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Little River Land Surveys

The land surveys found in the plat books of the Surveyor General in the State of Georgia provide us with a glimpse of life in Georgia just after the Revolutionary War. It was a time for celebrating the newly formed nation, but it was also a time of frenzy and speculation. At stake were personal fortunes and property rights. The resulting land surveys, also known as land plats, sometimes can be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. The resulting mosaic not only identifies the relationship of one plat to another, but it also sheds light on the dynamics of these early pioneer neighborhoods.

In 1783, the State of Georgia began to assume control of the lands once ruled by the Crown. In so doing, it began to issue its own land grants. Settlers were put in the position of applying for “official” grants to legitimize their claims to lands that many of them had already settled. For a piece of land to be legitimate, it had to have a survey. So, the settler would have to go to the land court and request a warrant to authorize the survey. Usually, the survey was accomplished within a week of the warrant date. Once surveyed, the land had to be granted through the office of the Governor. The granting process may have taken as much as a year to complete.

Many of these early surveys show neighbors, even though the neighbors had yet to receive an official grant. The survey for Absalom Bedell, for example, shows Robert McGinty as a neighbor in 1783. Robert McGinty, however, did not secure a grant for this land until 1785. Sometimes these neighbors disappeared, never to receive a grant. The survey for George Lea indicates that Benjamin Hubbard was a neighbor. Hubbard, however, never received a grant for the land next to Lea. The survey for Ignatius Few shows a neighbor named Noradike. No one by that name appears anywhere in the record.

These phantom neighbors may have died or left the area before receiving property grants. Some, however, may have been supporters of the Crown. In that case, not only did they lose their land, but many were forced to leave the State. Benjamin Few was famous for confiscating lands from the unfortunate Tories. This negative attitude toward the English sympathizers is shown in a story told about Joel Phillips, donor of the Phillips Mill Church and owner of one of the plats in our study. One Sunday, Phillips noticed a Tory had come into the church. Phillips immediately grabbed the unfortunate man and ousted him with a mighty kick. Then Joel returned to join heartily in the services.

The issuing of land grants was definitely slanted toward the patriot. Colonel Elijah Clarke secured vast amounts of property in the area. Around Little River, the names of Ignatius Few and Captain Henry Karr appear frequently on surveys. (James Few, the brother of Ignatius Few and a member of the Regulators, had been hanged by the Crown in North Carolina. He is said to have been the first martyr of the Revolution.)

Occasionally, settlers would fight over the rights for the same portion of land. Sometime in 1783, Robert McGinty filed a complaint against Henry Karr with the Caveat Court of Wilkes County. The disputed land was 150 acres on the south side of Little River adjoining the survey of Absalom Bedell. On the first Tuesday in January of 1784, the jury met and sided with the defendant, Captain Karr. This land may have evolved into Karr’s 155 acre survey and grant that appears in our mosaic, next to Robert McGinty.

The rush to survey land and file claims created a demand for fast surveys. There seems to be evidence that some surveyors guessed at their surveys as much as they physically measured them. The instruments that they used were crude at best. The compasses were simple hand held units, many of which were not even calibrated. There was no Global Positioning Satellite to aid these surveyors, nor for that matter, was there any concept of Latitude and Longitude. An example of this simplistic view may be the survey for Absalom Bedell that is laid out seemingly along North, South, East and West property lines.

A note is added here about the nature of these line measurements. They were encoded by the surveyor on scraps of paper and cards, some not much bigger that 3” X 5”. Basically, the surveyor would stand at the starting point of a property line. He would face either true north or true south according to his compass. From this position, he would turn to the right or left, up to 90 degrees, to match the direction of the property line in front of him that he was measuring. In describing this line, it might be as N 20 E or S 25 W. In other words, the line ran away from his position on a vector, North 20 degrees to the East, or South 25 degrees to the West, etc. (Note, a line running North 90 degrees East would actually be a line running due East.)

When the lines were drawn on the survey, the direction of the path taken around the circumference of the property by surveyor was indicated by the direction of the writing describing the lines. Some surveys even show a beginning point, usually noted by “Beg”. For example, the small 30 acre plat of Joel Phillips notes a “P. O. beg,” or a post oak beginning.

When comparing the common lines shared by two adjacent plats, the common property line on Plat A may be running S 10 E (10 degrees east of South). On Plat B, this might correspond to a line running N 10 W (10 degrees west of North). Likewise, a vector running in an easterly direction may describe the same line on an adjoining plat as running to the west.

Once the direction of the property line was determined, then the distance of the line was measured. Here are the most common measurements:

80 Chains = 1 mile; 1 Chain = 66 feet
100 Links = 1 Chain; 1 Link = .66 feet (about 8 inches)
4 Poles = 1 Chain; 1 Pole = 16.5 feet

The measurements appearing on the survey might indicate a line running 20 degrees to the East of South for a distance of 45 chains and 50 links. This would be encrypted on the survey as: “S 20 E 45.50.”

Other key items depicted on these plats were land marks. Most lines were described by trees. A line running S 10 W 45 appeared as a vector running 10 degrees west of true South, beginning at a White Oak, passing a Pine, passing another Pine and ending at a Black Jack, some 45 chains later. Many times, the trees matched up on adjoining properties when the lines didn’t.

The courses of creeks and rivers were also key markers that help to identify the location of the plats on maps of today. Again, the name of the stream, for example “Little River”, was written in the direction of the stream’s flow. In this case, “Little River” would be flowing from the L in Little toward the r in River. This can be seen on the plat of John Conner where “Kettle Creek” was written with the writing angling toward the bottom of the plat. This indicated that the creek was flowing north to south toward Little River on Joel Phillips plat below.

Speaking of creeks, occasionally a plat was labeled as “on the waters of” a particular stream. This indicated that a branch on the plat ran into this other stream. For example, the plat for the Heirs of John Thornton, in spite of the fact that it was bisected by Hardin’s Creek, was labeled as “On the waters of Little River”. Indeed, Hardin’s Creek does flow into Little River and can be accurately described as the waters of Little River.

Once the plat was drawn, the name of the warrantee along with the acreage was calculated and noted on the survey. Sometimes these acreage calculations may have been off. The plat for Joseph Jackson is shown as 400 acres. Yet, when it was sold off in March of 1790, only 375 acres were accounted for.

Most of the time a description of the land was also included on the plat. The 500 acres of John Querns was noted as “oak, hickory and pine land.” Thomas Wingfield is noted as having “good land.” Sanders Walker is noted as having “low land.”

As you can see, there were a lot of areas where inaccuracies could infiltrate these surveys. Consider a surveyor carrying his compass, poles and chains out into the wilderness. In Georgia there was always the threat of rain; briars and rocks were catching on the chain links; trees were blocking the line of survey; bees, mosquitoes and gnats were swarming; occasionally there might even have been a bear to fight off; and then, there was the ever present threat of encountering hostile Indians. (Some surveyors were killed by Indians.) Figuring in this environmental element, there can be little surprise at the rarity of any two plats, surveyed at different times, agreeing on their common lines. One surveyor’s S 10 W 45 Chains may have been another surveyor’s S 15 W 40 Chains. A fellow researcher, Paul Graham, once remarked, “When two lines on opposing plats do agree exactly, it probably indicates that the newer survey has been forged.”

A further note of caution needs be added here. After the survey was completed, it was turned into the Office of the Surveyor General. Sometime later, these individual surveys were transcribed, redrawn, into the plat books. There may be three or four of these surveys depicted on each page of a plat book. In the 1950s, these plat books were microfilmed. The photos of surveys appearing in this study are from this microfilmed record of the transcribed plats. (Some of the original plat surveys may still be viewed in the Special Collections area at the Georgia Archives.) Unfortunately, the transcribers also made errors. A case in point: In our collection is a plat survey identified as “James Whatley”. To my knowledge, prior to 1800 in Wilkes County, no James Whatley appears in the record. The official grant shows that this land was actually given to Samuel Whatley, a Revolutionary War hero and a member of the nearby Phillips Mill Church.

This snap shot of post Revolutionary Wilkes County, then, is not an exact reproduction of reality on the ground. The mosaic of surveys which I have constructed has gaps. (Note the open areas around the survey of Silas Mercer.) It is impossible to account for every piece of earth because of the inexact sciences employed in the 18th century. Throw into the mix the frenzy for land, the ever present environmental hardships and the later transcription errors, and this is at best an approximation of the early pioneer neighborhoods of Wilkes County. Yet, it is through these surveys and their connections to each other that the lives of the pioneers of Wilkes County can be revived and revisited.

Phil McGinty
December 6, 2006

Roster of settlers requesting surveys
Narrative on Land Plat Settlers
Overviews and plats
Overview Jackson to McGinty
Overview - North of Little River
Overview of Harden's Creek

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