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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 11/30/2005


Plat Books

I knew what a plat book was before I ever heard of the word genealogy. Like many farm families we always had the latest one and three or four old ones sitting somewhere on my Dad's desk. The older editions of these books showing property owners throughout the county were always dog-eared from use. It was not long after I began my family history search that I realized these books were useful to the family historian.

What Is a Plat Book?
A plat book is a set of maps (usually for an entire county) that show the owners of farm property and the approximate acreages and shape of each parcel. These usually privately published books are frequently compiled from county property and tax records. Plat books such as the ones discussed this week are not government records and are not official documents or proof of land ownership. The plat books discussed in this week's column are different from official plats and land surveys that may be recorded at the county recorder's or assessor's office. These official plats or surveys are usually drawn up by a surveyor and are made a part of the county's records. Plat books are not usually guaranteed to be completely accurate.

And that accuracy brings us to an interesting observation. It has been reported that in some cases in the last several decades, intentional errors have been inserted into these privately published plat books. The rationale behind the errors is that anyone simply copying the book to resell it as their own will also recopy the errors and thus prove that the copyist did not compile an original work. How true this is I cannot say, however, we always noticed a few minor errors in a local plat book that never seemed to be corrected as new editions came out.

What Areas Have These Books?
Those with ancestors in state land states should be aware that the plat books discussed today are not often published in these areas (maps showing the locations of residences without indicating property lines may be available though). The land ownership maps discussed in this article are most frequently published in federal land states, where the township and range system is used. Drawing such maps for state land states where metes and bounds were used is significantly more problematic. [ADN Editor's Note: For a list of state land states and federal land states, see today's Fast Fact.]

Before using a plat book, it is a good idea to become roughly familiar with townships, sections and how land is described in federal land states. (Readers unfamiliar with this system of land description can learn more from previous "Beyond the Index" columns on this topic here.)

An Example
This week, we will focus on an older plat book, one typical of the type a genealogist is likely to encounter: the 1874 plat book for Hancock County, Illinois.

This plat book contained an owner's map for every township in the county, but it did not end there. A directory of subscribers (purchasers of the book) was also included which provided the subscriber's township and section of residence along with their "business," nativity, and year of settlement in the county. A few subscribers also had sketches of their residences included in the publication as well. Unfortunately my ancestors were not subscribers to the book, so detailed information about them was not provided. In addition to the township plats which will be discussed later, there were plat maps for all the county's towns and villages. Some of these maps showed the names of various subdivisions and the owners of some larger town lots.

Street names were also included and in some cases one can easily see how many names have changed over time. One town's main street actually had three names (one name on the west end of town, one name in the middle of town, and another name on the east end of town) and one village with numbered streets started the numbering with Zero Street instead of First Street.

The Farm Section of the Book
The map I used for Walker Township contained property listings for two ancestral families: John Michael Trautvetter and the Rampley family. (Readers who have never seen plat book images can view samples here). We will look at John Michael first.

The plat of John Michael's farm in section 31 indicated his farm was partially timber and had a creek running from the northern to the southern border of the property. John's home was apparently located along the property's northern edge about a half mile from the village of Tioga.

A quick scan of the neighboring sections revealed a few other German sounding names but no other families with the same last name as John. Section 31 is in the extreme southwestern corner of the township and the three neighboring townships should also be searched for possible family members. In this case the search will require use of plat books in Adams County, Illinois, as the Adams-Hancock County line is a mere quarter mile from John's farm. A search of the township to the east (Rocky Run) quickly located John's two brothers living on adjacent farms approximately seven miles from John. Not every person has relatives living next door.

The eastern part of Walker Township contained several members of the extended Rampley family. Father, James Sr., and sons, James Jr., John, Thomas, and Riley, together owned nine parcels in sections 12, 13 and 24 of this township. Here is where a map is helpful: Townships 12, 13, and 24 are in a column, with 12 being the northernmost section, 13 in the middle, and 24 being the southernmost section. A significant amount of the family's property is timberland and Bear Creek runs through several of the properties. In situations such as this, a map makes for a clearer picture than simply a verbal description. John Luft, whose wife was a sister to the Rampley brothers, owns property adjacent to Thomas Rampley. A. J. Newman is another nearby property owner and the brother of Riley's wife. There is a cross for a nearby cemetery, which happens to be where many of the Rampleys are buried. As I read the names of other nearby landowners in 1874 I recognized several as being mentioned in the Civil War pension files of three of the Rampley brothers.

Finding Plat Books
Plat books may be available in print form, on microfilm or microfiche, or online in digital format. Books that are only accessible on paper will probably require onsite access as most of these items are in restricted collections. Many older plat books have been put on microfilm or microfiche and these films are more likely to be available through your local library on interlibrary loan. Older plat books (out of copyright) may have been scanned and placed on a website.

Here's an incomplete listing of plat book finding aids for some states:

Additional bibliographical information can be found by searching for "plat book [your state]" (without the quotes and brackets) through your favorite search engine.

State and local libraries are excellent places to look for such materials. Larger libraries, such as the Newberry library (www.newberry.org), the Allen County Public Library (www.acpl.lib.in.us), the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov), and the Family History Library (www.familysearch.org) have significant collections of these materials. Even if the facilities do not allow for interlibrary loan, a search of their catalog may at least make the researcher aware of the existence of a particular item. County genealogy web sites (www.usgenweb.org) may contain scans of older plat books, indexes of names of landowners, or a listing of years for which books are available. Some plat books may have been reprinted with an index by a local genealogical or historical society. Representatives from a local genealogical or historical society may know what plat books have been published for their area and how these materials can be accessed.

Modern Plat Book Publishers
For many counties in federal land states, current plat books are still published. In many cases the county's recorder of deeds, assessor's office, farm bureau, or extension office may know where a current book can be purchased. Modern books can help the genealogist determine the present owner of an ancestral farm or from what landowner permission must be obtained before visiting an abandoned cemetery.

Whether printed in the last week or in the last century, a plat book for your rural ancestor's county may give you a picture of his property and his neighborhood. And who among us couldn't use one more picture relating to an ancestor?


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 currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (www.fgs.org). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally 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 mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005, MyFamily.com. (contact for reprint permission)
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