The 1820 Survey Grid Drawn on a Modern Map of Weakley County, Tennessee 
by Gary Brown


It is the nature of historical research that each new contribution rests on the work that went before in many subtle ways.   This project is no different.  Most researchers of the history and genealogy of Weakley County will eventually turn to the early land records to understand where their subjects lived and when they arrived.  Understanding those early land records is not easy.  We have long been indebted to Pansy Baker and Charlotte Reynolds for making the first known map of Weakley County and its original survey grid (dated 1836) available in Reference 1.  This map, shown in Figure 1, was the first widely available key that helped locate the general region of the county where early entries were located.  In 1985, the Isaac Dawson Chapter of the NSDAC published Reference 2 which attempted to map the early settlers from the Occupant Entry Book3 onto the 1836 map.  This was an important step even though it only permitted a very approximate location.  This author has developed a more accurate reconstruction of the original survey grid and superimposed it upon a high resolution modern road map of Weakley County.  With this tool it may be possible to more accurately locate early farms and to associate them with modern plat maps.

It is very difficult to determine the location of early farms in Weakley County.  Tracts were located in a five mile by five mile square of range and section lines that have not been marked or used since the first half of the 19th century.  The range and section lines were uniquely defined for West Tennessee and have no relationship to the townships and sections with which most researchers are familiar.  Reference 4 is the only document this writer could find which attempts to define the location of the section and range lines for West Tennessee.  This reference is a valuable resource but even it fails to locate the range and section lines in Weakley County with sufficient accuracy to permit reliable comparisons between original tract descriptions and modern land plats.  If one cannot accurately locate the reference lines for the early deeds, it may not be possible to determine whether a modern tract is in fact a part of a particular early grant or farm.  This paper attempts to define the Range and Section lines of Weakley County Tennessee with sufficient accuracy to permit such comparisons.

The original boundaries of the Survey Districts of West Tennessee were established by the Tennessee State Legislature in 1819, Reference 5, p 200.  The section of the state known as the Congressional Reservation and which included West Tennessee was to be divided into 7 surveyors districts (7-13) defined as follows.  The legal language of the day has been paraphrased for clarity.  Only District 7 and 8 were east of the Tennessee River.

       District 7 - Start at the southern boundary line of the state on the Congressional Reservation line, proceeding north with this line to a point equidistant from the southern state line and a point due east of the town of Columbia on the Reservation line.  From there due west to the Tennessee River and then south with the river to the state line.  From there east with the state line to the beginning.  The Surveyor's Office shall be kept at Pulaski.

Figure 1.  The 1836 Map of Weakley County Showing Range and Section Lines - use your back button to return here.

       District 8 - Lies south and west of the Congressional Reservation line and east of the Tennessee River and north of District 7.  The Surveyor's Office shall be kept in Columbia.

       District 9 - Starting on the southern state line, 35 miles west of the Tennessee River on the True Meridian and running north according to the true meridian 55 miles.  Then east to the Tennessee River, south to the state line, and west to the beginning. 

      District 10 - Starting at the southwest corner of District 9, runs 30 miles west with the southern boundary of the state, then 55 miles north, east to the northwest corner of District 9, then south (along the True Meridian) to the beginning.

      District 11 - Start at the southwest corner of District 10, running 55 miles north with the west boundary of District 10 to its northwest corner, then west to the Mississippi River, then downstream with the Mississippi river to the southern boundary of the state, then east to the beginning. 

      District 12 - Starting where the Kentucky Tennessee state line crosses the Tennessee River, thence west with the state line 35 miles, then south to the north line of Districts 9-11, east with that line to the Tennessee River, then downstream (north) with that river to the beginning.

    District 13 - Begin at the southwest corner of District 12, running north with the western boundary of District 12 to the state line, then west with the state line to the Mississippi River, then downstream to the northwest corner of District 11, then east to the beginning.

The surveyor's districts for West Tennessee are shown in Figure 2. 

The Act goes on to specify that each of the surveyors shall without delay divide his district by lines running parallel to the southern boundary of the state and by lines crossing them at right angles so as to form sections that are 5 miles square.  The surveyors were instructed to mark these sections and map the districts using a scale of 160 poles (1/2 mile) to the inch.  Every survey (tract of land) was to be connected to this reference system.  The principle meridian (reference line) was established for each district.  "The boundary between Districts 12 and 13 shall be the principle Meridian for those districts."  The sections were required to close, i.e., a line drawn around the edge of each section would come within 20 poles (330 feet) of the starting point of the line.  Any application for land within each district was to be recorded in the surveyor's office.  This was the beginning of the patent process by which the first, i.e. original, deeds were obtained.

     Figure 2.  The Surveyor's Districts of West Tennessee superimposed on an extract from Tanner's 1834 Map of Tennessee.  Districts 7 and 8, created by the same act of the legislature, were east of the Tennessee River and are not shown.

In Reference 6, M.H. Howard relates a personal version of the above process that agrees in detail with what was laid out in the law.  Howard is an extraordinarily valuable source.  He worked in almost all phases of the process for many years.  He was a locator of grants in the field, a transcriber and certifier of North Carolina Warrants, and a speculator who held large tracts of land for a long time.  He said the surveys, meaning both the reference lines and the laying out of the original tracts were to be run to the true meridian; "that is, parallel to and at right angles to the North and South Boundaries of the State, which is six and a half degrees to the left of the point of the needle."  It is worth noting that it isn't at all clear how well the early surveyors accounted for the variance between true north and magnetic north.  Modern USGS maps of northeast Weakley County show a magnetic declination of 4.5 degrees.  True north is 4.5 degrees west of (or to the left of) magnetic north (the needle).  It is known that magnetic declination varies with time as well as location.  Howard arrived in West Tennessee at the end of April in 1820.  He went there to locate land for which there were outstanding warrants before the area was open to settlement.  The Range and Section lines had already been marked by May of 1820.

Several observations need to be made at this point.  The only firm reference in this system was the south boundary line of the state.  However, an error had been made when the southern boundary of Tennessee was originally surveyed in 1819 by General Winchester.7   This boundary was intended to be on the 35 Degree latitude line.  The survey was in fact skewed to the northwest.  The line was subsequently resurveyed in 1837 thus removing the only certain reference line for the original grid. 

The Range and Section lines were located and used by the surveyors but no modern markers exist.  This reference system was only used for a few years.  The surveyor's offices were closed by an act of the legislature in 1836 and the functions were transferred to new surveyor and entry taker offices established in each county5.  The new law did not require the county officer's to tie all new entries to the grid system as the old law did.   By the 1850's, many deeds no longer referred to it and those that did often used phrases like "the former district 13".  The 1819 Act was the overarching legal basis for assigning lands in West Tennessee to the first generation of legal settlers.    It defined the process and the reference system and established the government offices for conveying clear title to these new lands by those who held some kind of prior legal claim.  One must understand that the governments of NC, TN, and the US had been granting unlocated, unsurveyed, ill-defined tracts of land to people for various reasons for a long time.  The land in West Tennessee was owned by the Chickasaw Indians until the Jackson Purchase was consummated in 1818.  Once the Indian ownership was resolved, the land became the property of the state of Tennessee but the state was required to honor all those earlier land grants.  This was the beginning of a great land rush that resulted in the transfer to private ownership of almost all the lands of West Tennessee in a period of a few years. 

In 1823, the Legislature established the counties of West Tennessee.5   They were defined in the same grid set up by the surveyors. In most cases, the county boundaries either lay on range and section lines or were parallel to them.  However, when one tries to reconstruct the original grid using the county boundaries it quickly becomes clear that more precision is required.  Political boundaries are not precisely located on any modern maps.  Moreover, the original land tracts were defined according to where the surveyors marked the range and section lines.  They did a remarkable job considering that they worked only with a compass and had no maps or landmarks to use as references.  Even so, the lines as marked on the ground could vary significantly from the theoretical lines drawn on a flat map.  I have been able to locate the Section line between Sections 9 and 10 using original deed descriptions and modern tax assessor's maps.  I can also draw a theoretical section line based on the county boundaries.  The "actual" line lies over 900 feet to the north of the "theoretical" line in the northeast corner of the county and the discrepancy would be even larger toward the west side of the county.  There are many potential sources for this error. It is not necessary to list them all. Suffice it to say that it is important to seek vestiges of the original grid in the deeds and roads of the county.

I have tried numerous schemes for reconstructing the original survey grid. They generally involve drawing the five mile by five mile grids on modern maps and then trying to modify the spacing as well as the orientation to match the few known points.  I have devised a grid that appears to be a good representation of the original grid in north Weakley Co and is probably a very good representation throughout the county although I lack data points to test it there.  This would be a good exercise for further research by those more interested in the southern part of the county.

I was fortunate in that I had one farm that remained intact from the time it was settled and patented via an entry deed until modern times.  It was a 200 acre farm, Entry #397, entered by William Clark on December 30, 18303, and bounded on the meridian line.  This tract is identified on the modern Tax Assessors maps as Tracts 20-5, 20-6, 20-6.01, and that part of 20-8 lying north of the road.  This tract provides a 3300 long line known to lie on the Meridian line.  The orientation of the line must be carefully determined since it will be extrapolated for a distance of almost 25 miles.

I validated my construction of this line in two ways.  First I used the Weakley County boundary, which should have been the Range 2/Range 3 boundary as a reference.  In fact, this line as drawn on topographic maps isn't quite straight but a straight line connecting the northeast and southeast corners of the county is a good estimate for the that line.  One can then construct an extended line that is a continuation of the Clark property line and parallel to the Range 2/Range 3 line.  The distance between these lines turns out to be 10.1 miles rather than the theoretical 10.0 miles.  The extended Meridian line falls directly on several straight sections of road that include Liberty Dean Grooms Road in the south and Unity Church Road near Latham.  Almost all the early property lines were all parallel to the Meridian line and many of the early roads would follow section and range lines as well.  The use of these straight sections of road to locate the Meridian line would be risky but the coincidence of the several straight sections of road with the projected Meridian Line is to some extent a validation. 

The Meridian Line was the basic reference line run by the first surveyors.  It would have been used to help define all the other elements in the grid.  Locating it as accurately as possible is critical.

Constructing the other range lines is a matter of drawing parallel lines that turn out to about 5.05 miles apart.  Many sections of them do line up with old roads.

The Section lines were more difficult to reconstruct.  I used the straight portion of the south boundary of the county in the southeast corner as an estimate for the Section 4/ Section 5 Line.  This line has a bearing of 272.4 degrees relative to true north.  I was able to locate two pieces of property in District 1 that were originally located on the Section 9 / Section 10 line.  These are the original George McClain farm, Entry # 6653, and the original Elisha Paschal farm8.    Using these property boundaries and this bearing I was able to reconstruct the Section 9/Section 10 Line.  I then drew the intervening lines at about 5.05 mile separations and using the same bearing.  I did vary the separation distance slightly in order to align with sections of road that appeared to be old reference lines.  My reconstructions are perfectly straight across the entire county. It is highly unlikely that the original grid was this accurate.  There must have been variations.  The only way to improve on this process is to locate original tracts of property that were located using that grid and then to find those same tracts on a modern land plat.  This map should make that process much easier. 

Reference 1.  Weakley Remembered; Compiled by Pansy Nanney Baker and Charlotte Stout Reynolds. Skullbone Priinting.  1981.

Reference 2.  Neighbors in Weakley County, Tennessee, A Land Ownership Map 1827-1833; A Publication of Isaac Dawson Chapter, NSDAC, Martin, Tennessee.  1985

Reference 3.  "Record of Occupant Entry 1827-1833 of Weakley County "; The Tennessee Historical Records Survey; Division of Community Service Programs, Work Projects Administration.  1941.

Reference 4.  West Tennessee Range and Section Lines By County; prepared by James    H. Hanna;  Unpublished.  Located in Jackson-Madison County Library. 

Reference 5.  "The Land Laws of Tennessee"; compiled and edited by Henry D. Whitney of the Chatanooga Bar; copy right Nov 23, 1891, 36853.

Reference 6.  M. H. Howard's Observations, Knowledge, ETC. About Tennessee;  written in longhand in 1883, typed in 1938, T-100 Collection, H-135, Tennessee State Library and Archives.  Edited version appeared in "The American Historical Magazine" Vol. VII No. 1 January 1902.

Reference 7.  "Beginnings of West Tennessee"; Samuel Cole Williams, The Watauga Press, 1930  Chapters XIII-XIV.

Reference 8.  Weakley County Deed Book A, page 224.  August 19, 1828.


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