Lay of the land: A Lovingston mapmaker painstakingly pieces together history

Mike Crabill creates maps based on information from 18th-century surveys, which mark property borders with natural features like streams, rock walls, and tree stumps. Art: Mike Crabill Mike Crabill creates maps based on information from 18th-century surveys, which mark property borders with natural features like streams, rock walls, and tree stumps. Art: Mike Crabill

Centuries before Google Earth and Google Maps, taking the measure of a piece of property was grueling work. A surveyor produced rudimentary descriptions, such as: “Beginning at the white oak, head true north 30 degrees, then east 500 poles to a red oak, then south to the muddy creek.”

Lovingston cartographer Mike Crabill, 75, relied on information like this when he set out, in 1995, to render a map of Nelson County showing land-ownership grants (or patents) made as early as 1722. His work was almost as arduous as the surveying itself, in part because most of the boundary-defining landmarks were impermanent. “Corners were usually a wooden stake, a pile of rocks, maybe a tree with a chop in the trunk,” Crabill says.

He also racked up a lot of miles—and countless hours of research—to get the job done. “Before everything was available on the computer, I had to go to Richmond to look at microfilm of the deeds and print off copies,” Crabill says.

No wonder it took him eight years to complete the map.

Land-ownership grants, or patents, issued before the Revolutionary War served as reference for Crabill’s Albemarle County map. Art: Mike Crabill

Searchable online records helped Crabill with subsequent mappings of Amherst and Albemarle counties, but the process is still laborious and slow. Following descriptions found in patents, he draws parcels at scale, cuts them out, and pieces them together, using landmarks such as watersheds and adjacent properties as guides. Like a puzzle in progress, his maps come into view.

Crabill, like the customers who buy his maps, is interested in the history of the region, and the land patents tell a story of both adventure and greed in the colonies. “The [British] Crown sold patents under certain conditions, such as a promise to improve the land, but it was rarely enforced against the wealthy men,” he says.

And, yes, it was almost always men. Across all three county maps, Crabill encountered only a handful of patents registered to women, and just one to a black man. “The [British] Crown used a ‘headright’ system, where if a person paid for someone else to cross the Atlantic, he received the right to a 50-acre patent for each ‘head’ he brought over.” Upon arrival, those people typically became indentured servants for seven years.

Local residents interested in genealogy look to Crabill’s maps to find their ancestors, and a copy of his Albemarle map hangs in the record room of property deeds in the Albemarle County Courthouse. Crabill used fine art pens to carefully outline each parcel so the boundaries are easy to see, and he mimicked the naturalist style of Audubon to illustrate the borders with indigenous wildlife. He describes his drawings as “folk-y and primitive.”

Will neighboring counties benefit from Crabill’s meticulous detective work? “At my age it’s quite a commitment,” he says, though he doesn’t shut the door.

Augusta? Buckingham? Maybe it’s time to call Crabill.

Need to know

For more about Crabill’s maps, visit crabillmaps.com.

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