Magazine article The New Yorker

This Land Is Your Land

Magazine article The New Yorker

This Land Is Your Land

Article excerpt

In 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, began the improbable task of literally measuring the expanding new nation, yard by yard. Inching west from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and equipped with Gunter's chain--a handy surveying device stretching exactly twenty-two yards long--Hutchins' crew chopped the tangled frontier into Enlightenment-friendly six-mile-by-six-mile townships, the effect of which can still be seen from any airplane window. MEASURING AMERICA (Walker), by the British journalist Andro Linklater, tells the eye-opening story of how this "immaculate" grid gave birth to the radical notion of fixed measures (the variable cooms, kilderkins, and rundlets quickly went out the window), the uniquely American idea of land ownership (yeomen farmers were drawn westward to such would-be new states as Assenisipia and Polypotamia), and our continuing anachronistic fealty to yards, acres, and miles (Thomas Jefferson proposed using a decimal system, only to be trumped by Gunter's chain). …

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