Need help understanding historical plat maps

+3 votes

I found 2 hand-drawn plats of Sussex Co., DE in "ThePrettyman Files" of D. Mitchell Jones archived at and

I've identified the approximate date of the plats as 1700, based on profiles of Prettyman-100 and Prettyman-85. 

My question is, how do I find the original surveys that these plats are derived from, and where do I find the parcel numbers listed on each parcel? I was hoping I could find information online without having to physically visit libraries/archives...


in Genealogy Help by Lea Holland G2G Rookie (230 points)
Not sure if it will help, but the actual deeds are digitized on Ancestry under Delaware, Land Records, 1677-1947.
Thanks, Kathryn. I've located several of those deeds (darned if they aren't hard to read), but they're not detailed enough to indicate actual coordinates!

I think I'm going to have to break down and visit the U of D Library!

1 Answer

+3 votes
The original surveys are likely in the State Archives but may be in multiple places. Sometimes just platting out from the deeds is sufficient. That is, draw a map based on a deed of interest then add in the neighbors. That can then give a map that fits into the geography of the area or whatever maps you find. Usually you end up needing to do that to find where lots that were carved out of larger ones are or where multiple properties were merged. Lots of that went on. Its a lot easier further west where everything is based on a grid.
by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (447k points)

Thanks Doug. Knowing how vague the descriptions are in deeds of that era, is it possible to compare them by overlay to later surveys? I've tried with current topo maps and deed maps, having a hard time locating even the most basic land features.

And yes, apparently I really need to get off my duff and travel to DE to get more detail.wink

Yes, once you've platted a few, the shapes, especially as they follow streams or mention waterways, help overlay onto other maps. There are software packages that can help, including a free internet based one. Since all the deeds are referenced relative to other deeds, you can, in the worst case, find the deeds back to the original land grant. 

Deeds in the east will use a consistent terminology that a surveyor would understand. The software packages understand that terminology although sometimes you have to look up abbreviations. There will be a start location that is defined relative to a neighbor. Then it will be a direction and distance. If you plat all of these you should get back to the starting point. Doing this level of work will help you understand who the neighbors were and when. This works in the FAN principle of Friends, Associates and Neighbors that Elizabeth Shown Mills espouses. The information can give clues since people frequently moved in groups.

A couple of packages:

  • DeedMaper (
  • PlatPlotter ( [online free]
  • Metes and Bounds ( [mac]
That's fascinating, Doug! I really didn't have any idea. That's a big leg up in theory and practice. Thanks again!
Be prepared for slow going. Some of the deeds can be difficult to read. You can do it by hand with pencil and ruler, but software is much easier since you need to know how long rods and chains are as well as the syntax for directions. I once took a week long course on using maps and deeds in genealogy that was very useful. Anyway, the original 13 states plus a few more are metes and bounds. The "public lands" states use the Public Lands Survey System of township, section, quarter section, etc. and is much more rational.

Also, pay attention to mentions of ridges and other geographic features that get mentioned since those help place on other maps.

So, for you, you will need to extract out the distance and direction. When finished it should produce a closed boundary. Read about the "metes and bounds" system before you start platting.

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