Vermont archives puts survey maps online

Taking place two and a half centuries after men braved the trackless wilderness to map Vermont.
December 1, 2007 9:06:31 AM PST
Two and a half centuries after men braved the trackless wilderness to map Vermont, using tools as simple as long chains to measure out towns and lots, their work is going online to help lawyers, landowners and historians.Those early surveyors had to climb mountains, ford rivers and slog through swamps as they divided the land into 251 towns and then apportioned the towns into lots.

But their maps and lotting plans remain valuable frames of reference for 21st century real estate deals.

Many have disappeared or been hidden away in dusty vaults in town clerk's offices. But now the Vermont State Archives is using digital technology to make copies of the maps accessible over the Internet so landowners, lawyers, surveyors and historians can use them to analyze colonial-era roads, boundary lines and titles.

It's a process that's being repeated elsewhere across the country.

"It's fairly new, at some level over the last 15 years," said Curt Sumner, executive director of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping in Gaithersburg, Md. "The original ones were pretty rudimentary. A lot of that has changed."

"It's heaven on earth," said Montpelier attorney Paul Gillies, who does a lot of land work. "This kind of information is usually only found with truly diligent research."

But now a good bit of that diligent research and preparation is being done by State Archivist Gregory Sanford and his staff.

"Some of these records may be based on surveys and maps done 200 years ago, but they continue to have value, legal value and an informational value that has survived the centuries," Sanford said.

Early maps are especially valuable reference works in states like Vermont, where early surveys used trees, streams or other features as landmarks, features that changed or were lost over the years.

"The big thing that surveyors hang their hat on is to find the right information and then portray that information in reality," said Sumner.

Revealing that right information is what makes the old maps so valuable.

"We have to go back to when that lot was created," said surveyor Leonard Amblo, treasurer of the Vermont Society of Land Surveyors.

Besides their practical value, the Vermont maps offer a glimpse into the past. For example, a 1778 map of Royalton bears notations saying the town's four corners are marked by birch trees. Some of the 54 lots have the names of the original European owners, while others describe property as "good upland" or "level and very good."

One of the states doing similar work with old survey maps is Minnesota.

The Minnesota Historical Society has put old maps online as tools for surveyors and other land professionals, said Bob Horton, the society's director of Library Publications and Collections.

But Minnesota also has expanded the use of maps so they can be used in schools and eventually by family historians.

"I think it's the way states should be going," Horton said. "There's a lot of confusion about how to deal with technology. Here's one that I think works, the tools exist, the content exists, then you can deliver real value to people. You just have to put it together."

Sanford and four staff members set out early this year to get as many maps as possible online. Working with a business that had a special document scanner, they had about 235 maps available by the end of October.

The maps they're scanning aren't the originals drawn in the 1700s. Instead, they're copies - sometimes copies of copies, in fact - since most of the originals remain in town clerks' offices.

That means an online map is "only a starting point, it's not the ultimate legal document," Sanford said. "You would have to go to your town clerk's office and confirm, but at least it's a point, where you can sit at home and start."

The archives office is continuing to add maps that the state holds, and it could reach out and start scanning the original maps held at town offices.

"My interest here has always been putting history in harness to take things that aren't just historically interesting, but actually may have some legal or administrative or other need that persists today," Sanford said.


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