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.
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.”
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.
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.