Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


When Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 it provided for land to be divided into Townships of 36 square miles each, then divided further into one square mile sections of 640 acres, as measured for division from Prime Meridians of latitude and longitude. The first problem is that the earthís lines of latitude converge at the poles and are widest at the equator. Thus, in our hemisphere the township system must be gradually adjusted at intervals moving northward.

Van Buren Countyís geographic complexity has led to a different style of organization. The Des Moines River angles for 41 miles through Van Buren County from northwest to southeast, averaging 700 feet wide, containing about 3,500 acres of land in the river bed, running through or touching nine of the fifteen townships. By using the river as a border between townships as much as possible, the size of Van Burenís townships varies from the conceptual township designed by the Federal Government. In addition, the Iowa-Missouri border follows along the Old Sullivan Line which was not drawn straight, but angles to the southwest about a half-section as measured from east to west. Van Buren County also extends into a tiny triangular panhandle south of Farmington between Lee County and the Des Moines River.

The base lines of measurement of Van Buren County are an east to west line south of Little Rock, Arkansas and the 5th Principal Meridian running north and south through Biggsville, Illinois. Thus, the northeast corner of Van Buren is 420 miles north of the longitudinal base line, and about 60 miles west of the latitudinal base line.

For the most part, the section numbering follows the system correctly. Where the river intersects a section, the numbering is the same on both sides of the river. However, an attempt to keep the Townships uniform in size was not made. Since some of the townships use the river as the geographical border, the section portions on each side of the river are in different townships and portions of sections have been added or subtracted from townships along the Missouri border.

Only five townships (Village, Chequest, Union, Cedar, and Harrisburg) are standard size Congressional Townships. There are only two places in Van Buren County where four townships corner. One of these intersections is at Utica and the other is at the cemetery one mile east of Lebanon. The others are called civil or political townships because they vary in size. To make matters worse, some of the original townships have split to form new ones. Bonaparte Township was part of Farmington Township until 1863; Henry was part of Vernon until 1873; and in recent years, Van Buren Township divided into Van Buren West and Van Buren East.

As a result there are many peculiarities. For example, Lick Creek Township has two sections each that are numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4. A tiny portion of the southernmost number 2 section is in Van Buren East Township. Half of the south section numbered 4 is in Van Buren West Township. Washington Township has a full section numbered 1 and a portion of another numbered 1, but does not have any sections numbered 5, 6, 7, 8, 17, 18, 19, 20, or 29-33. The largest township is Jackson, which has two sets of 1-12 sections for a total of 48 full sections, and 6 additional partial sections numbered 13-18.

Because of the differences in range division and political division, Bonaparte Township is described as "Part of Township 68 North, Range 8 West of the 5th Prime Meridian," while Farmington Township is described as Part of Townships 67 and 68 North, Range 8 West of the 5th Prime Meridian." The town of Bonaparte located mainly in the southeast quarter of Section 8, 68N R8W, is now in Bonaparte Township but was in Farmington Township until 1863.

These oddities in Van Burenís township division and various changes over the years requires a researcher to compare current maps with old maps when attempting to pinpoint a described location. In addition, hand written early legal descriptions sometimes pose a difficult problem to decipher because of legibility and changes in writing style.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick