It's a long way from twenty-first-century Colorado to eighteenth-century Tennessee, but my cousin, Delta, brushed all that aside. "I’d like to be able to stand on a piece of ground and say, ‘This was Great-great-great-grandpa’s land.’ Wouldn’t you?"
I had to answer, "Yes." The project did sound interesting. But I didn’t know I would get hooked. Now, some five years later, I don’t see any end in sight.
The particular area we were discussing lies in present-day northeastern Tennessee. This land has undergone a number of political changes since Europeans arrived in the late 1600s.
In 1790, the United States Congress created the Territory of the United States South of the Ohio River, which came to be called the Southwest Territory. And in 1796, part of the territory became the state of Tennessee.
The boundary between Tennessee and its neighbor, Virginia, remained in flux for some time. Beginning in 1783, Revolutionary War soldiers were given warrants for land, sites undesignated, and speculators bought up these warrants in quantity, thus accumulating in some cases acreage in the hundred thousands. My ancestor, John Clayman, received his land via bounty warrant.
To find his land, my cousin and I proposed reading Sullivan County, Tennessee deeds from the 1700s and early-1800s, translating their metes and bounds into maps, and fitting those maps together. We knew some of John Clayman’s neighbors’ names, so we examined their deeds as well. To facilitate the process, I entered all the pertinent data into a database.
The next part of the task was like working a jigsaw puzzle. We mapped out the various plots and tried to fit them together. But most land descriptions say something like this: "Beginning at a small white oak at the foot of a ridge of Knobbs, running near Thomas Gibson’s line to two white oaks near William Delaney’s line…" When we were lucky, two deeds would describe the same trees and directions, so we could tell they adjoined one another.
Black Oak Mapper, the software program we used, maps out land holdings using the metes and bounds of the description from the deeds. We set the scale to correspond with the map we had of the area and viewed the map on-screen prior to printing, which helped us determine the accuracy of the description. We then set the printer to match the large map we had of the area. Large plots were printed in sections, which we spliced together to represent the entire holding.
Even when the land descriptions coincided and the plots went together smoothly, we still had to determine their location in the county. A U.S. Geological Survey map occupied my dining room table for months. On the map some old fence lines were indicated with faint red lines. With luck, our jigsaw pieces of land would fit some of these lines.
Five years into the project, I was ready to call it quits. We had found two sizeable acreages belonging to John Clayman, but I didn’t feel like I could accomplish any more, even though I could place only one of the Clayman properties with any confidence. I called together my cousin, Delta, my sister, Ruth, who is a whiz at jigsaw puzzles, and Birdie Holsclaw, who helped develop the software.
My sister sat at the end of the table and listened as I related to Delta and Birdie my feeble conclusions. The three of us pored over the map, trying the second piece of Great-great-great-grandpa’s land here and there. Then Ruth said, "Well, it fits right here," and placed the piece, with its taped-on neighbors, against a faint red fence line.
She was right. The fence made the correct angle, and the piece fit exactly. Now we can go to the land outside of Bristol, Tennessee, and look around and say, "John Clayman homesteaded here. This is the land I spring from."
I feel like I know Sullivan County as it was in the late 1700s and early 1800s. I know the neighbors, and through tracking their properties, I know some of the details of their lives. I know when there were deaths, and who benefited, and who may have cheated a brother out of his share. I know who went into debt too deeply, and whose land was seized by the sheriff and sold to satisfy the debt. I even know who the developers were, and how they scooped up pieces of land until they had enough to make a town. I know who held "ordinary" or tavern licenses, and I know where roads crossed certain property.
I should be satisfied. But when Delta suggested, "Let’s move into Virginia, shall we?" Of course I answered, "Oh, yes, let’s!"
Beth R. Kiteley has been a freelance writer for thirty years. She is also the secretary/treasurer for the Barker Family Organization.