The Beginning of the U.S. Public Land System

A Chronological History of Surveying in Illinois

It is important for the would-be-surveyor and the experienced practitioner to fully comprehend the fact that present survey practices have roots deeply implanted in history dating back 6000 years to the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and possibly beyond that. The oldest map recovered, consisting of scratches in an Assyrian tablet, dates back 5000 years.

Many centuries of refinement of equipment and techniques had passed by the time the art of surveying reached the Illinois Territory. It was a rugged party of pioneers who first crossed the Wabash with their Rittenhouse compasses and Gunter's chains to stake out the virgin forests and prairies of Illinois. Through the hardships of Indians, snow, hunger, prairie grass, insects and low pay, these surveyors established the land that was soon to become the 21st State of the Union. The corners that these men established still control the location of present survey lines. This could be considered a tribute to these hardy individuals. Surveyors must study the past to gather insight into the future.

Illinois is a part of the United States Public Land Survey System, also Known as the Rectangular System. It is in use in thirty of the fifty United States. Those states that do not use it include the thirteen original colonies, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Hawaii, and other Eastern states except Florida.

There are 35 Principal Meridians and 32 Base Lines in use in the Rectangular System. Most of these locations are arbitrary or based on some natural features such as a fork in a river. Of these 35 Principal Meridians, all but the first six are named such as the Salt Lake Meridian or Black Hills Meridian. The first six are numbered, including the three that govern surveys in Illinois, the Second, Third, and Fourth Meridian.

The Second Principal Meridian, located in Indiana, controls approximately 10% of the Eastern part of Illinois. The Third Principal Meridian, located in South-central Illinois, governs roughly 60% of Illinois. The Fourth Principal Meridian controls the remaining 30% of the northwest portion of Illinois.

According to the latest Manual of surveying Instructions printed in 1973 by the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, the latitude and Longitude of the initial point, or the intersection of the Principal Meridians and their baselines are as follows:

Latitude Longitude
Second P.M. 38-28'-14" 86-27'-21"
Third P.M. 38-28'-27" 89-08'-54"
Fourth P.M. 40-00'-50" 90-27'-11"

The actual subdividing of Illinois land under the Rectangular System was done during the years 1805 to 1855, but mostly between 1815 and 1835. During this time, due to rapid settlement and the urgent need for money by the new government, it was necessary to complete surveys as quickly as possible. This fact, along with little field supervision and a contract system that, in effect, rewarded the Surveyor for the speed with which the lines were run, may have resulted in a significant amount of error in the surveys in Illinois. There was little concern for this due to the low value of land during this period, but with present land values, today's practitioners must take into consideration these facts when he follows in the footsteps of these early Surveyors.

There were many ordinances and instructions to Surveyors that governed the surveying of lands in Illinois. For a more complete analysis of these items, it would be advisable to consult Federal Instructions for Surveys of the Public Lands From 1785-1843 by Joe Webber, or Land Survey Systems by John McEntyre.

The Beginning of the U.S. Public Land System

With vast lands opening up in the West, the Continental Congress had to develop a plan for the orderly sale of individual tracts to the public. In 1784 a committee, headed by Thomas Jefferson, developed a plan for dividing this public land into rectangles. In 1785 a second committee was formed with one member from each state, which amended the first plan and submitted it to the Continental Congress for its approval.

On May 20, 1785 the Continental Congress approved the first Land Ordinance. Under the terms of the 1785 Land Ordinance, Congress was to appoint one Surveyor from each state to serve under the direction of the Geographer of the United States.
The basic plan called for by Jefferson's committee developed three theories: One, the principal of "survey before settlement"; Two, the principal of a mathematically designed plan to be followed throughout the entire public domain area; Three, the creation of a standard land unit, the section of uniform shape and area and with boundaries physically marked on the ground.
The 1785 Land Ordinance also included the provision that Section 16 in each Township would be set aside for the maintenance of public schools.
The 1785 Ordinance called for the surveying of the public lands to begin on the River Ohio at a point that should be found to be due North from the Western terminus of a line which has been run as the Southern boundary of the State of Pennsylvania". Four boundary surveyors - David Rittenhouse, Andrew Porter, Andrew Ellicott, and Joseph Neville established this point on August 20, 1785.
Thomas Hutchins, who was appointed the Geographer of the United States in July of 1781 and was a major contributor to Jefferson's committee, was chosen to personally direct the surveys under the 1785 Land Ordinance.Of the 13 surveyors who were to aid Hutchins, only 8 reported and they were: Edward Dowse from New Hampshire; Benjamin Tupper from Massachusetts; Isaac Sherman from Connecticut; Absalom Martin from New Jersey; William Morris from New York; Alexander Parker from Virginia; James Simpson from Maryland; and Robert Johnson from Georgia. These 8, plus Thomas Hutchins and 30 helpers met at the mouth of Little Beaver Creek.
On the last day of September 1785, starting at the initial point previously established, Hutchins ran the East-West latitude Line known as the "Geographer's Line" from which the surveys of the "Seven Ranges" began.
The surveyors drew lots and Absalom Martin drew #1 and in August 1786, 6 miles due West of the point of beginning, he started South to begin the survey of the first range.
Under the Land Ordinance of 1785 only the corners of the townships were surveyed and the section lines were added on paper.
The survey of the Seven Ranges served many purposes. It influenced the methods used in later surveys; served as a training ground for surveyors; and provided map information and land evaluation.
On May 18, 1796 Congress passed another Land Ordinance that amended and superseded the Act of 1785. This act provided for "The sale of the lands of the United States in the territory North-West of the River Ohio and above the mouth of the Kentucky River". The significant provisions of this Act included:
1.The system of numbering sections was changed to the system now in use.
2.Pay for survey work was raised from $2 to $3/mile of line for all expenses except escort.
3.Section lines were marked at 2-mile intervals.
4.The Post of Surveyor General was established at a pay rate of $2000/year.
On October 1, 1796 Washington appointed Rufus Putnam as the first Surveyor General of the United States and he served for the next seven years. He was the author of the present numbering system and placed the excess and deficiency in the North and West tiers. There were two acts passed by Congress in the year 1800. The most significant principle established by the March 1, 1800 Act was that the corner set under regulations by a surveyor in the field is a true corner, even if later surveys indicate that it was placed incorrectly. The Act of May 10, 1800 provided for the subdivision of townships into Half Sections of 320 acres each. It also made provisions for placing all excess or deficiency of measurement in the North mile and the West 1/2 mile in each township.In the year 1803 Jared Mansfield replaced Rufus Putnam as Surveyor General. There is good evidence that Jared Mansfield issued fairly detailed instructions to his deputies in 1804 when he contemplated the survey of the Vincennes tract in Indiana. Unfortunately Mansfield did not sign or date the instructions.
It is known that in 1804 he introduced the plan of intersecting Meridians and Baselines, which provided a convenient basis for township identification by numbering them. As time passed it became obvious that sections needed to be subdivided into yet smaller units. This was accomplished by Congress in the Act of February 11, 1805, which provided for the subdivision of sections into Quarter Sections. In 1812 Congress established the General Land Office (GLO) as a Bureau of the Treasury Department "To superintend, execute, and perform all such Acts respecting the public lands".
Edward Tiffin, a former surveyor, was chosen as the first Commissioner of the GLO. Tiffin immediately set about planning and developing a more efficient system of land management. Josiah Meigs, who had worked under Thomas Hutchins on the survey of the Seven Ranges, was appointed Surveyor General of all the public lands East of the Mississippi River when Mansfield resigned the office.

A Chronological History of Surveying in Illinois

1800 - 1809

In late summer of 1802 Thomas Freeman began surveying land in the vicinity of Vincennes, Indiana after Congressional approval in May of that year. This area, known as the Vincennes Tract included part of the Illinois Territory and marked the beginning of surveying in Illinois. Upon completion of the boundary lines and corners, Surveyor General Jared Mansfield chose Ebenezer Buckingham, Jr. to layout the control lines for the surveys within the Vincennes Tract. Ebenezer Buckingham began his work in 1804 by running a baseline East from a starting point 67.5 miles into Illinois Territory at the S.W. corner of the Vincennes Tract.
Later he ran a North-South control line which became the second Principal Meridian. Once these control lines were in, it was possible for Thomas Freeman to begin subdividing the Vincennes Tract into townships and sections. In mid 1805 Jared Mansfield, Surveyor General of the United States, authorized Deputy Surveyor William Rector to extend survey work across the Wabash to the Mississippi River. In October 24, 1805 Rector reached the Mississippi tying the surveys to be controlled by the Third Principal Meridian with the same baseline as those of the Second Principal Meridian.

1810 - 1819

After the creation of the General Land Office and with a war against Great Britain imminent, Congress established three bounty lands to encourage military enlistment. One of these military districts was located in Illinois Territory between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. These areas had to be surveyed before they could be opened to the soldiers returning from war. Commissioner Tiffin of the GLO established a District Land Office in Kaskaskia, Illinois to handle the distribution of lands within Illinois.
In 1814 an exchange of jobs took place. Josiah Meigs became the second Commissioner of the GLO and Edward Tiffin became the Surveyor General of Territories East of the Mississippi, a position he held for 15 years.
As the Surveyor General, Edward Tiffin was very active in establishing policies to be followed in surveying the public lands. Although previous Surveyor Generals had issued instructions by letter or word, it was not until July 26, 1815 that Edward Tiffin issued the first written instructions. Late in 1815 it became apparent that the Third Principal Meridian could not be extended correctly to the Illinois River. Therefore, the Fourth Principal Meridian was called for to commence at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
By 1817 this line had been extended North to the line between Townships 14 and 15 North. Two standard lines were run East and West from the 4th P.M. The concept of standard lines or "Lines of Corrections" was conceived by Edward Tiffin to resolve the paradoxical requirement set forth by Congress that the townships were to have sides running in the Cardinal directions, and that they were to be rectangular. This is an impossible situation due to the convergence of the Meridian. To solve this, Edward Tiffin instructed the Deputy Surveyors to introduce correction lines at "stated distances" North or South of the baseline. In Illinois this was done by individual correspondence or instructions. Later in 1851 the policy was changed to Standard Parallels and Meridians at 24-mile intervals. On December 3, 1818 Illinois, with its present boundaries was admitted as the 21st State of the Union.

1820 - 1829

The Act of April 24, 1820 called for the survey and sale of Half-Quarter Sections. This change was made to allow the large number of people of limited means who had taken up land ahead of the surveys to buy land at the minimum cash price of $1.25/acre. At this time Illinois was about one quarter surveyed.
In 1821 the legislatures of the states of Indiana and Illinois ordered a survey of their common boundary. A Commissioner representing each state was appointed, and the line was run and marked with wooden posts. A large stone post on the North bank of the Wabash River marks the point where the Eastern boundary leaves the river and proceeds north. This point has a latitude of 39-20'-57.6" and longitude of 87-31'-52.9" W. By 1822 the Third Principal Meridian had been extended to the Illinois River and all of the standard lines up to Township 31N had been run. The 1820's marked a very active phase in the surveying of Illinois lands. By 1823 approximately one-half of the state had been surveyed and by 1825 nearly 3/4 of the state was surveyed, according to the annual report of the Commissioners of the General Land Office.
1830 - 1839
In 1831 and 1832 the Northern boundary of the state was surveyed and marked by Commissioners representing the United States and Illinois. This boundary, having a latitude of 42-29'-37" determined by observation, is marked with a five-ton stone, seven feet high, set on the high water-line of the Mississippi River. A 12-inch square post, nine feet long, driven into, the ground one chain from the shore of Lake Michigan marks the Eastern end of this marked line. The total length of this boundary is 144 miles 48 chains 80 links. Lucius Lyon, who was the U.S. Commissioner for the Northern boundary survey, soon afterwards extended the Fourth Principal Meridian to meet this line. This required crossing the Mississippi River twice and running a large portion of the line in the State of Iowa. It was not until after 1836, at a time when a vast majority of Illinois was already surveyed, that the Burt's Solar Compass was invented. At about the same time the transit came into use, and backsights were taken to establish straight lines. Prior to this time, all courses were taken with a magnetic compass, most likely a Rittenhouse, and the needle corrected for deviation from astronomic North. In 1839 William Milburn was confirmed into the position of Surveyor General of the Public Lands in the states of Illinois and Missouri.

1840 - 1849

On the 1st of October 1840 William Milburn compiled a report on the status of the surveys in Illinois.

Surveyor Generals Office

Saint Louis the 1st of October 1840

The surveying districts noted in the accompanying statements B No. 1 and B No. 2 are as far as practicable, represented on this diagram, and designated by the appropriate figures and letters, corresponding to the figures and letters in said statements B No. 1 and B No. 2. The townships of said surveying districts which have been subdivided and the notes of survey returned to this office are marked with a small o, and the Townships which it is intended to subdivide with the means now available for public surveys over and above the present contracts are marked with the letter z. This will close the public surveys in the State of Illinois. The five Townships marked x were subdivided in 1838 without authority from the Surveyor General; this proceeding will either be approved or the Townships will be classed with those marked z and resubdivided under the present appropriation. The Township lines, which have been surveyed, are drawn with black ink. Those, which have not been surveyed, are dotted. The Townships marked with the letter S have been subdivided.

William Milburn

Surveyor of the Public Lands

In the States Of Illinois and Missouri

With this report, William Milburn closed the active period of public surveys in Illinois, however the last government contract for surveying a township in Illinois was not signed until 1855.

1850 - 1859

In 1850 the Surveyor General for Illinois and Missouri published his "Manual of Instructions to U.S. Deputy Surveyors", with an appendix for the Use of County Surveyors. This was immediately recognized, without any question, as being conclusive authority and generally adopted by the better class of surveyors in the state, that was until Judge Burt published his "key to the Solar Compass and Surveyor's Companion". This opened up the whole subject of the proper survey and subdivision of the sections. This led to much discussion; both oral and written, finally resulting in the call for a convention on January 7, 1857. No conclusions were reached regarding subdivision of sections, so another convention was called for on January 5, 1859 in Springfield. After a very long and warm discussion, it was finally proposed and agreed to submit the question of the proper subdivision of a section to an able lawyer for his decision. In the selection of the attorney, the convention chose Mr. Abraham Lincoln, a practical surveyor as well as a recognized leading member of the Bar, on the principle that a good lawyer could better interpret and apply the law to a subject with which he was thoroughly conversant. Mr. Lincoln replied with the following written opinion:

"The 11th Section of the Act of Congress, approved Feb. 11, 1805, prescribing rules for the subdivision of sections of land within the United States system of surveys, standing unrepealed in my opinion, is binding on the respective purchasers of different parts of the same section, and furnishes the true rule for surveyors in establishing lines between them. That law, being in force at the time each became a purchaser, becomes a condition of the purchase.

"And by that law, I think the true rule for dividing into quarters, and interior section, or section which is not fractional, is to run straight lines through the sections from the opposite quarter section corners, fixing the point where such straight lines cross, or intersect each other, as the middle, or center of the section.

"Nearly, perhaps quite, all the original surveys are to some extent erroneous, and in some of the sections, quite so. In each of the latter, it is obvious that a more equitable mode of division than the above might be adopted; but as error is infinitely various, perhaps no better single rule can be prescribed.

"At all events, I think the above has been prescribed by the competent authority".


Springfield, Jan. 6 1859

Considering Abraham Lincoln's background, the conventioneers accepted his opinion and the question of subdivision of sections was settled. A study of Illinois surveying history would not be complete without an appreciation of the conditions and the obstacles that these early surveyors had to meet and overcome. Some of these early surveyors had little formal education or experience, and though they were supervised, many had to solve their own problems in the field as instructions may take weeks to arrive. The territory they surveyed was for the most part uncut timber land and prairie grass, sometimes 6 to 8 feet in height with no convenient roads or bridges every mile. The instruments they used cannot compare in accuracy with those in use today. The Rectangular Survey System was still in its infancy with corrections and refinements continually being made as problems arose and the early surveyors had to be aware of these. A typical survey party had to camp away from home and family for months at a time, living off supplies that had to be brought in by horse or on foot or living off the land and improvising with what could be found. Many times they faced hostile Indians and wild animals, insects, hunger, snow and disease.

All of this he faced for pay as low as $2/mile of line, which had to include all expenses except military escort. This is well worth thinking about as we travel to our job in four wheel drive trucks, equipped with EDM's and Theodolites, stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant, and finish the day with a cold drink back home.