Surveyors and Surveying

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Despite their generally poor training, colonial surveyors played an important role in shaping the early American landscape. Their primary instrument was the Gunter's Chain, which helped minimize the errors made by surveyors with limited mathematical skills. The chain contained one hundred links and measured sixty-six feet. A square with ten-chain sides enclosed an acre, and eighty chains measured 5,280 feet, or one mile. Most early surveys were done by traverse, which meant that from a starting point the surveyor created the boundaries around a property using a mariner's compass to measure the angles and a Gunter's Chain to measure the sides. In the North, most colonial land surveys were roughly rectangular and contiguous, but in the South surveying by "metes and bounds" meant that claimants were free to draw boundaries around any piece of land unclaimed by another. Surveys were recorded in two ways. A written description of the tract was usually accompanied by a map or plat, while on the land itself boundaries were identified by markings on trees, buried stakes, or piles of stones.

In the mid-eighteenth century, surveyors were in high demand by large landowners whose lands were vulnerable to squatters. A recorded survey meant that landowners could persuade squatters to take on a lease or be forced out. In Virginia, Lord Fairfax employed as surveyors both George Washington and Peter Jefferson, the father of the future president. The hardships of surveying and the value of the service meant that surveyors commanded salaries on a par with lawyers. For George Washington and many others, however, surveying not only provided large fees but also the opportunity to identify desirable tracts for their own land speculations.

In 1763 the proprietors of Maryland and Pennsylvania hired the English astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to conduct a survey of the long-disputed boundary separating their colonies. Assisted by the colonial astronomer David Rittenhouse, the group used custom-built equipment and astronomical surveying techniques to ensure the accuracy of the 244-mile border of the present states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. This boundary became known in the nineteenth century as the Mason-Dixon Line, the division between slave and free states.

In the decade prior to the American Revolution, speculators formed several companies for the purpose of acquiring lands in the trans-Appalachian West. Despite the Proclamation Line of 1763 prohibiting settlement in this region, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were two of the many prominent colonial figures involved in these ultimately futile attempts to make large-scale land acquisitions. Men such as Daniel Boone pushed far into the wilderness in the employ of private speculators and land companies who paid them to find and survey choice tracts for future purchase.

Following the American Revolution, a surge in western migration caused the Continental Congress to pass the Land Ordinance of 1785. In an attempt to prevent widespread squatting, this law called for the western territories recently ceded by the states to be surveyed and sold by public auction. The land was to be divided into townships of six miles square, each subdivided into thirty-six sections. North-south boundaries were called township lines and east-west ones range lines. The starting point for the survey was designated as the place where the Ohio River crossed the western border of Pennsylvania. Thomas Hutchins was given a three-year commission by Congress to serve as the first geographer of the United States. He received a salary of six dollars per day to supervise a team of surveyors to be drawn from each of the states. They were to survey the first seven ranges north and west of the Ohio River, and on 22 September 1785 Hutchins began surveying the first range line. With teams of axmen clearing the path ahead, the rear chainman stood by the starting stake holding one end of the chain while the front man carried the chain toward a mark sighted using compass bearings, unrolling it as he went. At the end of sixty-six feet, the spot was marked, the rear chainman came up, and the process was repeated. In this manner the surveying teams inched their way across the landscape.

Hutchins's efforts were hampered by conflicts of interest involving his surveyors, several of whom were agents for land companies seeking to purchase large tracts for resale to individual settlers. Indian unrest also helped delay the survey, and the work itself was not only late, but poorly done. Hutchins died in 1789, but the general speed and accuracy of survey work did not improve until the appointment of Jared Mansfield as surveyor general in 1803.

Mansfield was a Yale-educated mathematician who began immediately to regularize the survey system. Beginning one mile west of Indiana's border with Ohio, Mansfield designated the First Principal Meridian. This was a carefully surveyed north-south township line from which east-west range lines were run at precise right angles. He then personally surveyed the Second Principal Meridian. From that point the landscape began to take on the checkerboard pattern that is still recognizable from the air. Mansfield's successor, Edward Tiffin, introduced the practice of correcting for the convergence of longitude lines (as they approach the poles) by decreeing that after every four or five ranges, new meridians be marked off at precisely six-mile intervals.

In 1816 Ferdinand Hassler, a professor of mathematics at West Point, was appointed the first superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey and he began the massive job of surveying the nation's coasts. Within two years, however, the survey was suspended by Congress, which feared that Hassler's methods were too slow and expensive. Work on the survey resumed in 1833 after Hassler's reappointment by Congress. He continued to work on the coast survey until his death in 1843.

See alsoLand Policies; Land Speculation .


Cajori, Florian. The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1929.

Linklater, Andro. Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. New York: Walker, 2002.

Price, Edward T. Dividing the Land: Early American Beginnings of Our Private Property Mosaic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789–1837. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Theberge, Albert. The Coast Survey, 1807–1867. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA Central Library, 1998.

John E. Reda

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