Untangling Townships !!

 

© Linda Haas Davenport 2000

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During our family hunting we often see a reference to "township". This is especially true when we are looking at Federal Census Records. From the 1800 census on there is a designation at the top of each census sheet in the heading section that says city, or town, or township. And there seems to be little rhyme nor reason to what's entered in this spot, but actually there is method to the madness as you shall learn.

It's not just the Federal Census records that use township designations you will find that many county records are broken down by townships also. An understanding of this term will make your research much easier and it will also help you locate your ancestor's homeplace within a reasonable searching area.

 

Townships As Stumbling Blocks

I had often heard that my grandmother was born in Flippin, AR but her step-siblings were born in Jimmies Creek, AR and her elder siblings were born in White River, AR. When I was new to searching for family history I spent a lot of time looking for towns called Jimmies Creek and White River. (If the web had been around back then I would have been one of those people who posted a message asking "Where is this town located?") It took me awhile to discover that these two places were townships not towns.

There are two types of "Townships" - one refers to a local government's voting, taxing or militia districts while the other is a description of land that is used in legal descriptions in deeds in Public Domain States. I'm sure using the term "township" to refer to two quite different things was done deliberately to confuse us family hunters.

 The Two Types of Townships

The one that most people are familiar with are the townships that have "names" - such as my Jimmies Creek or White River. We find references to these names in many of the old records. If you look through old newspapers you will find many references to these townships. For example: "News from Jimmies Creek" or in the "marriage licenses issued" section it often gives a township name after the person's name. This type of township changes over the years as the county government reassigns voting or taxing districts. And to make matters worse - these townships do not usually tie to the other type of Township.

The other type of township is used in legal descriptions in deeds in Public Domain States. In looking at deeds you often see a legal description that looks something like this: "SW 1/4 of NE 1/4 S34, TS19N, R14W". Translated this means: "The southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of section 34, township 19 North, Range 14 West." This type of township never changes. It was set when the land was surveyed prior to the area becoming a state. Ok, you say, but your translation doesn't mean a thing to me!

Humm..... then it's lesson time and probably a chance for me to confuse you even more.

All states other than the original 13 colonials are something called a "Pubic Domain State" which simply means that the land for the state was surveyed and described by something called "The US Land Survey System" in which a large square section of land is laid out in a grid and then broken down by Meridian, Section, Township and Range. Each "square" is continually broken down into smaller pieces, while still keeping the land in a designated section. For example a deed might say: "... the following tract or parcel of land lying in the county of Marion and State of Arkansas known and described as the SW 1/4 of Section 1, Township 10, Range 7 East of the base Meridian"

The actual definition of the US Land Survey System is:

"The US Land Survey System is cartographically represented by lines running North and South and East and West. These lines are 6 miles apart and the squares formed in this manner contain 36 square miles and are called Congressional Townships. This system of survey starts from the intersection of a principal Meridian and a Base line.

The numbers starting from each intersection of the principal Meridian and Base line, increasing North or South along the meridians are known as Township Numbers and those going East and West along the Base lines are called Range numbers."

Section Map

Each of the squares above represents a township and within each township are 36 sections broken down like the grid below. The black numbers are the sections within the township and the red numbers are the sections in the adjoining townships.

36

31

32

33

34

35

36

31

1

6

5

4

3

2

1

6

12

7

8

9

10

11

12

7

13

18

17

16

15

14

13

18

24

19

20

21

22

23

24

19

25

30

29

28

27

26

25

30

36

31

32

33

34

35

36

31

1

6

5

4

3

2

1

6

 

Each Section (above) contains 640 acres that is then divided into quarters:

NW 1/4

160 acres

NE 1/4

160 Acres

SW 1/4

160 Acres

SE 1/4

160 Acres

 

As property within a Section is sold each of these quarters are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, with all pieces keeping the N, S, E, W and township designations

 

Here is an example of what a section can actually end up looking like once the property is sold.

 

Example Map

Map courtesy of: Gallup Map & Supply Co Kansas City, MO

 

Which makes it easy to locate a particular piece of property on a current map if you know the section / township / range.

Ok, So Now What Do I Do With This Information?

Having an understanding of the two different types of townships will allow you to use source documents to locate (1) additional records on your family; (2) to locate the actual place your ancestor lived. To help keep the confusion of these two types of townships to a minimum I'll refer to the county designated townships as "County Townships" and the Legal Townships as "Land Townships".

Now, back to my comment about Federal Census Records. I've not yet discovered if the Instructions for the Census Takers told them which type of township to use because some census takers (even within the same county) used County Townships while others used Land Townships. For those people who are researching in the states that were the original 13 colonies the township designation is almost always a County Township designation because their land is not subject to the Public Land Survey. That is, unless you are searching in parts of GA where they use some Land Lot Designations and there might be other states (of the original 13) that have some type of Land Description. You can quickly tell which type of Township the Census Taker used - if it's a name then it's a County Township; if a Section/Range is listed you know it's a Land Township. If your ancestor actually lived in a town or a city then the name of town or city is usually used in place of a township name but not always. A quick check of current map will let you know if the name you are looking for is a County Township or the name of a town.

We need to remember as we move back in time looking for our ancestors that the farther back we go the more apt our ancestors were to live in rural areas that were not close to any town. No one was interested in saying "I was born 25 miles east of xx town" or "I'm from Section 18, Range 12 West" so they used the County Township name to identify their location or their place of birth or the place they were married, etc. The problem that genealogist have is that these County Township boundaries changed time and time again as voting or taxing or militia districts changed. The area included in Jimmies Creek Township today may have little bearing on the Jimmies Creek Township of yesteryears.

"Townships in colonial states were political subdivisions of the county. As areas grew in population, citizens would request the courts to form a new townships for schools, roads and taxing purposes. So the formation of a township or changes in boundaries of a township did not follow voting or taxing changes, but the other way around. And the procedure for changes requires slow court time. New counties, too, were created mainly because of population changes and done through the courts. Some counties may have townships which were created long before that county since they were townships in an older, larger county. Other times townships were created new when a new county was created from the subdivision of an older, larger parent county. Townships can also disappear when they are assimilated back into an adjoining township or borough. The same township name can often be used in many different counties in a state, so always tie the township name to the county name. The township thus referenced is the township at the time of the reference and may be the same township today OR it included the township today plus other land in adjoining modern townships. I cannot speak for all colonial states, but often, unfortunately, as in Pennsylvania, the historic boundaries of townships are not easily found. Nor do maps always exist which show all the changes in township boundaries. Best bet is to check with historical societies and libraries for maps depicting old township boundaries. The exact, legal boundaries of such townships almost always reside in county court records in the Court of Quarter Sessions. But too many times, changes were made without the benefit of a survey as people in the legal profession came up with their own descriptions back then which gives modern attorneys and surveyors more work today. Using your term "county townships" is good if you're mixing public land systems and colonial land systems together in a paragraph. But it's better to separate the types of land systems for explanation purposes. And then in colonial states, refer simply to 'township' not 'county township' as it then becomes confusing if you are referring to both county and township records; e.g. referring to the 'county township' of Benton in Columbia County is redundant and confusing especially if you're trying to state some records are township records and others are county records. " (1)
 

The Search Is On

Almost all of us have a County Township name for our ancestor(s). It might have been found on a census records or a marriage license or we might have been "told" where someone was born or from an old newspaper, but whatever the source we have a "place" name to work with. This narrows down the search in many county or local records. Such items as tax lists, school districts and voting lists are almost always broken down into County Townships. Knowing the County Township can save hours of searching through old records.

Most County Township maps are found in the local courthouse usually in the tax department since County Townships most often designated taxing districts. Most tax departments have all of the old County Township maps. Many times you will find that a county web site, the state archives, the local genealogy society or even a major university will have either a list of boundary changes or maps of boundary changes. It sometimes takes time and effort to locate these old items but they are worth the effort. Once you have the boundaries of the County Township this information can be transferred to a current map.

PUBLIC DOMAIN STATES: If your ancestor lived in a Public Domain state maps showing Section, Township and Ranges are readily available from many different sources. Transfer the County Township boundary information you have to a current map, this will give you the Section(s), Townships & Range where your ancestor lived. Your next step is the county Land Section/Township/Range index. (If you don't have an idea of what this item is spend some time reading my Land Essay). Armed with the S/T/R you can use this index to determine if your ancestor owned land and if so exactly where his land was located. Make a copy of the deed for the land and transfer the legal description found in the deed to your current map. You now have the actual location of your ancestor's property and can visit the property, locate local cemeteries, churches, funeral homes, etc. that will help you further expand the information on your ancestor.

NON PUBLIC DOMAIN STATES: If your ancestor lived in one of the 13 original colonies you have work a bit harder to figure out the actual location of a County Township on a current map but you can still come up with a rough area. If you haven't already checked the Deed books to locate a deed on your ancestor now's the time to do so. Although the deeds in Non Public Domain States use the old metes & bounds descriptions old deeds almost always list physical items like creeks, lakes, mountains, roads etc. that can be found on current maps. Using this information you can locate an approximate area on a current map. This will help you locate cemeteries, old churches, funeral homes, etc. that will help you further expand the information on your ancestor.

 Update: Woody was kind enough to send me this info: Your Untangling Townships !! article is essentially correct. However, I think that there were more states that weren't included in the list of public domain states. The law that authorized the land survey system or ranges/townships etc was a result of the Northwest Territories Act. (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and that part of Minnesota east of the Mississippi river). It excluded those states that were a part of the Union. Therefore, the original 13 colonies, Vermont & Maine were left out as was present Kentucky (part of Virginia), Tennessee (part of North Carolina), Texas which had already been surveyed another was, and West Virginia.

 

 (1) James Creasy, P.L.S. JamesCreasy@aol.com

 

As with any of my "essays" I would appreciate any corrections, additional information or comments. Linda

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