metes refers to the distances such as north 300 feet. Bounds refers to natural boundaries such as the creek.

Do you remember the old expression, "Beating the bounds"? It dates back to King Alfred's time in England where village elders and children would walk around parish boundaries and farm boundaries. They might hit or beat landmarks with the switches or they might spank the children at important landmarks as they walked property lines (boundaries) of the farms and villages. The purpose was to teach the younger generation where property lines were. In some parts of England and Wales, they still have a ceremonial beating of the bounds as kind of a holiday festival. I don't think they beat the kids anymore. Personally I like survey markers better.

The 1880's farmhouse on 7 acres for sale on my web site is in Harlow's second subdivision which is part of Lot 1 of Stites Subdivision in US Survey 1982 which is in Township 42 North Range 6 East in Jefferson County Missouri. Recorded subdivisions are recorded in Plat Books at Page Numbers in the county land records. The US Survey designation indicates a very old land holding pre dating the Louisiana Purchase. You can view this property and others at on this site.

The 1860's Victorian mansion which just sold, and is on the same website, is in a subdivision called Windsor Harbor and that subdivision is recorded in Plat Book 1 at Page 7 of the Jefferson County Land Records. The Hollows at Frisco Hill is adjacent to US Survey 783 and is recorded in Plat Book 261 at page 20. Now I do not know how many pages are in a plat book, but I have property in Book 1 and in Book 261. Book 261 was late 2009. Book 1 was 1860's.

Individual deeds used to be recorded in Deed Books at Page numbers, but the system changed a few years ago and a document number is assigned to each deed.

The entire purpose of this system of surveys and plats and deeds being recorded is to keep track of who owns what.

You have a deed to your property. It means little as proof of your ownership because you could have deeded it later to someone else. Your deed is proof you owned it at one time, but no proof you own it now. What is important is what is in the recorded land records. I have a deed framed on my office wall. I bought the land in the early 1970's and I have no clue as to who owns that land now. I sold it in the 1970's. My piece of paper means nothing. The land records mean everything.

What if the courthouse burns? What if a tornado takes it away? How do I prove I own my land? This is such an important issue that there are many safeguards. When a deed is recorded there will be a number put on the deed, and it will be filed in the local land records. There will also be a micro fish or scan or picture of some kind made of the deed and the recording information. It will be sent to a remote location for storage so that records can be recreated if the local courthouse is destroyed. I'm probably a few years behind on my technology. I now suspect, but do not know, that the records are both at a remote physical location and also on computers somewhere. The point is our system for proving real estate ownership is so important, that there are backups. When you buy a home or a piece of land, and pay $30.00 to have your deed "recorded", you are paying for the documentation that both proves your ownership and allows the records to be recreated.

This is so important to our society, that you elect a local official to supervise all of these records. It is The Recorder of Deeds. Think about the importance of this position the next time you vote. It was important at least as far back as Alfred the Great of England. They "Beat the Bounds" as a way to document land ownership in the minds of the villagers.

You can review my properties at this site  or http://www.cannonhouseproperties.com/.

All are recorded in the county records. Several have some interesting history.

I have been asked by a reader to write an article on construction financing.  It will be comming soon.

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 Price Acreage Blog: Written by John V. Price          Email: johnvprice@gmail.com

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Festus, MO 63028

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Some or all of the people or entities who are principals in the LLCs that own the properties on this web site are licensed Real Estate Brokers and are agents. John Price is either an owner or a manager of an LLC that is an owner of all of the properties on this web site.