Friday, May 3, 2013

400 Rods by 400 Rods Equals 1000 Acres

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

We’re always looking for interesting ideas for blog posts (that’s a hint, by the way) and so when the Genealogy Department at the Allen County Public Library posted on Facebook about sisters Roxann Shafer and Ruth Keating, we saw the possibility for continuing our series on activities for parents to do with their kids to spark an interest in history.

Roxann and Ruth have been working on their family genealogy for about 45 years. You would think that in that amount of time, they would have accumulated a lot of material. That they have done….as well as amassing a vast knowledge of the history of Fleming County in Kentucky where their ancestors settled. Along the way, they’ve also learned a thing or two about surveying in early America and what property deeds and circuit court records can tell you about history when you’re trying to track down your ancestors.

Ruth Keating (l) and Roxann Shafer and their "sheet map"

According to the Genealogy Department’s Facebook page, Ruth and Roxann are “platting land for an entire county in Kentucky, using paper patterns cut to the shapes of the metes and bounds land descriptions and pinning them to a sheet.” They’ve been working on this portion of their genealogy project for 5 or 6 years and use sheets, since the material is larger and easier to fold than paper. See the photographs below.

Closeup of their work

Now as someone who came from Nebraska, where everything is laid out pretty much in straight lines parallel and perpendicular to each other, following a conversation about trying to figure out property lines in Kentucky was, for the most part, over my head. What I did glean from our chat this week is that surveyors determined property lines by making hash marks on trees (which would have been pretty hard to do out on the Great Plains!).

In the course of their study, the two have run across some very interesting descriptive language. For example, one piece of land was described as “where the buffalo trail crosses the river where the troops camped” the night before they went into Ohio. This is actual language from a deed! Surveyors were required by law to be accurate in their descriptions and if they weren’t they could be fined. But trying to survey Kentucky using primitive methods often resulted in court cases. My observation that it might be best not to purchase property in Kentucky was met with the rebuttal that being an attorney who worked on property cases might be a better option! 

If you wanted to win a court case, being related to Chief Justice Marshall was to your benefit.

Ruth pointed out that as someone who homeschooled a child, she wouldn’t recommend doing this project with your children because of the amount of time involved, but that studying circuit court cases and then writing a short story about an incident contained in a file could be a lot of fun for a middle or high school student. Land fights were pretty common in Kentucky’s early history and when folks fight about land….well, a lot of information gets put into the file.

For example, they continued to come across the name Phantley Roy as a first and middle name among a number of families. It seems this was a family name….you know one member of the family as Judge Roy Bean. 

The duo’s ancestors were Quakers from the Carolinas who became Methodists. There’s still study to do on why.

They’ve also encountered historic documents, one of which is a record from George III that had been stuffed away in a court file. It’s now hanging in a county court house—no one had known that the parchment like paper from the king was in a file until Roxann and Ruth discovered it one day.

Ruth and Roxann noted that they will likely never be “finished” with their project but they’ve certainly had a lot of fun working on it. Once a year, they take off for Kentucky—just the two of them—to drive around, do research and enjoy one anothers company. All in all, not a bad way to learn a little history!

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