By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
“What’s a vara?” was asked by one of the Sophienburg’s volunteers. “It’s a length of measure used by the Spanish for measuring land,” I glibly answered. “We have a vara chain on display in the museum.”
Sometimes I impress myself.
I got to thinking that it was a good question and something Texans should know about — a bit of history that still applies to all landowners. I contacted a friend at the Texas General Land Office. In the current Natural Resource Code, surveyors are mandated to measure surveys by the vara.
The field notes of a survey of public land shall state…The land by proper field notes with the necessary calls and connections for identification, observing the Spanish measurement by varas.
They. Still. Use. This. Measurement. I think it is important to find out what a vara is.
The Romans introduced the foot measurement to Spain who decided that three Spanish feet would be a VARA (it is a cognate for the English word bar). A Castilian vara = 28 cm or 32.9 inches. The vara was brought to the Americas by Spanish colonists, and later, became known as the Mexican vara. Along the way, the exact length varied ever so slightly between 32.8 to 33.4 inches. Mexican surveyors used a cordel 50 varas in length. It was a cord/rope made from the waxed fiber of the pita plant. There was no vara chain yet.
Surveyors from Anglo U.S. states used a Gunter chain based on English measurements, but they had to convert their chains into a chain for Mexican varas when in Texas. Consequently, all the conversions they had to make created some problems. While those teeny tiny millimeters don’t sound like much, they begin to make a difference when you are talking about a lot of land. In the 1820s Stephen F. Austin specifically had his colony measured with a 10-vara chain with a vara length of 33.4 inches.
Eventually, the surveyors (Mexican and Anglo) agreed to convert the vara into the convenient 33⅓-inch measurement. Land surveyed in Texas since Republic days has been measured with the vara. In 1919, Texas finally passed a law making the vara officially 33⅓ inches. Land can be measured in acres or any unit of measure with a chain (or tape or now laser), but the field notes sent to the General Land Office still have to give the length of lines in varas of 33⅓ inches. This is incredible. Right?
There are other Spanish or Mexican measurements that were in common use back before 1836. A legua or league = 5,000 varas or approximately 2⅝ statute miles. A sitio or square league = 25,000,000 varas or 4,428.4 acres. This was called a sitio de ganado mayor and was a ranch for large stock like cattle or horses. If you had a sitio de ganado menor your ranch was for small stock of sheep or goats and this was only 11,111,111 square varas.
The use of varas made everything sound unbelievably huge. A labor of land = 177.1 acres but is 1,000,000 square varas. By the way, a labor was the amount of land that could be worked effectively by one family. Obviously, a labor of land would be much less today.
An estate of five or more square leagues (do the math) was an hacienda.
A caballería first meant “the part of the land spoils given to a cavalryman by his victorious king.” In America, it came to mean a parcel of land granted to a colonist who kept one armed and mounted man ready for action at the call of the state. This was often used to measure land grants in early Texas and equaled 105.7 acres.
More obscure terms of measurements include the huebra which was the amount of a day’s plowing by a yoke of oxen. And don’t forget the fanega which was the amount of land required for sowing a fanega or 1½ bushels of grain.
Makes you excited about your basic tape measure doesn’t it?
A surveyor usually led a party or a team. He got $5 a day. He was assisted by a compass man and chainmen or chain carriers (today’s rodmen). The chainmen moved the survey chain from one location to the next in teams of two. The hinder chainman stood at the starting stake holding one end of the chain while the front man handled the other end, unrolling the chain till he reached the end and put in a stake. Typically, crews covered 10 to 20 miles per day on foot. The legal minimum age for a chainman was 16. Chain carriers got $1 a day.
Those early surveyors were something, weren’t they? Just doing the math was bad enough, but remember, the land they surveyed was usually an area unseen and unknown by most men — uncharted. They carried those chains and rods and compasses and levels and telescopes and shovels and poles and tripods and transits through all kinds of ecosystems and geography and all kinds of weather. They walked, ate and slept with Texas insects (scorpions, mosquitoes, ants, lice), Texas reptiles (snakes), and Texas mammals (bears, wolves, panthers). They also had to watch out for Native American attacks. And yet they managed to accurately measure property lines that formed the basis for land ownership in Texas, our Texas.
Sources: The Spanish Archives of the General Land Office of Texas, Virginia H. Taylor, 1955; https://medium.com/save-texas-history/getting-the-lay-of-the-land-pioneer-surveying-in-texas-20b32311ca83; https://medium.com/save-texas-history/storms-and-hail-and-sleeping-on-snakes-surveying-chain-carriers-in-texas-b651797fbc54; https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/surveying