The Measurement That Built America


Despite the difficulties, by the end of the nineteenth century most of the country had been squared off into townships and sections, half-sections, and quarter-sections, down to a quarter-quarter section of 40 acres. Each parcel of land was identified on a surveyor’s map, registered at a federal land office, and made available for purchase. This was what underpinned the legends of the frontier. The survey guaranteed the pioneers in their covered wagons legal possession of their land; it substantiated the claims of gold miners; it settled the feuds of cowboys and farmers; it financed the construction of the railroads. “The magnitude of the greatest land-measurement project in history is mind-boggling,” wrote the geographer Hildegard B. Johnson in 1977. “One marvels at the determination with which these men threw and retraced their lines. Still their role is largely ignored in the history of the frontier.”

In 1862 Lincoln introduced the Homestead Act, which gave anyone 160 acres so long as he or she built a cabin and worked the soil for five years. Parcels of land were given free to socially valuable people like Army veterans and teachers. State universities were founded on the proceeds of the sale of lands the federal government had given to the states, and railroad companies made their profits largely from the squares of land the government gave to them on either side of the track. In all, more than a billion acres entered private ownership.

The process had profound consequences. Most eighteenth-century Americans thought of those living on the frontier as one step removed from savagery—”our own semi-barbarous citizens” was how Jefferson described them—but early-nineteenth-century writers like James Fenimore Cooper began to extol them for their self-reliant enterprise, and a generation later they came to be taken as the very essence of what it meant to be American. In his famous 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner argued that “the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people… that restless nervous energy, that dominant individualism working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier.”

Turner’s thesis has repeatedly been attacked on the grounds that the movement westward was too piecemeal and irregular to constitute the pushing back of a frontier. Far from being individualistic, it was usually communal. Yet his thesis refuses to die, because a distinctive American spirit did indeed arise from the expansion into the West. To contemporary observers, the origin of that spirit was obvious. It had little to do with the frontier family’s experience in the wilderness and everything to do with its acquisition of landed property.

As early as 1813 the traveler John Melish commented approvingly, “Every industrious citizen of the United States has the power to become a freeholder … and the land being purely his own, there is no setting limits to his prosperity. No proud tyrant can lord it over him.” Writing 20 years later from a less admiring viewpoint, Frances Trollope, the mother of the British novelist Anthony Trollope, expressed fear for the survival of civilized behavior when anyone could acquire land. “Any man’s son may become the equal of any other man’s son, and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion,” she conceded in The Domestic Manners of the Americans . “On the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined.”


It is easy to mock Mrs. Trollope, but if Jefferson’s romantic view of the Saxons is discounted, the only model that history had so far provided for owning land was vertical, with the highest classes occupying the most, the lowest holding the least, and every social gradation from aristocrat to peasant determined largely by acreage. Now for the first time an entire society was being created, peacefully and legally, around a horizontal model of land distribution. In an era when land was the primary source of wealth and the key indicator of social class, the possibility that anyone could own it struck European visitors as revolutionary. In their eyes, that was what made America unique. A survey drawing from the 1780s shows its makers and their chain. Opposite, the chain itself.

Supporting evidence comes from an intriguing anomaly in Turner’s thesis. He and his followers thought of the frontier as moving west, but in the early part of the nineteenth century, convoys of canvas-covered wagons also headed south, to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By rights the frontier spirit should also have emerged there in the Deep South, with the same enterprising activity. Instead, a socially divided, hierarchical culture developed, markedly lacking in economic enterprise.