ribbon farms

French influence on US land development

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by Sam Balistreri-Daum

A couple months back, while cataloging the British Admiralty charts in our nautical charts collection, I noticed along the coast and riverbanks of Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guyana) from 1938 and 1939 a series of parallel lines running perpendicular to the shores with names written between each line.

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Georgetown, Guyana 1938 (Click on map for larger view)
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Georgetown, Guyana 1939 (Click on map for larger view)
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Georgetown, Guyana 1939 (Click on map for larger view)

The long, narrow strips of land depicted on these 20th Century British charts are actually an interesting form of human geography called “long lots” or “ribbon farms” that come from the semi-feudal seigneurial system used by the French to administer their agricultural land in the colonies of North and South America.  In this system, families would farm long narrow strips of land and pay rent under an agreement with the local seigneur or lord. The main advantage for farmers under this system was waterfront access for transportation and living in close proximity to neighboring farms while still having plenty of land.  Some long lots were a few hundred feet wide while being miles deep.  While the system was relatively outdated and was not always administratively maintained in the New World (especially once territory came under the control of another government such as the British), we can still see evidence of long lots on maps throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries and even in today’s satellite imagery.  In the AGS Library Digital Map Collection it did not take long to find examples in both New Orleans (1884) and Prairie du Chien (1820) to find more examples of long lots:

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New Orleans, Louisiana 1884 (Click on map for larger view)

 

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Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin 1820 (click on image for larger view)

Long lots are even visible today in satellite imagery near Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River.  This image was taken from Google Maps:

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(Click on map for larger view)

These maps show us just one example of the many things that maps can tell us about our world and about ourselves.  These maps and many more are available at the AGS Library and online in the digital collections.  If you’d like to read more about long lots and the seignieurial system, the following websites were useful in gathering additional information for this post:

Michigan State Univeristy: Long Lots: How they came to be:

http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/long_lots.html

Wikipeida.org: “Ribbon Farm”:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribbon_farm

View the New Orleans map in the AGS Library Digital Map Collection

View the Prairie du Chien map in the AGS Library Digital Map Collection