Friday, October 5, 2018

Locating An 18th Century Farm Using Colonial Wayfinding Descriptions

On April 9, 1773, a land indenture was signed between the Honorable George William Fairfax Esquire - a member of the landed gentry of late colonial Virginia who was a contemporary and close friend of George Washington - and "Joseph Kirk of the County of Berkeley farmer..."

Joseph has been on my radar for much of this year because I suspect he was my sixth great-grandfather. What more could I learn about him from his land?

Pre-dating the American Revolution, the agreement was drawn up when Virginia was a British colony. Over the span of three very wordy pages, the document described the location of his 100 acre property and detailed the terms of its lease.

Where is that exactly?

The land description is quite unusual. Referring to oak and hickory trees as wayfinding markers, the description left me befuddled. 

Where exactly was Joseph's Kirk's land? 

1773 Berkeley County, Virginia description of land leased
by George William Fairfax to Joseph Kirk

Joseph Kirk received 100 acres of land that was "...lying and being in the parish of Norborne in the County of Berkeley being part of a tract of land of seven [seventeen] hundred acres and called Poplar Spring the bounds as followeth:

Beginning at a stake near a black oak white oak and hickory and near a corner of Joseph Evans and Michael Close extending thence with Close's line No. 55.30" West one hundred and nineteen poles between a hickory and a black oak on a hill side Thence on No. 38.30" East one hundred and forty nine poles to a black oak in a line of the Patent Thence along the same So. 50 East one hundred and nineteen poles to a locust stake near a black oak Corner to John Evans land Thence So. 38.30" West one hundred and thirty two poles to the beginning containing one hundred acres.

Um, what? Where? I was lost with the terminology. What was a pole? What did the numbers mean? Obviously these weren't GPS coordinates.

What if I wanted to walk this land, could I pinpoint it on a map? Let's face it, this wasn't a description I could drop into Google Maps.

Land Platting

I turned to a fantastic resource to bone up on what I was reading, Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records by Patricia Law Hatcher.

According to Hatcher, I was reading a land description based on the metes-and-bounds system or the indiscriminate-survey system where "the land was chosen indiscriminately (independently) of the survey system." In this system, used in Virginia and the other original colonies, "...the crown gave land either to the colony itself or a major proprietor, who then transferred the title to individuals."

I quickly learned that George William Fairfax was one such proprietor who held millions of acres in Virginia's Northern Neck. 

The Library of Virginia writes that, "The Northern Neck Land Office controlled 5,282,000 acres in land grants located between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, which were given to seven loyal supporters of King Charles II [in 1649, after he fled England in exile following the execution of his father King Charles I]..." The Northern Neck Proprietary (or Fairfax Land Proprietary) was eventually inherited by George William Fairfax, who leased portions of the smaller 1,700-acre tract known as Poplar Spring to men like Joseph Kirk. 

Hatcher's book included a how-to section for mapping or platting metes-and-bounds land descriptions. I would need to add an important tool to my genealogy toolkit: a protractor. At long last, I had a reason for my high school geometry. 

I swung by the local drugstore, shoved some kids shopping for school supplies out of my way, and snagged the last protractor.

Following Hatcher's instructions to the T, I platted the 100 acres that Joseph Kirk leased.

Great! But now what?

In isolation, Joseph's platted land wasn't really helping me pinpoint where exactly he lived. I couldn't see the forest for the trees (black oak, white oak, hickory).

Some of the corner descriptions mentioned neighboring land owners. What if I mapped their land? Would I gain greater perspective on the Poplar Tract?

On FamilySearch, I found an index of the land leased by George William Fairfax to various men beginning in 1772 (the year that Berkeley County and Norborne Parish became official administrative units).

I began transcribing deeds and platting the land. It was a mildly tedious process.

Then, like a jigsaw puzzle with curious yet mission-critical clues like "...near a black oak, white oak, and hickory and near a corner of Joseph Evans and Michael Close..." I began to assemble the seemingly disparate pieces.

To my great delight (and surprise that my geometry skills weren't totally inept!), the pieces fit.

To-date, I've platted 956 acres of the 1,700 (still 744 to go!). In the process, I've identified Joseph's neighbors who may prove helpful in identifying other Kirk relatives and heirs. 

For example, I've already found mention of the "Widow Kirk" in the property description of an April 25, 1797 land deed between Ferdinand Fairfax (an heir to the Fairfax proprietary) and John Fryatt indicating that Joseph Kirk was definitely deceased by that year (corroborating information I've learned from reviewing Berkeley County tax records). I've even found John Fryatt's home on an 1809 map of Berkeley County in Library of Congress' collection. Do you see him just south of Martinsburg? 

But still, where was this land on a modern day map?

Seventeen Hundred Acres in Norborne Parish

Okay, so maybe I haven't pinpointed it on a map yet, but I certainly have a better idea of its general location.

On September 7, 1798, Ferdinand Fairfax did "grant, bargain and sell unto the said Nicholas Roush...a certain tract or parcel of land situated about three miles from the said town of Martinsburg, consisting of two lots which were originally leased by George William Fairfax the one to Michael Close, and the other to Joseph Kirk being parcels of a larger tract called the Poplar Spring tract..."

1798 Berkeley County land deed, Ferdinand Fairfax leases
Joseph Kirk's land to Nicholas Roush

The combined Close and Kirk plots - both platted above - consisted of just over 300 acres. This land transaction confirmed that the Kirk family was no longer living on the property Joseph leased 25 years earlier.

Followers of this blog and my Kirk research may recall that my fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Kirk, makes his first appearance in Brooke County, (West) Virginia tax records in 1799. Did the Widow Kirk pass away and the children began to fan out as the land was re-leased?

This 1798 deed also positioned the property three miles south of Martinsburg, the county seat for Berkeley. Coupled with John Fryatt's home appearing on the 1809 Berkeley County map, I have an approximate area to zero in on.

Detail of 1809 Berkeley County Map, Library of Congress

I plan to road trip to Berkeley County to scope out the area, and - hopefully - to walk Joseph Kirk's land. The pressure is on to translate the description of his property to a current day map, and hope that it's not a strip mall. Who knows, maybe those oaks and hickories still survive and are serving as modern-day wayfinders (googling life expectancy for trees...).

I welcome any recommendations on next steps to locate the land on Google. 


  1. I am absolutely blown away by your persistence and your ability to do this. I would have long ago given up---and never gotten that protractor. (I am amazed they still sell those things.) What an incredible project this is! I hope you find your answers. Your work will also be valuable to all the others whose ancestors lived in this area. Bravo!

    1. Thank you, thank you, Amy! :) I'm hoping clues come out of this that lend themselves to just a little more insight into my Kirk ancestry. I'm at the ready, protractor in hand!

  2. Deed Mapper is a great program that plots out metes and bounds. If waterways are mentioned, you might be able to pinpoint quite accurately where your ancestors owned their land.

    1. Thank you for this recommendation, Linda. As much fun as the protractor has been, I'm all ears to play with an automated process.

      I've reached out to DeedMapper to see if the software is available to purchase and download instead of a CD.

      I'm not sure I have enough information in the deeds to anchor it to an existing map of Berkeley County. I *think* one of them mentioned being in the western watershed of the Opequon - a nearby creek. And a couple of them mentioned that the "wagon road" or the "Winchester road" cuts through the property. That may be US-11 on current maps. I wonder if those details are sufficient to pinpoint the farm's exact location.

  3. Really, Michael? You shoved those kids out of your way to get the protractor. Don't get in the way of a genealogist when he's on a mission! Great post. I've wanted to do this for my James Sims. I used to do the plotting but have not gotten around to adding the adjacent land. Fortunately, his land crossed a river. Also land records for the county are online.

    1. You're spot on - don't get in the way of a genealogist on a mission! ;)

      Thank you for sharing tract plotter. I wish I had known to use this a week ago! I'm using it to map out the remaining plots, but I don't see how I can map multiple plots at once and link/stitch them all together into a larger whole. Maybe that's where a program like DeedMapper that Linda recommended comes into play. Or maybe I still have to do some work by hand (print them out individually, cut and paste them together. You know, genealogy arts & crafts!).

      And then I still have to figure out how to anchor/place them to a current day map.

    2. I was so quick to share the link that I didn't check to see if it would plot multiples. I actually thought of this while I was lying in bed waiting for dreamland. The plotter will make it a lot easier to recognize errors in the metes & bounds numbers in land records. When plotting by hand, you might think you've made the error and not the clerk. Good luck with the genealogy arts & crafts! You're welcome.

    3. I started using both Tract Plotter and DeedMapper yesterday. Both - hands down - beat plotting by hand (but it built character, I'm telling myself)! I like the way plotter visually presents and accounts for errors. Thanks again for raising that to my attention.

  4. Okay, this article is wonderful. Just wonderful.

    As one who has taught land platting, I know the love of getting the land descriptions and platting it all out to make it fit like a jigsaw puzzle.

    You did a really nice job!

    1. Thank you SO much, Peggy. That means a lot to me (especially since I’ve attended one of your great conference presentations!). Here’s hoping the platting yields the clues I need to determine whether Joseph Kirk was my Thomas Kirk’s father. It feels like I’m snowballing, picking up momentum and heading - I hope - for long-sought-after answers.