Select Page

Survey says…

It was spelled out in the law: “the territory ceded by individual States to the United States, which has been purchased of the Indian inhabitants,” was to be divided into “townships of six miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles…”1

And, the law said, “The lines shall be measured with a chain.”2


What exactly is a chain anyway?

chainsBlack’s Law Dictionary tells us it was a “measure used by engineers and surveyors, being twenty-two yards in length.”3

Called a Gunter’s chain, after its inventor, English mathematician Edmund Gunter, or a surveyor’s chain, because that’s what it was used for, or just a chain, as in the Public Land Survey Act of 1785, a chain was supposed to be “exactly 22 yards (about 20 m) long and divided into 100 links. In the device, each link is a solid bar. … An area of 10 square chains is equal to one acre.”4

Obviously these were not lightweight devices. And that’s why you see references, in deeds and even in the law, to chain carriers — people who were used to physically move the chain and place it where the surveyor said it should go. Whenever a survey record still exists, identifying the chain carriers can help link families together as well as the land: the chain carriers were often kin to the person for whom the land was being surveyed.5

“During the 1700s and 1800s, Gunter’s Chain was the standard for measuring distances and played a primary role in mapping out America. The chain consisted of 100 links and its total length was 4 poles (66 feet). Each link was connected to the next by a round ring. Eighty chains equaled one mile.”6

Except for one little problem: “Because the chains were hand-made, their measurements were rarely exact.”7

Hey, close enough…

Except… maybe not close enough…

Not, it appears, for the States of North and South Carolina, which are about to redraw the line between them that was originally surveyed with chains just like these — and has now been resurveyed with global positioning satellites.

According to a report just this past week from the Associated Press that reader Larry Head spotted and called to The Legal Genealogist‘s attention, when surveyors used chains like these here to document the border between those states back in the 18th century, they were to given a specific set of instructions from the English king to draw the 334-mile border from the mountains in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east.8

But squabbling continued for generations, and re-arose more than 20 years ago, at which point the states figured it was time to settle it for once and for all: “When issues arose regarding the state boundary between York County, SC and Gaston County, NC in the early 1990s, the SC Geodetic Survey and the NC Geodetic Survey signed a Memorandum of Agreement in April 1993 to cooperatively re-establish the South Carolina–North Carolina boundary.” 9

According to the news report, the two Carolinas agreed to resurvey the border still using the basic instructions from 1735. Doing anything else would need Congressional approval.10 There had been other surveys — in 1764, 1772, 1813, 1815, 1905, and 1928,11 but the modern survey would be using today’s modern technology.

And that newest, most modern survey shows that the border is perhaps as much as several hundred feet from what it had long been thought to be. The result, assuming that legislation pending in both states is passed adopting the survey: some 19 homes and a number of businesses will be changing addresses. Three North Carolina houses are really in South Carolina; 16 South Carolina houses are really in North Carolina.12

So when we as genealogists struggle with understanding deeds and surveys that talk about chains… think about those Carolinians moving north and south.

Chained, it seems, not to the past, but to the future.


  1. “An Ordinance for ascertaining the mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory,” 20 May 1785, Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1933), 28: 375; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 30 May 2016).
  2. Ibid., at 376.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 190, “chain.”
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica ( : accessed 12 Aug 2014), “surveyor’s chain.”
  5. See generally “Surveying Units and Terms: Chain Bearer,” Speculation Land Collection, Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville ( : accessed 30 May 2016).
  6. Surveyor’s Chain,” Colonial Williamburg E-Newsletter ( : accessed 30 May 2016).
  7. Ibid.
  8. See Jeffrey Collins and Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press, “Altered State: Border Redraw Moves 19 Homes in the Carolinas,” ABC News, posted 29 May 2016 ( : accessed 30 May 2016).
  9. South Carolina Boundary Commission Report for FY 2012-13, South Carolina Legislature ( : accessed 30 May 2016).
  10. Collins and Robertson, Associated Press, “Altered State: Border Redraw Moves 19 Homes in the Carolinas.”
  11. South Carolina Boundary Commission Report for FY 2012-13.
  12. Collins and Robertson, Associated Press, “Altered State: Border Redraw Moves 19 Homes in the Carolinas.”
Print Friendly, PDF & Email