A Measure of the Land: The Danish Acre

On the Estates page, I delve into the intricate process of mapping and surveying St. Croix to formally define estate boundaries. Reflecting on the modern ease of land observation through Earth Observing Satellites, I am struck by the remarkable task of surveying and demarcating estate boundaries on St. Croix with such apparent precision.

The method employed for this purpose is Compass and Chain Surveying, which encompassed the following steps:

  • The surveyor utilized a magnetic compass to establish a reference direction.
  • A chain, typically constructed of metal links, was employed to measure distances on the ground. The length of the chain was predetermined, enabling surveyors to determine distances by counting the number of chain lengths traversed.

The surveyor on St. Croix, equipped with a compass, chain, and laborers, ventures into the bush to clear boundary lines. The process begins with establishing a baseline, a task intertwined with the island’s unique grid layout inclined at approximately 17°. This layout’s origin can be traced back to the historical “Survey Line Road,” known today as Center Line Road.

Interestingly, the Cronenberg map predating the Beck map outlines the island’s Quarters without indicating a survey line. It showcases land allocations that occasionally deviate from the grid concept. The period between 1734 and 1754, leading up to the Beck survey publication, likely resembled the Wild West, lacking a formal survey.

The Danish West India Guinea Company stipulated that estates should measure “3000ft in length and 2000ft in width.” Early plat books measured property areas in quadrate feet and Danish Acres, despite the absence of formal metrics. This raises questions about the definitions of a “foot” and a “Danish Acre.”

Land measurement is crucial for monetary transactions. Understanding the land’s value per unit area is essential for buying, selling, or taxing it. A common unit of measure is necessary for consensus. Denmark adopted the metric system in 1907; before that, the alen (forearm) was a standard unit of length, equivalent to two feet. The area was measured in Tønde land (a barrel of land) and Skæppe land (a bushel of land), unrelated to acres or quadrate feet.

A letter dated May, 5th, 1751 from the St Croix Burgher Council suggests that
“… it is already customary to sell lands in acres which among the English is a piece of land containing 43560 quadrate feet; and this has absolutely no proportion to the sum of a plantation 2000 feet wide and 3000 feet long, according to which the land tax should actually be calculated, beside which is to be feared that these 43560 feet might be English or Danish feet; therefore, we in the Burgher Council have seen fit to submit …”
and the letter concludes
“… if it is already customary here to assess estates acre-wise, without there being a written law or placard how much an acre shall be, we would therefore humbly think that such an acre could be established to be 200 feet in a square, which makes 40,000 feet Danish quadrate feet, and thus one of our plantations would contain exactly 150 acres, which about corresponds with an English acre …” – and this is what the council recommended the administration should decree.

The Danish foot, derived from the alen and known as the “Rhinlandske fod,” was established by Christian V in 1683. Defined as two fod, the Danish foot was approximately 2.97% longer than the English foot. Consequently, a new measurement for an acre at 200 x 200 Danish feet equated to 205.94 x 205.94 English feet, totaling 42,411 square English feet. The concept of the “chain” also played a role in land measurement, as historical records mention a forty-foot surveyors chain on St Croix in 1740, with a possibility of a fifty-foot chain being used as well. This facilitated the calculation of a 200 x 200 foot acre.

Thus, the Danish Acre emerged as a unit of land measurement, representing an area of 200 Danish feet square or 40,000 square Danish feet, which is equivalent to 42,411 square English feet. This Danish Acre was slightly smaller, approximately 97.37%, than the standard 43,560 square feet of an English acre.

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