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Overheard on the Message Boards: What Are Townships?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

February 27, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Could someone tell me what a township is? In looking for relatives, I've come across Cove Creek Township in Washington County, AR and Shoal Creek Township in Newton County, MO. There aren't any towns there. I grew up in Joplin MO and know where Shoal creek is and where Newton County are but never found Shoal Creek township. What purpose did this serve? -- Jack

A: For years I have accepted the names of townships found in census records without question or an attempt to find out more about this civil division. Most genealogists probably do not question townships because they are researching areas they are not familiar with.

There are actually a number of definitions for the term township and each is examined below. I used a variety of online resources to see what I could find on your specific townships, first to see if they were historic in nature and therefore no longer in existence, and second to see what these various resources would show me with regard to identifying the townships under more current terms.

Township names change or sometimes disappear into obscurity.

Definition of a Township

A look in A to Zax by Barbara Jean Evans defines a township as

  1. A measurement of land which consists of thirty-six square miles
  2. A governmental unit responsible for an area of approximately thirty-six square miles
  3. 36 sections each one mile square
  4. A New England local governmental unit.

While this was certainly detailed, I still didn't feel that it gave a clear enough picture of just what a township was. My next stop was my trusty copy of Black's Law Dictionary which explained, "Township in government survey, is square tract six miles on each side containing thirty-six square miles of land. In some of the states, this is the name given to the civil and political subdivisions of a county."

A township is a 36 mile square of land. Many townships in the public land states were given numbers before they were given names. Public land states were those that the federal government owned and dispersed through sales, bounties or homesteading. These states were surveyed using the rectangular survey. In this survey, an initial point in the state was established — this point was the intersection of the principal meridian (which runs north and south) and the base line (which runs east and west). Moving from this location, the townships are numbered. If you know the intersection of the principal meridian and the base line, you can then identify exactly where a specific township is located based on the township and range numbers assigned to it. For instance Township 3N Range 3E means to start at the intersection and go north three six-mile squares and then east three six-mile squares.

If you look at some of the census pages for those areas of the country that were just starting out, you will often find such township/range divisions as opposed to actual proper names for the towns. This could be the case even if a town had a name at the time. In cases where the township/range is identified in the census (usually as congressional township), the post office should list a regular town name.

It is most likely that the townships you mentioned, though, are what are known as civil townships. A civil township may be made up of more than one congressional township. In fact, it can even comprise more than one major city. They are defined by the name when you see it and that name includes the term Township, so that Shoal Creek Township or Cove Creek Township would be civil townships. Whether or not you would find them marked as such on a map would remain to be seen.

Just Where Are They, Then

Usually one of the best ways to find out where a town is located is to turn to a gazetteer. Gazetteers are akin to dictionaries only instead of defining words they define localities, either for a country or a state. It is best to see if you can find a gazetteer that was published as close to the year you are researching as possible. Often gazetteers omit names of localities that no longer exist. For instance, if an unincorporated town was annexed to a larger city, that town name may no longer appear in the alphabetical listing of the gazetteer though it may be listed in the description of the city. In these cases, you would need to know that it was incorporated into the larger city.

It would be natural to think that one of the online mapping sites, such as MapQuest or MapBlast would show these townships, but I find that they often show you creeks or other waterways when the township name shares its name. These mapping sites, however, can be used in a different way but you need to have the longitude and latitude for the place in question.

Finding this information can usually be accomplished by visiting the U.S. Geological Survey site or more specifically their mapping information search form. Searching for Shoal Creek, Missouri I found that the USGS database had 18 places or features that included the phrase Shoal Creek. Of these 18 places, 8 were streams, 2 were civil townships and 2 were post offices. There was 1 summit, 1 canal, 2 populated places, 1 area, and 1 church as well. The 18 places were spread among 11 counties in Missouri. Of the two civil townships, one was "historical" (this often means it does not exist today). The other one, though, was in Newton County, Missouri so I decided to see what I could learn about it.

On the Trail of Shoal Creek Township

According to the USGS Mapping information, Shoal Creak Township was in Newton County, Missouri and is included in the USGS 7.5' Map - Joplin East. The Latitude was listed as 370202N and the Longitude as 0942943W.

The next step was to visit a general search engine and see what might be available for Shoal Creek Township. I found Shoal Creek Township mentioned often, but didn't learn any new information.

My next step was to search for the phrase "Shoal Creek Township" in combination with the words "Newton, County" and "Missouri." Then it took a little patience as I began to scan the list of hits the search engine found. On the third page of hits, six from the end, I found what looked promising. The site had links to an index of topographical maps. I found Shoal Creek, clicked on the name, and found a specific quad of a Missouri topographical map.

I learned that Shoal Creek Township actually comprises the area of Newton County that is made up of Township 27North and Ranges 32West and 33West, specifically Sections 31 and 32 in Range 32 West and Section 36 in Range 33West. Remember that the county of Newton, on the rectangular survey system, is made up of township/range units that are 36 square miles. Each township/range is then divided into 36 one-mile sections. If you were to put all of the Newton County pieces together you would have a plat map of sorts that would give you an even better idea of where to find Shoal Creek Township. In fact, if you haven't done so yet, you may want to see if you can get a plat map from the county or on microfilm through your Family History Center. You could then get a good overview of the county and the layout of the various townships and ranges, thus putting this into a better perspective.

The Free Topo Foundation is actually a gold mine when it comes to wanting to know where features and townships are located. This site's index includes more than just townships. They have bodies of water, cemeteries, churches, and other features identified, which you can then locate on the freely available topographical maps. The Joplin East Quad map shows Shoal Creek Township in the southeast section of the quad.

I did a similar search at Free Topo Foundation for Cove Creek. It found the township quickly in Washington County, Arkansas. Unfortunately the freely available topographical map doesn't exist for this quad. Instead, if you want to see a quad map you would have to order a paper version of this map or look elsewhere for a plat map. At the very least you could return to MapQuest and use the longitude and latitude coordinates to give you a general idea of where in the county this township is located.

In Conclusion

Understanding the difference between congressional townships and civil townships may force us as researchers to expand our research. More importantly it may give us a better understanding of where to look for our ancestors by helping us to convert the civil township to its corresponding congressional township(s).

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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