TNGenWeb Project
The Land of Our Ancestors

An Introduction

German Settlement in America
Deutsche Ansiedelung in Amerika, or German Settlement in America
from a circa 1880 German lithograph

“Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything,
for ‘tis the only thing that lasts, and don’t you be forgetting it!
‘Tis the only thing in the world worth working for,
worth fighting for----worth dying for.”

Gerald O’Hara ~ 1861*

Margaret Mitchell’s Gerald O’Hara tells us, “Land . . . ’tis the only thing that lasts . . .” It is certainly possible that the land of our ancestors may be the only real tangible artifact that remains of them. Yet finding their former residence may prove some what a challenge.

This project is intended to assist the researcher in understanding the many faceted aspects of Tennessee’s convoluted land history and laws. The myriad questions that arise when attempting land research has shown us, it is much easier and less frustrating to be forearmed with some knowledge when researching land issues. We hope that you realize your quest; that you will have the joyful experience of finding and walking on the land of your ancestors.

The First People

For our purposes, Tennessee’s land history starts with its First People, the Cherokee and Chickasaw. The Cherokee Nation was located in East Tennessee, with additional claims for land in Middle Tennessee and areas beyond Tennesse’s borders. The Chickasaw Nation was located in Mississippi, with claims in West and part of Middle Tennessee and also beyond Tennessee’s boundaries. From the arrival of the white settlers, there were bloody conflicts with the Cherokee People. Overwhelmed by numbers and firepower, the Cherokee gave way.
They were force to relinquish their homelands in Tennessee. Although the relationship of the Chickasaw with the whites was generally excellent, they too were forced to move west. In 1836, the last of Tennesse’s native peoples had relinquished their land and started to be removed to the Indian Nations west of the Mississippi River. This was accomplished by treaty with the United States Government.1 The southeast of Tennessee and West Tennessee were the last areas to be ceded by the First Peoples. Then, the white settlement of Tennessee could be completed.

North Carolina's Western Reserve

The whites imposed a regulated land ownership system in Tennessee that was “colonial” in nature. In fact, Tennessee, was part of the colony of North Carolina. North Carolina called Tennessee her “Western Lands” or “Western Reserve.” Those lands ran westward to the Mississippi River. After the Revolutionary War, North Carolina ceded her western lands to the United States Government, but retained the right to issue Military Warrants for land there.

Territory South of the River Ohio

From 1790 to 1796, Tennessee was know as “Southwest Territory,” or officially, “United States Territory South of the River Ohio.” It was not until 1796, at the time of statehood, that Tennessee became the official name. North Carolina still issued warrants for land in her former Western Reserve. This practice continued at least until 1806.

Metes and Bounds

The “Metes and Bounds” surveying system of North Carolina, and the other colonies, was used in early Tennessee. This system uses physical landmarks for identification of the corners of the tract. Terms such as “a dead bush or “the meanders of the creek” are common. We have two papers that might prove helpful. “Land Terminology” is a glossary of old terms found in land related documents. “Trees” is a list of trees and other growing things that also appear in old land related documents.

Tennessee’s Surveyors’ Districts

In 1806, the Tennessee Assembly established her Surveyors’ Districts. Ideally, these Districts would use a system of survey that was similar to that which the United States Congress had established in the Northwest Territory (Ohio). That system in Ohio used the Public Land2 surveying method, with sections, townships, and ranges.

Tennessee law required the survey of the Districts into six mile squares, (later, in five mile squares in West Tennessee). That was accomplished, however, the surveyor did not survey the individual tracts using that system. The section and range system establish by the State Assembly quickly fell into disuse and individual tracts in Middle and East Tennessee continued to be surveyed with the “Metes and Bounds” system. There may have some exceptions to this in the Ocoee District and Districts 7 through 13. Many old records still exist from these Districts, especially for Middle Tennessee.

1. Our United States Constitution gives Congress the right to make treaties with other nations. Congress considered the Indian lands to be lands of a foreign Nation, and therefore Congress reserved to itself, the right to treat with those Indian nations.

2. Public Land surveying system occurred in states where the land ownership was vested in the United States Government, rather than the separate states. Commonly referred to as “Public Domain.” It is a system that is used in much of the United States, except the original thirteen states, Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia.

* Gerald O’Hara, father of Scarlett O’Hara.
From Margaret Mitchell’s wonderful novel,
Gone With the Wind

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This page last updated on
Thursday, August 13, 2015

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