Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Point of Beginning for the American West

One of the earliest issues facing Americans after they won independence from Great Britain was what to do about the lands lying northwest of the Ohio River. There were competing claims there by a number of states, based on their original charters, and the nascent nation could very well fall apart if these conflicts were not resolved.

The solution was to have those states each waive their claims, turning this “northwest territory” over to the American government. This not only resolved the conflicts between the states, but solved a number of other problems. First, there was a need for lands to reward veterans of the Revolution, and it also made land available to American citizens to seek their fortune in the west. Finally, it offered a means for the federal government to raise revenue, as the Articles of Confederation, which were then in place, did not allow Congress to tax its citizens.

As a result, in 1787, Congress passed “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio” which established the manner in which this area would be measured, divided and then distributed.

The ordinance called for the surveying of the territory with a single, consistent system, dividing it into a grid of townships and smaller sections, each with border lines oriented strictly north-south and east-west. These sections could then be used for public purposes, distributed to veterans and sold to individuals and land companies. A process was established so that as a certain population was reached, the Northwest Territory would be divided into new states. This not only gave access to citizens for land, but also would provide a source of revenue for the federal government.

In order for this all to work, the Northwest Territory had to be surveyed and divided into sections. The task of doing this was given to the first Geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins, who developed a system for doing this which became the foundation for how most of the United States was surveyed and divided as new lands were added.

Hutchens devised a system where the government lands were to be divided into townships of six miles square. The townships were stacked in north-to-south columns called “ranges.” Each township was itself divided into thirty-six numbered sections of one square mile each, and those were in turn divided into half, quarter and quarter-quarter sections, the smallest units being 40 square acres.

This system was eventually extended throughout the Northwest Territory, and then later to most of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, Mexican cession, and Oregon Territory, explaining why so many roads, towns, farms, and other properties west of the Ohio and Mississippi River are so regular and straight-sided.

In order to start the survey, Hutchens had to lay down a base line, called the Geographer’s Line, off of which the rest of the survey would work. The base line itself had to start somewhere, a place called the “Point of Beginning.” Hutchens picked a spot on the north bank of the Ohio River, directly north of the western terminus of the just surveyed southern border of Pennsylvania. This point of beginning is now in East Liverpool, on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The first area that Hutchens surveyed was called the “Seven Ranges,” that is, the first seven stacks of townships, each six miles wide and lying between the Geographer’s Line and the Ohio River, running from the Point of Beginning forty-two miles to the west. Hutchens set off on September 30, 1785, but the survey team did not make it very far before they heard of Indian troubles no too far west, and so decided to high-tail it back to Pittsburgh. Hutchens and the surveyors were later able to secure military protection and so returned to finish the job, completing the Seven Ranges in 1787.

A map of the seven ranges was issued in 1796 by Mathew Carey and engraved by W. Barker. The title of the map says:
“Plat of the Seven Ranges of Townships being Part of the Territory of the United Sates N.W. of the River Ohio Which by a late act of Congress are directed to be sold. That part which is divided into sections or tracts of a mile square will be sold in small tracts at public auction in Pitsburg [sic] the residue will be sold in quarters of Townships at the seat of Government.”

W. Barker sculp.

Surveyed in conformity to an Ordinance of Congress of May 20th 1785. Under direction of Thos. Hutchins late Geographer to the United States

Hutchens’ system, now known as the Public Land Survey System, is still in use today, all surveys working off of the initial Seven Ranges survey of the late eighteenth century. It is this national survey grid which allowed for the orderly division and distribution of land to farmers and settlers, railroad companies, prospectors and all the other Americans who emigrated from the east to the west as the country expanded. Thus Hutchens’ “Point of Beginning” for this first survey, was in fact the Point of Beginning for all the American West.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for posting, very interesting!