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Understanding Townships

Linda Haas Davenport

Dividing Line

I had often heard that my grandmother was born in Flippin, but her step-siblings were born in Jimmies Creek and her elder siblings were born in White River. When I was new to researching my family history I spent a lot of time looking for towns called Jimmies Creek and White River. It took me awhile to discover that these two places were townships not towns.

There are two types of "Townships" - one refers to the divisions within a county that designates voting districts, etc. and the other is a part of the section/township/range public domain survey and is included in legal descriptions found in deeds.

The townships that most people are familiar with are ones with a name - such as my example of Jimmies Creek or White River. Today when someone asks us where we live we respond with the name of the town or city that is included in our postal address, but in the early days towns as such were few and far between and postal addresses (when they came along) were often times rural route numbers. Unless someone actually lived in a town the response to "where do you live" or "where were you born" was the name of the county township, as it existed at the time of the event in question.

We find references to these names in many of the old records. If you look through the abstracts of the Mt. Echo you will find many references to these townships. For example: "News from Jimmies Creek" or in the "marriage licenses issued" section it often gives a township name after the person's name. This type of township changed over the years as the county government reassigned voting districts. See Mysty McPherson's List of Townships to see what I mean. Also these county townships do not tie to the Congressional Townships.

The other type of township (Congressional Township)was established when the Federal Government opened a new area of land and performed a survey of the land. This type of township never changes. County lines or even state lines may change, but the original land survey descriptions do not. Arkansas is what is called a Public Domain State meaning that the state was surveyed in sections, townships and ranges. When land is sold a legal description of the property must be included in the deed to provide an actuate description of that individual piece of property and that description includes the section/township/range location. When looking at deeds you often see a legal description that looks something like this: "SW 1/4 of NE 1/4 S34, TS19N, R14W". Translated this means: "The southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of section 34, township 19 North, Range 14 West." "Ok", you say, "but your translation doesn't mean a thing to me!"

Humm..... then it's time for a short lesson. (For a more in-depth explanation go here)

Arkansas is something called a "Pubic Domain State" which simply means that the land in AR was surveyed and described by something called "The US Land Survey System" in which a large square section of land is laid out in a grid and then broken down by Meridian, Section, Township and Range. Each "square" is continually broken down into smaller pieces, while still keeping the land in a designated section. For example: "... the following tract or parcel of land lying in the county of Marion and State of Arkansas known and described as the SW 1/4 of Section 1, Township 10, Range 7 East of the base Meridian"

The official definition of the US Land Survey System is:
       "The US Land Survey System is cartographically represented by lines running North and South and East and West. These lines are 6 miles apart and the squares formed in this manner contain 36 square miles and are called Congressional Townships. This system of survey starts from the intersection of a principal Meridian and a Base line.

The way this works is - the numbers starting from each intersection of the principal Meridian and Base line, increasing North or South along the meridians are known as Township Numbers and those going East and West along the Base lines are called Range numbers."

Each of the squares above represents a township and within each township are 36 one square mile sections containing 640 acres each broken down like the grid below. The maroon colored numbers are the sections within the township and the red numbers are the sections in the adjoining townships.

36 31 32 33 34 35 36 31
1 6 5 4 3 2 1 6
12 7 8 9 10 11 12 7
13 18 17 16 15 14 13 18
24 19 20 21 22 23 24 19
25 30 29 28 27 26 25 30
36 31 32 33 34 35 36 31
1 6 5 4 3 2 1 6

Each section of 640 acres (above) is divided into quarters:

NW 1/4

160 acres

NE 1/4

160 Acres

SW 1/4

160 Acres

SE 1/4

160 Acres

As property is sold each of these quarters is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, with all pieces keeping the N, S, E, W designations

Here is an example of what a section can actually end up looking like.

Map courtesy of: Gallup Map & Supply Co Kansas City, MO


Which makes it easy to locate a particular piece of property today if you know the section / township / range.

The Marion County Court House has copies of a map called "County Road Number Map Marion County Arkansas" which is free if you visit the courthouse in person. To order by mail send a couple of bucks to cover the envelope and postage. This map has all of the sections / townships / ranges marked along with the current roads, lakes, towns, etc. I used this map to make the individual congressional township maps found here on the Marion Co site.

The Marion Co site includes both county township maps and congressional township maps. If you have the name of a county township look first at the list of Marion county's township changes to determine where the township was for your timeframe. Then look then at the corresponding county township map to determine the actual physical location of the township. Using that go to the congressional township map for the same area to locate the property on a current roadmap of the county.

If you are fortunate enough to have an old deed that gives the legal description of your ancestor's property you can easily pin point the location of the property on the current road map of the county.

If I can answer any questions for you drop me a note.

Dividing Line

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Linda Haas Davenport