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The places where your ancestors lived can tell you a lot about their lives. I’m going to show you a free and easy technique for plotting land in Google Earth.
Would you like to be able to find your ancestor’s property on a map today? Keep reading and watch the video to learn how. We’re going to take U.S. government survey legal land descriptions found in sources such as Federal Land Patents and quickly and easily plot the boundaries in Google Earth Pro. I’ll also show you an easy way to do it for property in Canada too.
Episode 67 Show Notes
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In the video I show you how to plot the boundaries of a piece of land in Google Earth. We’re going to take U.S. government survey legal land descriptions found in sources such as Federal Land Patents and quickly and easily plot the boundaries in Google Earth Pro. I’ll also show you an easy way to do it for property in Canada too. These strategies come from my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox,
Download or Update the Free Google Earth Pro Software
These days there are actually three versions of Google Earth:
- Google Earth downloadable software
- Google Earth for Chrome Web browser
- Google Earth app
All are free, but they are not the same. The app and web browser versions are sort of “Google Earth lite.” The software is what you want because it has all the bells and whistles that will allow you to do all the things I’m going to show you today.
Plotting legal land descriptions in Google Earth has its advantages. If you’re plotting the land of your ancestors, you’ll be able to see what the area looks like today and what the current street names are. In Google Earth you’ll also have access to additional tools that you can use in conjunction with the boundaries you’re going to create, such as historic maps, area photos, and a wide range of data sets that provide more information about the area.
The first thing to do is check to make sure you have the most current version of Google Earth on your computer. Again, we’re using the software so you need to do this on your desktop or laptop computer. You want to make sure you have Google Earth Pro – LINK – A tell tale sign that you don’t is if the Google Earth globe icon on your desktop is grey and not blue. Open it and in the menu go to Help > About Google Earth. Here it should say Google Earth Pro and you can see the version number.
Check the current version number here, and if you don’t already have the program, go ahead and download it.
Now that you have it on your computer, open it up and leave it running in the background. You’ll need a decent internet connection for it to run.
Next pull up the legal land description that you want to plot. Here’s one that I have for some property owned by George Burket. I found this at the Bureau of Land Management Government Land Office Records website. This free website is where you can search for land patent that your ancestors once held.
Even though the Bureau of Land Management places it on the map on their website, you can’t download this or add to it. The advantage of plotting this in Google Earth is that you will have access to much more geographic data, you can add many more details to the map, you can use it in conjunction with other related mapping work that you’re doing, and you can save and share it.
This description gives us the exact coordinates of the property. Jot down the land description or keep it open in your browser tab so you can refer to it.
In a new browser tab, we’re going to type in http://www.earthpoint.us. This will take us to the Earth Point website.
This website is free, although some of the features are available only with a paid subscription. Thankfully, the tool for plotting your ancestor’s land patent is free. Some of the free features do require that you sign up for a free account. The feature we are going to use currently does not.
On the Township and Range – Search by Description page you will see a field for each piece of information found in the land description. It’s important to enter this information in the order presented starting with the State. Select the state from the drop-down menu. Pause a moment to allow the fields to recalculate. This allows the appropriate data to be loaded into the next field based on your selection.
After you have made each selection, click the Fly to on Google Earth button. This will generate a KML file which can be saved to your computer. KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language, which is the file type that Google Earth uses and understands. KMZ are zipped KML files which also are used by Google Earth.
Save the file to the desired location on your hard drive. Then click the file to open it. It will automatically open in Google Earth (which you already have open). The KML file is now located in your Temporary Places folder in the Places panel. The land is has now been automatically plotted on the map.
The orange outline is the township. In this example it is township T20N R14E. Click the orange ball in the center of the township for details. In the details you’ll find the total number of acres in the township, the latitude and longitude coordinates for the center of the township and corners.
The pink / magenta outline is the Section where the property is. Click the pink center dot for the details:
In this example Section 9 consists of 648 acres.
Notice that Earth Point was able to plot the land down to the Section level. However George Burket did not own the entire section. We must return to the land description for the Aliquots.
In this example, the land was the southeast quarter (SE1/4) of section 9. The land was a total of 160 acres.
We can use the Polygon tool in Google Earth to plot the 160 acres. In the toolbar, click the Polygon tool. This will open the New Polygon dialog box. Type a title, description and source citation.
As you hover your mouse over the map you will notice that the cursor is now a square shape. Click the screen on each of the four corners one at a time in order to set the four corners of the property – in this case the southeast quarter of the section. Once you have drawn the shape you can click on the handle on any corner to adjust precisely.
Click the Style / Color tab in the New Polygon dialog box to adjust the color and opacity of the acreage polygon. You can add color and thickness to the outline, and color and opacity to the fill of the shape. When you have it set the way you want it, click OK to close the New Polygon box. The Polygon is now set.
Moving Plotted Land in the Places Panel
On the left side of the Google Earth screen you will see a series of panels: Search, Places and Layers. At the bottom of the Places panel is the Temporary folder. This is where the KML file was placed when it was opened. However, like its name implies, this is a temporary location. If you want to keep it, you’ll need to move it to a filed location within the Places panel. This will not change the position of the polygon on the map, only where it is filed and saved in the Places panel.
To file a polygon, click on the file in the Places panel, drag it to the desired location, and drop it. Next, go the main menu and click File > Save My Places. This will save your work so that when you close the program it will not be lost. Google Earth doesn’t auto-save.
Turning Google Earth Polygons On and Off
The polygon plotting the acreage will be visible on the map when the box is checked in the Places panel. If you uncheck the box for the polygon it will still be there, but it will not be visible on the map. This allows you to create and save many items of interest without always having to have them displayed and cluttering up the map in Google Earth.
How to Edit a Polygon in Google Earth
After your land polygon has been set, you may want to rename it. There are two ways to do this:
- On a PC right-click on the polygon, either on the map or in the Places panel, and select Rename from the pop-up menu. Type the new name and then press Enter on your keyboard.
- Click to select the polygon in the Places panel (highlighting it in blue) and then go to the main menu to Edit > Rename. Type the new name and then press Enter on your keyboard.
You can also restyle the polygon and edit the text. Start by going to the Places panel and click the arrow pointing at the Polygon’s globe icon. This will open it and show the nested content. Click to select the Polygon. Now you can right-click it (PC) and select Properties – OR – go to the menu under Edit > Properties. Either way it will reopen the Polygon dialog box so that you can make the desired changes. When you’re done, click the OK button to close the Polygon.
Saving and Sharing Plotted Land
Snagit is the tool I used to capture the various views of the land I plotted in Google Earth. Learn more about Snag it by watching my videos and reading the show notes for episode 61 (for beginners) and episode 66 (advanced).
Plotting Canadian Land
Although the Earth Point website doesn’t plot Canadian land, the Legal Land Description Converter website does. It can help you find land in Western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan & Manitoba) subdivided by the Dominion Land Survey (DLS) and the Alberta Township System (ATS).
How to Plot Canadian Land
- Go to Legal Land Description Converter at https://www.legallandconverter.com.
- Enter the Section, Township, Range and Meridian information from the land description.
- Click the Calc button.
- Click the generated KML file and save it to your computer.
- Click the file to open it in Google Earth. It will open in the Temporary folder.
- It will fly you the location on the map and outline it for you.
- Rename the file if desired, and add source information.
- Add source citation.
- Drag and drop it to the desired location in your Places panel.
- Save your work: File > Save My Places.
Answers to Live Chat Questions
Gwynn: I would like to know how to match plat with GPS coordinate/ current street address.
Answer: I cover how to overlay a plat map in Google Earth and discover the current street address in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Roger D: How exact do you need to be in picking points? Does Google snap to mid-points of lines?
Answer: Try to be as exact as you can, however as I showed in the video you can reposition them as needed. Google Earth doesn’t snap.
Lyn: Can I do this with English tithe maps?
Answer: There isn’t a website converter that I know of. However I do cover how to overlay digitized maps in Google Earth in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
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