Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The vara

Fun fact for the day.  I came across a very bizarre unit of measurement today while considering land surveys in Texas.  It seems that while surveyors in most parts of the country rely on feet or chains (go figure), in Texas, and indeed in some other southern states, you might run into the vara.

Example of what it would look like on a survey:  “thence N 23 ½ W 232 vrs.”

It turns out the vara is an old Spanish and Portuguese base of measurement imported over to the Americas.  When the Spanish system came in contact with the English system during the days of independent Texas, the modern vara was adjusted to make more sense to people who were more used to measuring things in feet.

Although, why they didn’t use the English chain, which was much more integrated with feet and miles, is beyond me.

Here’s a history of the Spanish vara:

      The vara, a Spanish unit of distance, was used in the Spanish and Mexican surveys and land grantsqv in Texas. One vara equals approximately thirty-three and one-third inches; 5,645.4 square varas equal one acre; 1,906.1 varas equal one mile; and 1,000,000 square varas, which is one labor,qv equal approximately 177.1 acres. The word vara entered the Spanish language from vulgate Latin and originally meant a long, thin, clean branch of any tree or plant. It later came to be used for any straight stick and then for a lance. Next it came to mean a badge of office carried by mayors and judges and such officials and probably achieved a more uniform dimension. As a judge's lance, the vara assumed a position of official importance in the eyes of the people, began to be used as a measuring stick, and eventually became a unit of measurement.

The vara is also thought to be the typical length of stride of a Spanish soldier.
In Texas, one vara is equal to 33 1/3 inches, or just less than a yard.  1 million square vara equal one square Labor.  The Spanish vara was set at 835.9mm in 1801 (that’s about 32.9 inches).  The Colorado and California vara are 33 inches and the Florida vara is 33.372.

In truth, it seems that everywhere in the Spanish world the vara could have been anywhere from 32 to 35 inches in length, causing all kinds of problems.

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