Land Record

Introduction to Tennessee Land History

Today we think of Tennessee as a "metes and bounds" state, yet both the western part of the state and much of middle Tennessee were surveyed into sections and ranges, like the federal Public Lands. So Tennessee was both a Public Land state and a metes and bounds state, right? Well, sort of!

To answer this question we have to explore how Tennessee was settled. Tennessee is very interesting in terms of how it grew, and how its land was surveyed and granted. A full treatment is beyond the scope of this introductory article, but you can get an idea of some of the forces at work.

An Outline of Tennessee Land History

Metes and Bounds, or Public Lands. Which is it?

Historically, Tennessee was a "metes and bounds" state. (See our Land Record Reference for more information on this and the Public Lands surveying systems.) After all, North Carolina was a metes and bounds state. So the new section/range system had to compete with previously surveyed tracts, a lot of history, apathy, and poorly trained deputy surveyors. That's some pretty strong competition. There was such a strong precedent for using metes and bounds that even though most of the Surveyor Districts were in fact surveyed in a grid, and land was granted according to named lots, the section/range system quickly fell into disuse. Deeds of sale continued to be written in metes and bounds language, and indeed, it is somewhat difficult today to determine where the old section lines were located.

So in summary, the "Public Lands" of Tennessee were a state affair having nothing to do with the Federal Government's Public Land sales in the Northwest Territories. And whereas Public Lands continue as the basic surveying scheme in some thirty states today, Tennessee has reverted to the metes and bounds system.

Copies of Surveyor District records

The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a large body of records on the Surveyor Districts. Refer to Microfilm Record Group 50 (RG 50). Copies can be purchased, but inquire first for an index to their holdings.

Further Reading

The State of Tennessee has a very nice, well written document describing the history of the settlement of the state. The chapters "Struggle for the Frontier" through "Coming of Age" are the most relevant to this discussion, and contain links to maps of the state during various stages of settlement.

The classic text on the laws creating the settlement districts is The Land Laws of Tennessee, by Henry D. Whitney, compiler and editor, Cincinatti, 1893. This book is available on microfilm from the TN State Library and Archives.

Here's an excellent article dealing with the ins and outs of Tennessee inheritance laws, particularly those relating to real property.

The TnGenWeb site has a fabulous section dealing with land history.

An article entitled The Public Lands of Tennessee, by Thomas B. Jones, appeared in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.1, Spring 1968.

[The information in this article was compiled from the above sources, with additional information provided by Fred Smoot and Norman McGee, Tennessee land record researchers.]

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