The Measurement That Built America

PrintPrintEmailEmailLOOK OUT THE AIRPLANE WINDOW ON A flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, and you can see below one of the most astonishing man-made constructs on earth. It is more extensive than the Great Wall of China, yet it remains almost invisible unless you’re looking for it. Once you begin to recognize it, however, the clues are everywhere: the checkerboard arrangement of the orchards and fields of California’s Great Central Valley; the rectangular farms in the canyons of the Sierra Nevada; the graph-paper grid of streets in Phoenix and Salt Lake City; the great plaid pattern of corn and soy across the prairies. All are aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, so that the lines run north to south and east to west.

These are the visible indicators of the United States public-land survey, a continuing project nearly as old as the nation itself. Since 1785 it has covered more than three million square miles from the Appalachians to the Pacific Ocean, shaping farms and cities and doing more to alter the American landscape in that time than wind or weather. But its invisible influence is more far-reaching yet. The survey created a structure of landownership unlike any other in history and laid the foundation for the development of a society unique in its democracy and enterprise. And, almost incidentally, it ensured that the United States would be one of the last nations in the world to resist the metric system.

On September 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first official geographer of the United States, unrolled a 22-yard-long surveyor’s chain on the west bank of the Ohio River. The government needed to raise money to pay off the mountain of debt it had accumulated in achieving its independence, and this land beyond the Appalachians was virtually its only asset. Before the sale could take place, however, the wilderness had to be measured out and mapped. This was Hutchins’s job. The Northwest Ordinance that had been passed in May that year called for “disposing of lands in the western territory” and required him to lay out lines running east to west 6 miles apart; they were to be cut at right angles by north-south lines 6 miles apart. This would create a grid of squares, known as townships, each covering 36 square miles. The townships were to be divided into 36 one-mile-square sections, which would be sold at auction. Hutchins was performing a piece of magic, the transformation of wilderness into property.

The pattern of squares had been Thomas Jefferson’s idea, proposed in 1784. The simplicity of the shape made it truly democratic. It was easily measured out, and its area could readily be checked by any potential buyer. In Jefferson’s ideal society, based on a romantic idea of Saxon England populated by independent yeoman farmers, as many people as possible would own land. He wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia that “the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen [farmers], is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption.” From the start, therefore, the survey was expected not simply to raise money but to shape a society.


The equipment was basic: a theodolite or a transit (at that date, little more than a telescope with built-in compass), through which the surveyor could take a sighting on a distant mark to find its direction, and a Gunter’s chain—a standard surveyor’s chain exactly 66 feet long—to measure out the distance. Preceded by axmen who hacked a path through the trees, the foreman took the front end of the chain and marched toward the mark; when the chain was fully stretched, he cried, “Tally!,” stuck a tally pin in the ground, and waited for the hindman to join him, gathering up the chain. So they moved across the country, like caterpillars, hunching up and stretching out, through forests, over swamps, up mountains, and down ravines.


“Before going a mile,” one surveyor wrote of the hilly forests in eastern Ohio, “I discovered it was impossible to do accurate chaining in such a broken country, where the hills were so steep it was often with difficulty they could be climbed.” William Burt, who ran part of the survey through the mosquito-infested swamps and prickly undergrowth of Michigan, was made of sterner stuff. “Dear Companion,” he wrote to his wife, Phebe, in 1840, “I am now… about 40 or 50 miles from any Settlement in the midst of a swamp about twelve miles in diameter, but expect to get out tomorrow as I can see high Beech and maple Land to the North. My Coat and Pantiloons are most gone. If you could make me a frock [long coat] and a pair of Pantiloons of the strongest kind of Bedticking they would I think stand the Brush.” In Kansas a young surveyor was taking a sighting in 1854, when, he reported, “a party of Indians fired on me and my men. A shell struck a tree against which I was leaning.”