Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 3/6/2001


Knowing the location of a family's farm facilitates research in a variety of records. A will or estate inventory may provide you with a description of where your ancestor lived. And from there, figuring out where the farm is located does not have to be difficult. Let's outline the process one might take to locate such property.

[Note: This discussion pertains to those states (federal lands) that were normally surveyed using townships and sections. More information on this can be obtained at the Bureau of Land Management's Web site.]

Goldensteins in Nebraska
I was working on my Goldenstein family, which had spent eight years on a homestead in Nebraska. I knew the Goldenstein family lived near Gothenburg, Nebraska, but I did not know the farm's exact location. And since certain other records would be easier to research if I had a location more precise than "near Gothenburg," I knew I needed to pin down the homestead.

From a copy of the Goldenstein family's homestead claim (originally obtained by a great-aunt), I knew the family homesteaded in the 1880s on the southeast quarter of Section 12 in Township 11-N, Range 25-W of the sixth principal meridian, located in Dawson County, Nebraska. (An article on this family's homestead records appears on the Web site.)

I needed to know where Township 11-N, Range 25-W was located.

In federal land states (those states where land ownership generally "starts" with the federal government), property is generally organized into townships with 36 sections each (there are exceptions). These townships, actually referred to as Congressional townships, all have numbers assigned to them based upon their location with respect to base lines and prime meridians. A "true" section is one square mile.

Base lines and prime meridians were lines set by surveyors to aid in the surveying of unsettled and newly settled country. Some states have multiple base lines and prime meridians. Base lines are set to run east and west (and are horizontal), and prime meridians are set to run north and south (and are vertical). These lines are long and in some cases run from across an entire state. Townships are then described according to their relative position to a base line and a meridian. A township will be either north or south of a base line and east or west of a meridian.

A quick check of the Dawson County GenWeb site located a plat book from 1907. (A plat book is an atlas or map of an area that indicates who owns what property, with outlines of property lines and acreages usually listed.) While the Goldensteins had left Dawson County by 1907, the map would help me locate their homestead's relative position to Gothenburg and other natural features. Using the images of the township plat maps available at the Web site, I determined that the Goldensteins had lived in Gothenburg Township approximately a mile and a half from the city limits of Gothenburg. The family also lived a couple of miles from the Platte River.

The family lived in the northeast part of Gothenburg Township; neighboring townships were German (to the north), Blaine (to the northeast), and Willow Island (to the east). Willow Island Township was less than a mile from the Goldenstein's homestead claim. If I had had less information about the family's residence, searching census records and other records organized by township would have been helpful because I could have searched these neighboring townships. However, in this situation, I knew the family's exact location during its entire time in Nebraska. Searching neighboring townships would also have been necessary if the father had been a tenant farmer who frequently moved from one farm to another every few years.

The township maps on the Web site were listed according to their numbers, not their names. Gothenburg Township was 11-N, Range 25-W. Willow Island Township (to the east of Gothenburg Township) was 11-N, 24-W. German Township (to the north of Gothenburg Township) was 12-N, 25-W. Blain Township (to the northeast of Gothenburg Township) was 12-N, 24-W. In order to find the numbers for a specific township, I viewed the township map, located the township I was interested in, and found the numbers. [On a map of just one township, the numbers are frequently on the top of the page. On a map of an entire county, the numbers are frequently on the edges of the map.]

From Homestead to Cemetery
Once I had located the townships and the homestead, I could use the information to find other records. I noted that the Web site contained a map of cemeteries in the county. Armed with the family's residence, I could start with the closest cemetery and fan my way out to find potential gravesites. Likely, the family used a cemetery within a reasonable distance of its homestead claim.

A little search of the cemetery pages resulted in the tombstone of the family's son, who died while the Goldensteins were in Nebraska. The burial was in the American Lutheran Cemetery (Christ Lutheran). This cemetery was located in German Township, directly north of the township where the Goldensteins lived. The 1907 plat showed the location of the cemetery and indicated that there was an adjacent church and that a school was located nearby. The cemetery would have been approximately three miles from the Goldenstein homestead, as the crow flies.

Geography and Genealogy
Finding the exact location of a piece of property can assist you in your research by allowing you to potentially see the ground where your ancestors lived. It may also lead you to other records. So whether for facts or for "color," locating property should not be overlooked.

Much more could be said about locating specific properties. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management Web Site has some graphics that may assist you in your understanding of sections, base lines, and meridians. Our discussion here has really only scratched the surface.

Printed References

For a detailed reference on land and property records in the United States:

Land & Property Research in the United States, by E. Wade Hone.

For a more general overview of land records in the United States:

The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy , edited by Lou Szucs and Sandra Luebking.

For more information on county record offices and locations:

Ancestry's Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, edited by Alice Eichholz


Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his Web site.

Copyright 2001,

Used by the Author on his website with permission.

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill