The claim game

Claimed versus owned

My cousin Jim Poole is trying to nail down the land of one of our Pettypool forebears and ran into a problem of terminology.

“I’m poring over a number of 18th century land memorials in South Carolina,” he writes, “and I wonder if there is any legal significance to the terminology used in the adjacency descriptions.

Generally, phrases like ‘land held by…,’ ‘land laid out to…,’ ‘land laid out by…’ or ‘…(name)’s land’ are used. But on a few, the phrase ‘land claimed by …’ appears. Is that last phrase significant legally, or just creative writing?”

Since one particular May 1773 land survey mentions “land Claimed by Seth Petty poole” as being on the north side of the surveyed land,1 this is a matter of more than just passing interest to our family. It’s likely going to make a big difference if Seth owned specific land, or merely claimed it.

And it turns out that, yes, the phrase as used by the surveyors has legal significance.

Here’s what was going on:

South Carolina is what’s called a state-land state, meaning that it had its own system of surveying and granting land.

In most state-lands states, the process of transferring land from the government (often, in early days, the royal governor) to an individual began with a petition — a formal request for land; followed by a warrant, which certified the petitioner’s right to land and authorized a survey; followed by a survey, or plat, of the specific land the petitioner wanted, to document the land and ensure that it was free and clear of any claims by others; and then finally the grant or patent which transferred ownership or title to the individual.2

In South Carolina, the amount of land a settler could get depended on his or her entitlement to headrights — legal grants of land to settlers who would settle on and cultivate the land.3

The very first colonists landing in the colony of South Carolina could receive 150 acres for every male aged 16 and over and 100 acres for every younger male and every female. After that first landing and before 1756, colonists could receive 50 acres for every member of the household, and after 1756 and until the Revolution, every head of household could receive 100 acres plus 50 acres for every other member of the household.4

And the headright system in South Carolina followed the general four-step pattern:

     • “The head of household appeared in person before the Grand Council to request a warrant. The verbal petition included his name and the number and location of the acres requested. …”
     • “A warrant was issued, ordering a survey and plat.”
     • “The petitioner took the warrant to a surveyor who surveyed the desired land and drew a plat using the metes-and-bounds method of surveying … using landmarks, neighbors, and waterhouses.”
     • “The plat/survey was recorded in Charleston.”5

Most importantly for this question, land was only claimed, and not owned, until that last step was achieved. Even after the survey was prepared, it had to be checked against every other already-recorded plat to be sure that the same bit of land wasn’t being claimed by more than one person. Only after it was carefully checked would the grant papers issue to confirm ownership in the person who’d claimed the land.6

Clearly, in the early years of South Carolina’s history, surveyors often found themselves surveying lands where some of the adjoining tracts may have already been claimed and patented and thus owned (“lands of”), but many others were vacant, or claimed but not yet surveyed (“claimed by”), or surveyed but not yet patented (“laid out to”).

And, just as clearly, an examination of the surveys — the colonial plats — at the time and place of the Pettypool settlement in South Carolina shows that the surveyors were very careful to distinguish among those lands and the way they were, or were not, owned.

For example:

     • The May 1773 survey referencing the “Petty poole” claim distinguished between land owned by Hillery Guy, James Mitchell and John Lyles, land claimed by Seth “Petty poole” and by Thomas Sumerall, and vacant land.7

     • The same surveyor surveyed another tract the same day and identified the adjacent lands as “a former tract of Land of the said Jonathan Parkers,” “Archibald Gillilands Land,” “John Lyles’ Hillery Guys and Hugee’s Lands,” “Land Called Hugees Land,” “vacant Land,” and “Lands Claimed by Henry Baker.”8

     • And a survey a day earlier in the same area by a different surveyor identified one adjacent tract as “Land of Solomon Niblets,” another tract as “Land the owners name unknown” and a third as “Land Claimed by one Crumby,” with vacant land on another side.9

So yes, the terms were significant and have specific meaning.

Great question, Jim! Good hunting in those early records!


  1. Joel Farmer, plat for 200 acres, Ninety-Six District, 5 May 1773, Colonial Plat Books (copy series), vol. 15, p. 83, S213184, South Carolina Department of Archives and History ( : accessed 25 Nov 2012).
  2. Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, “Land Records,” in Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds., The Source : A Guidebook to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006), 435.
  3. Wikipedia (, “Headright,” rev. 15 Nov 2012.
  4. Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark, “South Carolina Land Records,” in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources 3d ed., html version, ( : accessed 25 Nov 2012).
  5. Janis Walker Gilmore, NGS Research in the States Series: South Carolina, PDF (Arlington, Va. : National Genealogical Society, 2011), 26.
  6. Cerny and Mark, “South Carolina Land Records,” in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources 3d ed.
  7. Joel Farmer, plat for 200 acres, Ninety-Six District, 5 May 1773.
  8. Jonathan Parker, plat for 500 acres, Ninety-Six District, 5 May 1773, Colonial Plat Books (copy series), vol. 19, p. 45, S213184, South Carolina Department of Archives and History ( : accessed 25 Nov 2012).
  9. John Freer, plat for 750 acres, Ninety-Six District, 4 May 1773, Colonial Plat Books (copy series), vol. 15, p. 217, S213184, South Carolina Department of Archives and History ( : accessed 25 Nov 2012).
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12 Responses to The claim game

  1. Judy,

    I love this illustration of the importance of words. I have told my family for years that “all the words are important” but I usually just get rolling of eyes as a response.

    We sometimes forget that, in some instances, they could have used difference verbiage for a very particular situation but picked what was used for a reason.

    Thanks for showing that all of the words are important.

  2. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Judy, some of those interested in the legalities of the words used in land dealings might also like to know about the measurements of the land in these surveys, holdings, purchases, etc. There is an interesting, small book which fascinates me—”Weights, Money and Other Measures Used by Our Ancestors,” by Colin R. Chapman. It’s a short history about weights and measures, when they were used and where. Sometimes I have come across descriptions of land and had no idea what they meant by certain measures. That’s when I pull this little book off the shelf, and it has been very helpful.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ooooh… what a wonderful book. Currently out of print at Genealogical Publishing, though, darn it… A few sellers on Amazon’s marketplace are offering it now. Thanks!

      • Celia Lewis says:

        Try WorldCat, Judy – it’s at a number of libraries, maybe one of them is close. Of course, it may be on Amazon or eBay! Sounds like a great book. Very nice posting about lands, by the way.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          I’m a book hoarder, um, owner, Celia. Not a borrower. Any book that falls into my gravitational orbit ain’t making it out.

  3. Thank you so much for listing and explaining all these important legal distinctions. My family members were in South Carolina in the 1700s and the 1800s, so this is important for me to know.

    There is a rumor in our family that our great-grandfather, who was a slaveholder, “granted” or “deeded” a tract of land to his biracial natural son, who had been one of his slaves. He supposedly did this a decade or so after slavery ended. Is this the kind of transaction that would be official, or just a “handshake” kind of thing, given race relationships in the South? I’m not sure where to look for a record. This would have been in Darlington County, SC.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Mariann, the only way to transfer land and be sure that it stayed transferred is by record: a deed or quitclaim or something of that sort. So absolutely I’d be looking for a recorded instrument, most likely a deed, in Darlington County’s records.

  4. Marge Fallaw says:

    Could you please state just which of the many Seth Pettypools this was? My husband descends from multiple Seths with the last Seth (through his daughter Anna/Anne/Annie, who in 1828 married Thomas Jefferson Chiles/Childs) being the one who apparently ended up with his wife (Maiden Seay Pace) and their large family in the Travelers Rest, Greenville Co., SC, area. Or was the above Seth part of another Pettypool branch and perhaps went farther south into SC? I am still trying to sort out the Seths and Williams in this family.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh BOY do I hope cousin Jim jumps in with the answer, Marge! My line branches off after the first Seth. I descend from Seth and Martha (?) Pettypool through their son John, who married Sarah Sanford, then through their daughter Elizabeth who married John Jones in North Carolina in 1771.

  5. Marge Fallaw says:

    Wow, that was a fast response! I discovered Jim’s excellent, evidently quite-new website just yesterday. Some years ago I’d done some Googling to see what I could learn about the Pettypool family online, and at the time I didn’t find much that seemed reliable about this family, for which I had only a slight clue connecting it to my husband’s family. It’s a different situation now, I learned. And what’s sort of spooky is that for many years my husband’s brother taught at Furman U. and lived only a few miles from Travelers Rest, probably not knowing of the family connection to the area.

    I forgot in my earlier posting to thank you for the informative posting on early SC land transactions and surveys. It seems somewhat different from early Maryland’s, which is what I’m most familiar with (though not for genealogy purposes). It could be helpful if I could ever get down to SC and use early land records to try to figure out just where the earliest male in my husband’s paternal line that I know of had land in the Ninety-Six District in the 1760s-1770s and until he died (as a Loyalist soldier near Charleston shortly before the Brits evacuated well after the Battle of Yorktown, despite the fact that he’d signed on as a Regulator during that earlier period). I think his land was in the Abbeville area, but don’t know much.

    Oh yes, I just realized that the survey description and plat above is clickable so I could view a larger version in .jpg and saw that the land was in the Ninety-Six District, not in the Greenville area.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Jim’s research is excellent, Marge. Hope you find some clues to the connection between our Pettypools and your husband’s line!

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