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Mortgages, Magnetism and Shoes

By Daniel Hubbard | February 17, 2013

Any documents that can show names, dates and places can be used for genealogy. Some may provide better genealogical evidence than others but where there are names, dates and places there is possibility.

A Mortgage

I’m now staring at one less used document type, mortgage papers. The man I’m investigating loaned some money. It gives me nothing of genealogical value, at least not yet. It doesn’t solve my problem but I’ve saved it anyway.

The man who made the loan was a merchant. Had I not known that already, I might now be very puzzled by the terms of repayment. Most mortgages are to be repaid with money. Not this mortgage. This was to be repaid in shoes—installments of hundreds of dollars worth of shoes. Shoes that were specified to be valued at fifty cents below the shoemaker’s retail price. It would seem that guaranteed that the shoes were not over-valued. The shoemaker would have had to hurt his own sales by over-pricing his own shoes to accomplish that. The shoemaker would also not be able to undercut the value of the shoes by selling shoes below the value of the shoes in the repayment.




This deal also tells us something of the scale of our merchant’s business. He was apparently sure that he could transport and sell a few hundred dollars worth of shoes every year. It also tells us something of the scale of the shoemaker’s business. It hasn’t helped me connect any family members but it does tell me a little family history.

Magnetic North

magneticNeedleThe magnetism in the post title comes from the other interesting thing about this mortgage. Like most mortgages, the land is specified. Unlike any other description of land that I’ve read, this mortgage defines the meaning of “north.” Normally, north would be geographic north, the direction of the north pole, spotted using the North Star. In this case it was to be “as the magnetic needle pointed…” Magnetic north and geographic north are not the same thing. They are close or “the magnetic needle,” that is the compass, would not be so useful.

1788There is another interesting thing, both about this mortgage and about magnetic north. Magnetic north is not constant. The Earth’s magnetic poles move. How fast they move changes. At the moment the north magnetic pole is moving at a rate of tens of miles per year. Two hundred years ago, when this mortgage was made, the movement was much slower, but it was moving. That is where the mortgage comes back into the story. The full line of text that specifies the meaning of “north” is “as the magnetic needle pointed in the year 1788.” That was three decades before the mortgage was written. Unfortunately, there is no description of how that direction was to be determined. Obviously, a compass couldn’t do it.

I’ve tried to find when it was first realized that magnetic north moved over time. Some claim that this was realized in 1831 but that is the year that explorers first reached the magnetic north pole, the place where a compass needle points straight down. Having found that point is not a requirement for realizing that the direction of magnetic north was not the same from year to year. Now we can see from looking through records that the information needed to make the realization was there for several centuries, but when it was discovered isn’t the same thing. It seems that the motion of the north magnetic pole was first noticed in the 17th century as people mapped the difference between magnetic north and geographic north from different places—important information when navigating by compass. After a while it became apparent that the maps lost accuracy with time.


Directly measured positions of the magnetic north pole since 1831. Plot by Arnaud Chulliat (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris).

By the early 19th century when the mortgage was made it had been known for over a century that the magnetic poles move but it was probably not a widely recognized fact. Who knew that the magnetic poles moved and thought that accounting for thirty years of drift would be important for this little tract of land? How did they expect that accounting to be made? Why was the land defined using magnetic and not geographic north in the first place? Those things may just need to remain mysteries.


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