vara in Texas

The Texas vara, = 33 1/3 inches, is a distinct unit that resulted from the collision of Spanish and English measures. Abbreviated “vr.”, plural “vrs.”

Colonial Spanish surveying was done with the cordel, which was both an object and a unit of length, 50 varas long.

When settlers from the United States began to colonize Texas in the early 19th century, they brought their own surveyors, whose experience was with a somewhat different surveying technology using English customary units. These surveyors used surveyors’ chains 10 varas long, consisting of 50 links (very similar to an English two-pole chain). Each link was thus 0.2 vara. For the English-speaking surveyors, whose standards were marked in feet and inches, it was convenient to construct these chains to an exact number of English customary units. For example, Seth Ingram, who made many of the early surveys, used a chain exactly 27 feet 10 inches long, making the vara 33.4 inches, about half an inch longer than the legal value established by a Spanish act of 1801 (but within a tenth of an inch of the actual value in use in Mexico as measured by Alexander von Humboldt in 1803). James Kerr, surveyor of DeWitt’s and DeLeon’s colonies, made the vara exactly 33 1/3 inches long, and this equivalence was adopted around 1830 by the surveyors of Austin’s Colony.

Kerr’s value probably prevailed because the English-speaking settlers found it easier to grasp the extent of their holdings if they were expressed in acres instead of square varas, and required their surveyors to make this conversion.  Before electronic calculators,  converting square varas (at 1 vara = 32.8748 inches) to acres was a tedious job. But if 1 vara = 33 1/3 inches, 3 varas are exactly 100 inches, 36 varas are exactly 100 feet, and 108 varas are exactly 100 yards. An easy division and some shuffling of the decimal point do the job.

When Texas became independent of Mexico, the vara remained a legal unit through a provision of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas (March 17, 1836, Sec.1) that laws then in effect and not inconsistent with the Texas Constitution would remain in effect.

In June 1837 John P. Borden, who had been a surveyor in Austin’s Colony, was appointed as the first Land Commissioner. On January 27, 1838, he instructed county surveyors to use the 33 1/3 inch vara. From that date, in surveys of state land made for the General Land Office, the vara has been 33 1/3 inches (0.846 meter). In private surveys, the vara might be 33 1/3 inches, or it might have the pre-Republic value, 32.8748 inches (0.8350 meters).

The Texas vara was legally set at 33 1/3 inches in Article 5730, Acts of 1919 (revised 1925), effective June 17, 1919.

Colonel Francis W. Johnson.
Letter to the editor.
Galveston News, September 3, 1859.
    Johnson was a surveyor of Austin’s Colony.

Bascom Giles.
Letter to Harry B. Moses, April 30, 1945.
    In the files of the Texas General Land Office, 53/Current Miscellaneous Information.

P. G. McElwee.
The Texas Vara.
Mimeographed. Houston, Texas, April 30, 1940.

Jack H. Meeks.
Report of Investigation Relating to the Vara.
Dittoed. February 5, 1938.

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