Converting a textual description to a plan
August 11, 2018 6:33 AM   Subscribe

This is (probably) a question about GIS software.

I have a piece of land and a textual description of the field system on that land. Descriptions are along the lines of "that Parcel of Arable Land containing by Statute Measure Seven Acres and Twenty four Perches, or thereabouts, belonging to the said John Smith, and bounded on the East by Land of His Majesty, on the South by the Turnpike Road aforesaid, and on the North and West by the said Land lastly hereinbefore described."

So I have areas (not shapes) and relative positions. How on earth do I go about turning that into a plan? Hoping for an open-source GIS solution that doesn't have a learning curve like a brick wall.
posted by Leon to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Could you perhaps press Google Maps into service?
posted by flabdablet at 7:58 AM on August 11, 2018

Metes and bounds is the name for this kind of textual description, using “physical features of the local geography, along with directions and distances, to define and describe the boundaries of a parcel of land.” It’s still used in certain legal descriptions such as viticultural areas whose boundaries are defined in reference to published USGS topographical maps, e.g.:
From the beginning point, the boundary runs south along the line separating Section 31 from Section 32, continuing south along Covey Road (shown on the map as an unnamed, light-duty road) to the town of Forestville where Covey Road intersects with State Highway 116 (Gravenstein Highway).
Similarly, you need a basemap where you can see the locations of the named lands and turnpikes in a modern coordinate system. You might use an application like QGIS or even a simple browser tool like to follow the map and plot your boundary as a polygon, but first you’ll need to know what real-world features those features correspond to. Do you know where the Turnpike Road is?
posted by migurski at 10:36 AM on August 11, 2018

migurski: Thanks! The description's from 1813 or so, so there are contemporary maps but they're a bit woolly. The geographical features are still present, but they've been messed with - the Turnpike Road has at a bare minimum been widened, and some of the foreshore has been reclaimed. The side-roads off the Turnpike Road have probably been hacked about a bit more. The problem is that the whole area spent a few decades in government ownership, essentially as waste, then the derelict buildings were cleared and the land was first let then returned to private ownership, piecemeal. That discontinuity makes me distrust the roads that exist today. I know I'm never going to get a map out of this process, but I'm fine with something closer to a diagram, squashed into the shape of the island. I just need some software that isn't actively user-hostile.
posted by Leon at 11:17 AM on August 11, 2018

Is this for fun or a book or something? If for real world property issues start looking for the best long term established surveyor. Some family land with much clearer (we thought) dimensions was very different when mapped out by the pro.
posted by sammyo at 12:25 PM on August 11, 2018

Depending upon the scale of the land, and how you wish to present the final project, I’d consider looking into the Neatline tool for Omeka. I work regularly with doctoral students in the humanities, and I know of a few who chose Omeka as a way to represent just this kind of fuzzy textual records visually. Granted, this isn’t a GIS in the same way as, say, QGIS, but if you want to create something more interactive and narrative it may be a good fit. Some good links to tutorials/further readings here.

One technique you may wish to look into is georeferencing historical maps. You could find a map from roughly the time period of the text descriptions you have, superimpose it onto a contemporary map, and then draw the features you want to highlight as polygons on top of both. Here’s one tool for georeferencing maps online. (Perhaps consider georeferencing + QGIS as an alternative?)

I will say that Neatline is a bit of a pain to install (as it’s a plug-in on top of Omeka, which can be a little fiddly) however it provides a nice semantic structure for items/exhibits etc that, again depending on how interactive you want the plan to be, could be a good fit.
posted by elephantsvanish at 12:37 PM on August 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

It might help if we knew where this was, so folks can trawl the catalogues for old maps.

Aerial imagery can be really useful for working out old land features if there's still some land that's not built on.
posted by scruss at 9:10 PM on August 11, 2018

Thank you all. I'm going to take a shot at QGIS first, but Neatline looks very intriguing for presenting my results - I've been using straight HTML up to now.

It's just local history, and I'm pretty sure I have every map of the area (although it's possible there's something in the War Department archives at Kew I'm missing).

But if anyone wants to trawl the archives on my behalf, the area is Hilsea on Portsea Island and the description I'm trying to diagram is Schedule A of An Act to vest in Trustees certain Messuages, Lands, Tenements and Hereditaments, for extending the present Lines and Works, and for erecting other Works and Buildings at and near Portsmouth and Hilsea, in the County of Southampton, 1813. The best map of the area I know of is this.
posted by Leon at 4:31 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

If anyone else is digging, the text of the act starts on page 596 of STATUTES of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1814). The schedule A starts on page 599.

These descriptions aren't metes and bounds, though: they contain defined reference points, then chain measurements with directions to the next reference point. You'd need the property roll / register for the time (if such a thing exists), and cross-reference the named land owners and the size of their property. There are many owners with massive holdings: Thomas Thistlethwayte is all over it.

This is a huge amount of work, least of all being the deciphering of all the early 19th century parliamentary typographic contractions used.
posted by scruss at 11:41 AM on August 12, 2018

Scruss: yeah, but for my purposes something somewhere between a logical diagram and a map is good enough - relative positions and sizes. Hell, as a first approximation I can assume perfectly spherical fields. I've got all winter to chip away at it.

One of Helena Bonham-Carter's ancestors is in there too, I noticed.
posted by Leon at 5:08 PM on August 12, 2018

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