The largest subdivision of land ever known will be brought to public attention this week with the bicentennial celebration of the American Rectangular Public Land Survey System.
The ordinance of May 20, 1785, regarded as one of the lasting accomplishments of the Continental Congress, is the product of the emerging democratic process following the Revolutionary War, and was hand-drafted by Thomas Jefferson himself.
It was created to identify and control the occupation of land in the western territory, to sell public land in large blocks to produce revenue to pay off the war debt and to facilitate ownership of smaller parcels of land by the general public.
The primary use of that system by the present-day surveyor is in retracing old lines and in subdividing sections into smaller units. The original surveys were not always accomplished as efficiently as they were intended, but they provided a means of establishing for all time the original markers set by the General Land Office (now the Bureau of Land Management).
Most of the surveys were done during the 19th Century and covered most of the United States west of the Mississippi with the exception of Texas. Today there are still about 4 million acres of unsurveyed public lands, but those are primarily within the boundaries of public parks.
The basic land ordinance provided for rectangular grid surveys dividing the land into townships of six miles square. Townships were then divided into 36 sections of 640 acres (with one lot set aside for maintaining public schools and another for support of the religion of the majority of resident adult males). A sale of minimum lots (640 acres) was authorized at $1 an acre.
The decision to adopt a six-mile township stems from the New England township that was more or less six miles square, though often its boundaries were dictated by meandering cow trails.
The Yankees apparently felt that a distance beyond three miles was an undue inconvenience for citizens who had to walk to church or school or to the township office. And a distance of less than three miles did not seem sufficient to justify a local government.
In addition, the prevailing English mentality was also more attuned to thinking in multiples of dozens and half dozens than in multiples of 10.
The first plat of a township under the rectangular system of surveys was done in 1786 by Absalom Martin of New Jersey, and was designated as Township 5 of the First Range. Ranges were counted west from the west boundary of Pennsylvania and townships north of the Ohio River.
The law also provided that sections would be numbered respectively, beginning with No. 1 in the northeast section, and proceeding west and east alternately through the township with progressive numbers up to 36. The exterior lines of townships are generally marked by monuments at half-mile intervals.
The Point of Beginning of the U.S. Public Land Survey System exists today as a monument by a roadside park at East Liverpool, Ohio, and marks the initial point of the first technically designed and systematic land survey system in the modern world.
The system was begun on Sept. 30, 1785, under the direction of Thomas Hutchins, geographer of the United States, a military engineer and topographer.
Hutchins and his men so organized and recorded their work that anyone trained in the system can duplicate it. Because of this United States Public Land Survey, more than 1 billion acres, stretching from this point westward to the Pacific and northward to the Arctic, have been systematically located, described and recorded.
Two important innovations of the rectangular system were worked out later in the Ohio Valley because of increasing errors relating to the convergence of meridians of longitude. After 1803, Surveyor Gen. Jared Mansfield established a principal meridian, approximately in the middle of Indiana, running from the Ohio River north.
Another refinement was added by Surveyor Gen. Edward Tiffin, who devised a system to guide meridians at 72-mile intervals and parallels at 30-mile intervals, so that errors of convergence and other kinds would be contained within this oblong.
Character of Land
The field notes and maps of a survey furnish not only a technical record of the procedure but also a report on the character of the land, soil and timber traversed by the survey and a detailed schedule of the topographical features along every line.
Many of these identifying markers of the past have since disappeared, but the law provides that the original corners established in the process of the survey shall forever remain fixed in position.
The farther west that surveyors traveled, the more they had to reckon with rough, uncharted terrain, stretches of arid land, the mighty Rockies and confrontation with unfriendly Indians.