The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal

By Everett Dick | Go to book overview

III

Surveying

SECOND IN IMPORTANCE ONLY to the preservation of life on the frontier was the security of ownership of one's tract of land, which required an effective system of surveys. In the following pages I shall attempt to trace the rise and application of the surveying scheme of the national government, together with the problems incident to marking the land. No attempt will be made to follow the process chronologically.

The colonial conception had varied from the muddle in Virginia to the more efficient procedure of New England and North Carolina, but in Kentucky and in the Virginia Military Reserve in Ohio the chaos of the Old Dominion prevailed. According to this custom the land hunter ranged at will in the forest, "running out" the richest tracts according to his fancy and recording the surveys. This led to a hodgepodge of claims that were irregular in size and shape; half a dozen tracts sometimes overlapped or infringed upon one another.1

In New England, the land was surveyed in rectangular townships, six to ten miles square, before the land was occupied; and a variation of this system was carried to the Western Reserve by Connecticut emigrants. Each township, five miles square, was divided into quarters, known as sections, which contained about three thousand acres each.

The old decrepit Congress set up by the Articles of Confederation passed two of the most important and far-reaching laws in United States history: the Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The former ordinance adopted the system of survey thereafter used on the public lands of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, the chairman of the committee which drew up the law, is generally given credit for its merits; but Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a member of the committee, claimed that the plan was his, and certain likenesses between the Carolina plan and the Ordinance of 1785 lend credence to his claim. The act, which was passed

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1
Burke Aaron Hinsdale, The Old Northwest ( New York, 1888), pp. 260, 261.

-19-

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