Thursday, July 4, 2019

Dueling 18th Century Virginia Land Plats

I really ought to learn to leave well enough alone, but some genealogy questions just persist and gnaw at you.

It's like the question itself is a fiendish parasite deriving a sinister thrill from the torment of obfuscating every effort to find the truth.

You pick at loose threads hoping to unravel the tightly-wound mystery. Sometimes you luck out, yet other times you come up empty-handed, frustrated, tears rolling down your check, anguished guttural cries into the dark abyss.

That's how I feel about my efforts to locate George William Fairfax's 1700-acre tract of land colloquially known as Poplar Spring.

Fairfax was a member of the landed gentry of Colonial Virginia who was a contemporary and friend of George Washington and owned vast amounts of land in Virginia's Northern Neck, including the elusive Poplar Spring.

Located in modern-day Berkeley County, West Virginia, I've had little success in identifying the exact location of the Poplar Spring property where my suspected sixth great-grandparents Joseph and Sarah Kirk leased 100 acres for 25 years between 1773 and 1798.

What telltale clues would surface during a review of surviving land records?

Two Competing Land Plats

In November 2018, I spent hours in the Family History Library trawling through land deeds for Berkeley and Frederick counties (Berkeley was carved from Frederick County, Virginia in 1772).

I discovered not one but two land surveys conducted by Thomas Rutherford. I knew immediately that he was important to my research because several of the Poplar Spring land transactions that I had previously reviewed cited a survey conducted by Rutherford.

Was this it? Was I looking at Poplar Spring?

A few items initially grabbed my attention about the two maps:
  • Both surveys were conducted for George William Fairfax (proprietor of the lands in Virginia's Northern Neck and owner of the Poplar Spring tract);
  • Both surveys were conducted by Rutherford on February 20, 1763 (the surveyor cited in later Poplar Spring transactions and surveyed before the 1773 lease by the Kirk family); and
  • At a glance, both surveys appeared to survey the same land but with a 600-acre discrepancy between them (one covering 2,680 acres and the second 2,080 acres).

2680 Acres

Rutherford's 2680-acre map, "surveyed for George William Fairfax Esq.," examined "a parcel of land lying at the dry marsh on the drains of [the] Opequon, including the place which formerly belong to Nicholas Mercer in Frederick County." The survey name drops each of the men whose land borders the property mapped for Fairfax. In total, I counted 12 individuals:
  1. Samuel Littler
  2. Robert Milburn (deceased)
  3. Peter Falkner (deceased)
  4. Joseph Parrell 
  5. Richard Calbert
  6. Benjamin Blackburn
  7. Captain Angus McDonald
  8. McMachen men: William, John, and Rush
  9. George Hollingsworth
  10. James Wright
  11. Josiah Ballinger
  12. John Nickland

2080 Acres

Rutherford's 2080-acre map, also "surveyed for George William Fairfax Esq," examined a "parcel of land lying at the dry marsh one of the drains of Opequon, including an improvement which formerly belonged to Nicholas Mercer in Frederick County." This survey also named men whose property bordered Fairfax's land. But this time I counted 13 individuals: 
  1. Samuel Littler
  2. Andrew Milburns, late survey of a 200 assigned to Thomas McClane a major (illegible)
  3. The heirs of Roger/Robert Milburn
  4. Formerly Peter Falkner
  5. Joseph Parcell
  6. Richard Calbert
  7. Benjamin Blackburn
  8. Captain Angus McDonald
  9. Henry Hath
  10. William McMachen 
  11. David Brown
  12. Mr. Charles Dick, late survey 400 acres taken off
  13. The heirs of John Nickland
Curiously, two men are associated with acreage: Andrew Milburns (200 acres) and Charles Dick (400 acres). In total, that's the 600-acre difference between the two maps. Although I'm unclear why they're "taken off" the survey. 

Bottom line, the border contours and matching names of the neighboring property owners indicate that both maps plat the same area but one includes the combined 600 acres of Milburns and Dick while the other has them "taken off".

What can I learn from these men that might help me pinpoint the location of the Fairfax land on a modern-day map?

Of course, I could trace land ownership forward in time beginning after the February 20, 1763 survey and see whether any names match neighbors of the Poplar Spring tracts.

Any names that match Poplar Spring ownership would help verify that the above maps encompassed the land where Joseph Kirk lived.

Unfortunately, this search needs to wait until I'm next in the Family History Library since the digitized Frederick County land records are only viewable in a Family History research center or library. It's a time-consuming, tedious research undertaking, but there certainly seems to be promising rewards.


  1. Try looking for land deeds for the men whose property adjoined Fairfax's and see what waterways are named in them.That should help narrow down exactly where this land is.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation, Linda. Adding the search for waterways to my to-do list. :)

  2. I admire your determination to find this land. This is an aspect of genealogy that so far I have resisted. I am still on the layer of---who WERE these people!? Maybe someday I will scour land records also. :)

    1. I've enjoyed sifting through land records. They've helped me identify inferred family relationships, which can be just as helpful in the absence of direct evidence. I'm a big advocate of using them, and I encourage you to give it a go...when you're ready.

  3. Perhaps I will. Remember that most of my US family arrived after 1850, and almost all were city-dwellers and renters for many years, or they lived in places like western Pennsylvania where there were street addresses so no need to map out plot lines or anything. So for me, I am more interested in what they did in their lives than the houses they lived in. I do Google the addresses now and then to see if the houses still exist, but that's about it!