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Surveying: The Art of Measuring Land, Part Two

As we learned in my previous blog, surveying is the art of measuring land. During the 18th century colonial surveying was relatively crude. A fixed “beginning point” such as a tree or a rock was established as the starting point for the survey. A 66 foot long chain, commonly known as a Gunters Chain, was then stretched its maximum length from the beginning point and a stake was placed in the ground to mark the endpoint of the chain. The process was then repeated until each leg of the property boundary was fixed. The surveyor, by keeping careful notes on the compass bearings and distances of each survey leg, eventually “closed” the survey to encompass the desired amount of acreage as specified in the survey warrant.

Following the American Revolution, the new nation was on the precipice of bankruptcy. A systematic method was needed to sell the nations’ public lands gained from the British as a result of the American Revolution or ceded by the original thirteen states to the new federal government. The Land Ordinance of 1784 stipulated that all land west of the Ohio River could be sold with the proceeds flowing to the United States government. The Land Ordinance of 1785 took this one step further and specified that each township contain 36 square miles and then be further subdivided into 36 sections each comprising one square mile. These sections could then be further subdivided or sold to speculators. Furthermore, the Ordinance provided that one section in each township, usually Section 16, be set aside for the creation or maintenance of public schools. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 further codified the sale of public lands and the creation of new states.

Advances in surveying techniques during the latter portion of the 18th century led to a revolutionary advancement in surveying known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). The three acts mentioned above dramatically shaped public and private landownership in the century to come. Eventually, all land west of the Ohio River (more than ¾ of the land in the United States) was surveyed using the Public Land Survey System. The first area to be surveyed using the Public Land Survey System was in eastern Ohio as seen on Thomas Hutchins’ 1796 Plat of the Seven Ranges of Ohio below.

Thomas Hutchins (1730-1789) and a party of surveyors prepared this map of the first areas surveyed using the Public Land Survey System in the United States. Hutchins, Thomas, W Barker, and Mathew Carey. Plat of the seven ranges of townships being part of the territory of the United States, N.W. of the River Ohio. [Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1796]. Printed Map.  Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.  G4080 1796 .H Vault

Thomas Hutchins (1730-1789) and a party of surveyors prepared this map of the first areas surveyed using the Public Land Survey System in the United States. Hutchins, Thomas, W Barker, and Mathew Carey. Plat of the seven ranges of townships being part of the territory of the United States, N.W. of the River Ohio. [Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1796]. Printed Map.  Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.  G4080 1796 .H Vault

Over the next century, surveying of public lands intensified, as seen in the illustrations below. Both were surveyed using the Public Land Survey System. The top map depicts Ashtabula County, Ohio, 1856, and its constituent townships, most subdivided into 36 sections. The latter map, drawn at a large scale, is of Allin Township in McClean County, Illinois, and depicts that township’s subdivision into 36 sections, including the northeast corner of section 16, which has been marked and set aside for a “School.”

Example of a county map containing multiple townships.  Each township, as seen on the next map, is normally divided into 36 sections.  Smith, Robert Pearsall. Ashtabula County, Ohio. [Pennsylvania: Robert Pearsall Smith, 1856] Printed Map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G4083.A7G46 1856 .S6

Example of a county map containing multiple townships.  Each township, as seen on the next map, is normally divided into 36 sections.  Smith, Robert Pearsall. Ashtabula County, Ohio. [Pennsylvania: Robert Pearsall Smith, 1856] Printed Map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G4083.A7G46 1856 .S6

An example of a larger scale single township map. From Geo. A. Ogle & Co. Allin Township In Standard atlas of McLean County, Illinois, including a plat book of the villages, cities and townships of the county. Chicago, 1914. Printed Map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G1408.M26 O3 1914 folio

An example of a larger scale single township map. From Geo. A. Ogle & Co. Allin Township In Standard atlas of McLean County, Illinois, including a plat book of the villages, cities and townships of the county. Chicago, 1914. Printed Map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G1408.M26 O3 1914 folio

The results of the Public Land Survey System can be seen on the map below published by the General Land Office in 1873. The current states (listed in alphabetical order) of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin had been surveyed and subdivided using the Public Land Survey System by 1873. By examining the map one can see the perpendicular lines forming a grid pattern and the corresponding township and range demarcations. Eventually, most states lying west of the Ohio River were  surveyed by the General Land Office using the Public Land Survey System.

Map of the continental United States showing public land survey system grid. These grids formed the basis for the sale and subdivision of public land, generated income for the United States government, and facilitated organized settlement. United States General Land Office. Map of the United States and territories showing the extent of public surveys, Indian and military reservations, land grant R.R.; rail roads, canals, and other details. [Washington?, 1873] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G3700 1873 .U55

Map of the continental United States showing public land survey system grids. These grids formed the basis for the sale and subdivision of public land, generated income for the United States government, and facilitated organized settlement. United States General Land Office. Map of the United States and territories showing the extent of public surveys, Indian and military reservations, land grant R.R.; rail roads, canals, and other details. [Washington?, 1873] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G3700 1873 .U55

It is important to point out that the Public Land Survey System  paved the way for the systematic settlement of western lands, explorations related to the establishment of transcontinental railroads, and the organization of new territories into states.

The final blog in this surveying series will discuss two important 18th century maps; the Cassini family’s Carte De France and Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon’s Plan of the west line or parallel of latitude, which is the boundary between the provinces of Maryland and Pensylvania. Both maps are considered revolutionary examples of surveying.