Land Platting Made Easy

Two people drawing at a table with a protractor.

Pattanaphong Khuankaew / EyeEm / Getty Images

One of the best ways to study local history in general, and your family in particular, is to create a map of your ancestors' land and its relationship to the surrounding community. Making a plat from a land description may sound complicated, but it is actually very simple once you learn how.

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Gather Your Tools

To plat a tract of land in metes and bounds bearings -- draw the land on paper the way the surveyor originally did -- you only need a few simple tools: 

  • Protractor or Surveyor's Compass - Remember that half-circle protractor that you used in high school trigonometry? This basic tool, found in most office and school supply stores, is an easy-to-obtain tool for land platting on the fly. If you plan to do a lot of land platting, then you may want to purchase a round surveyor's compass (also known as a land measure compass).
  • Ruler - Again, easily found in office supply stores. You only need to decide if you want to graph in millimeters or inches.
  • Graph Paper - Used primarily to keep your compass aligned perfectly north-south, the size and type of graph paper are really not that important. Patricia Law Hatcher, an expert in land platting, recommends "engineering paper," with four to five equally-weighted lines per inch. The book North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History recommends graph paper marked off the same way your ruler is (i.e. 1/10th inch x 1/10th inch to use with a ruler marked in tenths of inches) to aid you in estimating whether the area shown on your plat matches that in the land description.
  • Pencil & Eraser - Wood pencil, or mechanical pencil - it's your choice. Just make sure it's sharp!
  • Calculator - Doesn't need to be fancy. Just simple multiplication and division. Pencil and paper will work too - just takes longer.
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Transcribe the Deed (or Make a Photocopy)

To begin a land platting project it helps to have a transcription or copy of the deed that you can mark up as you identify the metes (corners or descriptive markers) and bounds (boundary lines) from the legal land description. For this purpose, it isn't necessary to transcribe the entire deed, but be sure to include the entire legal land description, as well as a citation to the original deed.

George the second To all Know ye that for divers good causes and Considerations but more Especially for and in Consideration of the Sum of Forty Shillings of good and Lawful Money for our Use paid to our Receiver General of our Revenues in this our Colony and Dominion of Virginia We have Given Granted and Confirmed and by these presents for us our Heirs and Successors Do Give Grant and Confirm until Thomas Stephenson one Certain Tract or Parcel of Land Containing Three hundred Acres Lying and being in the County of Southampton on the North side of Seacock swamp and bounded as followeth to wit
Beginning at a Lightwood post Corner to the said Stephenson thence North seventy nine Degrees East two hundred and fifty eight poles to a Scrubby white Oak Corner to Thomas Doles thence North five Degrees East seventy six poles to a white Oak thence North West one hundred and twenty two poles to a pine Joseph Turners Corner thence North seven Degrees East fifty poles to a Turkey Oak thence North seventy two Degrees West two hundred poles to a Dead white Oak a Corner to the said Stephensons thence by Stephensons Line to the Beginning...

From "Land Office Patents, 1623-1774." Database and digital images. The Library of Virginia, entry for Thomas Stephenson, 1760; citing Land Office Patents No. 33, 1756-1761 (vol. 1, 2, 3 & 4), p. 944.

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Create a Call List

Highlight the calls - lines (including direction, distance and adjoining neighbors) and corners (physical description, including neighbors) on your transcription or copy. Land platting experts Patricia Law Hatcher and Mary McCampbell Bell suggest to their students that they underline the lines, circle the corners, and use a wavy line for meanders.

Once you've identified the calls and corners on your deed or land grant, create a chart or list of the calls for easy reference. Check off each line or corner on the photocopy as you work to help prevent errors. This list should always begin with a corner (the beginning point in the deed) and alternate corner, line, corner, line:

  • beginning corner - lightwood post (Stephenson corner)
  • line - N79E, 258 poles
  • corner - scrubby white oak (Thomas Doles)
  • line - N5E, 76 poles
  • corner - white oak
  • line - NW, 122 poles
  • corner - pine (Joseph Turners corner)
  • line - N7E, 50 poles
  • corner - turkey oak
  • line - N72W, 200 poles
  • corner - dead white oak (Stephenson)
  • line - by Stephenson's line to beginning
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Choose a Scale & Convert Your Measurements

Some genealogists plot in inches and others in millimeters. It is really a matter of personal preference. Either can be used to fit a plat to the commonly used 1:24,000 scale USGS quadrangle map, also referred to as a 7 1/2 minute map. Since a pole, rod and perch are all the same measurement of distance - 16 1/2 feet - you can use a common divisor to convert these distances to match the 1:24,000 scale.

  1. If you plan to plot in millimeters, then divide your measurements (poles, rods or perches) by 4.8 (1 millimeter = 4.8 poles). The actual number is 4.772130756, but 4.8 is close enough for most genealogical purposes. The difference is less than the width of a pencil line.
  2. If you're plotting in inches, then the "divide by" number is 121 (1 inch = 121 poles)

If you need to match your plat to a specific map drawn to a different scale, such as an old county map, or if the distances on the deed are not given in rods, poles or perches, you'll need to calculate your specific scale in order to create a plat.

First, look at your map for a scale in the form of 1:x (1:9,000). The USGS has a handy list of Commonly Used Map Scales along with their relationship in centimeters and inches. You can use this scale to calculate your "divide by" number in either millimeters or inches.

  • For millimeters, divide the large number on the map scale (i.e. 9,000) by 5029.2. For our 1:9,000 map example, the millimeter divide by number equals 1.8 (1 millimeter = 1.8 poles).
  • For inches, divide the large number on the map scale (i.e. 9,000) by 198. For our 1:9,000 map example, the inches divide by number equals 45.5.

In cases where there is no 1:x scale marked on the map, look for some type of scale designation, such as 1 inch = 1 mile. In most cases, you can use the previously mentioned USGS map scales chart to determine the map scale. Then return to the previous step.

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Select a Beginning Point

Draw a solid dot at one of the points on your graph paper and mark it "beginning," along with any specific description details included in your deed. In our example, this would include "lightwood post, Stephenson corner."

Make sure that the point you choose allows room for the tract to develop as it is plotted by looking over the direction of the longest distances. In the example we're plotting here, the first line is the longest, running 256 poles in a northeasterly direction, so choose a starting spot on your graph paper that allows plenty of room both above and to the right.

This is also a good point to add source information on the deed, grant or patent to your page, along with your name and today's date.

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Chart Your First Line

Place the center of your surveyor's compass or protractor on a vertical North-South line through your beginning point, with North at the top. If you're using a semicircular protractor, the rounded side should face the east or west direction of your call.

First, the Course

N79E, 258 poles

From this point, move your pencil in the second direction named in the call (usually East or West) until you reach the degree mark named in the deed. Make a tick mark. In our example, we would begin at 0° N and then move East (right) until we reach 79°.

Next, the Distance

Now, measure along your ruler the distance you calculated for this line (the number of millimeters or inches that you calculated based on the poles back in Step 4). Make a dot at that distance point, and then draw a line along the ruler's straight edge connecting your beginning point to that distance point.

Label the line you have just drawn, as well as the new corner point.

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Complete the Plat

Place your compass or protractor on the new point that you just created in Step 6 and repeat the process, determining the course and direction to find and plot the next line and corner point. Continue repeating this step for each line and corner in your deed until you return to the beginning point.

When everything goes right, the last line of your plot should return you to the point on your graph where you began. If this happens, recheck your work to make sure that you got all of the distances properly converted to scale, and all of the measurements and angles graphed correctly. If things still don't match up, don't worry about it too much. Surveys weren't always precise.

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Problem Solving: Missing Lines

Often you will encounter "missing" lines or incomplete information in your deeds. Generally, you have two choices: 1) to guess or approximate the missing information or 2) to determine the missing details from surrounding plats. In our Thomas Stephenson deed, there is incomplete information for the third "call" - NW, 122 poles - as no degrees are listed. For the purposes of platting, let's just assume a straight 45° NW line. Further information/confirmation could also have been found by researching property owned by Joseph Turner in the area, as he is identified as a corner at the end of that line.

When platting imprecise lines, draw them with a wavy or dotted line to indicate a "meander." This could be used for a creek, as in a line that "follows the courses of the creek" or an imprecise description, as in our NW 122 poles example.

One other technique that can be used when you encounter a missing line is to begin your plat with the point or corner after the missing line. Plat each line and corner from that point back to the beginning of the deed description, and then continue from the beginning back to the point where you reach the missing line. Finally, connect the last two points with a wavy meander line. In our example, this technique would not have worked, however, as we actually had two "missing" lines. The last line, as it does in many deeds, gave no direction or distance - just described as "thence by Stephensons Line to the Beginning." When you encounter two or more missing lines in a deed description, you will need to research surrounding properties in order to accurately plat the property.

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Fit the Property to a Map

Once you have a final plat, it can be helpful to fit the property to a map. I use the USGS 1:24,000 quadrangle maps for this as they offer the right balance between detail and size, and cover the entire United States. Look for identifying natural characteristics such as creeks, swamps, roads, etc., when possible, to help identify the general area. From there you can compare the shape of the property, the neighbors, and other identifying information to hopefully locate the exact location. Often this takes researching many of the adjoining properties in the area and platting the land of surrounding neighbors. This step requires practice and skill but is definitely the best part of land platting.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Land Platting Made Easy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, February 16). Land Platting Made Easy. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Land Platting Made Easy." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).