Designs on the Land: Reflections on the Concept of Land Ownership (American Survey History)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

Designs on the Land

Unsigned and Undated Pamphlet
(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series)

This pamphlet accompanies an exhibit [formerly] at Horner Museum, Oregon State University, which depicts designs on the land by form and by idea. While the exhibit is not intended to be a complete account of these forms and ideas, it nevertheless portrays several important concepts which afford a better understanding of human activities and how they affected the changing western landscape. The display illustrates aspects of land survey, physical and cultural geography, political, social and economic history, effects upon natural resources, women and property, and some differences in North American Indian and European land ownership. Horner Museum is pleased to present "Designs on the Land: Reflections on the Concept of Land Ownership."

Role of the Surveyor in Frontier History

For the most part, history has neglected the role of the land surveyor. However, the life of the early explorers, fur traders, missionaries, miners, lumbermen, farmers, and many others who made contributions in the settlement and development of the West has been carefully recorded. The work of the land surveyor, though not very glamorous, is certainly of lasting importance. The land survey system provided for an easy manner to file claim to land and also to transfer it.

Very little has been written about the day-to-day routine of the surveyor. Such information is usually confined to reports, letters, diaries, or other primary sources. The typical survey crew was comprised of a chief surveyor, two chainmen, instrument bearer, several axemen to clear brush, and possibly a cook. The size of the crew, of course, depended upon the amount of land being surveyed and time allotted for survey, and other circumstances. Wages also varied. Crew members were paid several dollars per day, or by the mile surveyed. In the beginning, Congress set the price at $2.00 per mile. This was to cover all costs: crew wages, food, and other supplies.

The following accounts are excerpts from reports of the Surveyor General which are indicative of the conditions experienced by surveyors.

. . . Our work was hard, our days long; in winter or summer we were at
work in the morning as soon as we could see, worked as long as we
could see at night, and then tramped to camp by moonlight or starlight,
often for many miles. We lived on bread, salt pork, beans and coffee.
Occasionally we would vary it by the capture of wild game. On this trip I
remember one of the boys shot a deer, and once we found a 'bee tree'
containing several gallons of honey; and once, with the aid of a big dog,
a jack staff and a convenient snow bank, we captured a two hundred and
fifty pound wild hog. Incidents of this kind helped not only our larder,
but also broke the monotony of our lives.

Another account mentions:

Monday morning we dug our way out of the snow, crossed the river on
the ice, and started on the weary, weary way home. The men were
formed in two lines and broke a path for the horses and wagon. When
the leaders were exhausted, (remember the snow was knee deep) they
would step outside and the next two men take their place as 'breakers',
the two leaders falling in behind. And so for three days were worked
steadily, but our progress was slow. The days were short and much time
was consumed (nearly one half) going back and forth to the timber for
camping purposes. On the morning of the seventh day we decided to
leave our wagon. The horses had nothing but hazel brush to eat and
were getting weak. The seventh day was warm and pleasant and the sun
melted the snow considerably. That night we camped at the mouth of
Willow Creek.... We had no tent or shelter, but at dark the weather was
not cold, and with a good fire we were fairly comfortable, but we had
enough fire to keep us from freezing. At four o'clock the next morning
the cook made a pot of strong coffee and distributed the very last of our
food, which consisted of one small biscuit (then five days old) and one
very small spoonful of cold boiled beans to each, and long before
daylight we were tramping the prairie by moonlight, nine men in a
string, breaking the frozen crust of the snow to make a path for the
horses and the two other men, (one sick, the other the cook, a cripple)
who rode the horses. In this way we traveled until about eleven o'clock,
when ascending a high divide, we saw, several miles to the south of us, a
house on the prairie and we knew that our troubles were nearly over.

Then, too, the gold rush had effects upon surveying progress.

I have completed the survey of forty miles of work.... In order to do this
I was obliged to carry my camp equipment on men's shoulders a
distance of 58 miles over the coast mountains, which are inaccessible to
horses. Owing to the fatigue thus incurred by the men they were unable
to continue the work. I accordingly suspended operations to form a new
party, but before I could do so the entire laboring portion of the
community was seized with the gold panic and I could not procure
suitable assistants for less than one hundred dollars per month. Now I
have hitherto paid fifty-two dollars per month for assistants.

Perhaps the following account best summarizes the plight of the surveyor.

Where men come in tired, wet, cold and hungry and then have to turn in
and help prepare a meal as best they can, is quite another side of the
matter. So they lived and worked exposed to heat and cold, wet and dry,
sickness and accident and many other things that go to make the life of
the surveyor a hard one. Pioneers! If not, who are?

It is obvious that surveyors experienced great hardship for very little financial reward - unlike the fur trappers, miners, and others, the potential for wealth was not so great. Most of their efforts were for the benefit of others who would follow to claim and work the lands.

Brief History of Land Survey Laws

Early in the history of Colonial America, two land survey systems were practiced. One confined to the Northeast, called the New England System, was based upon prior survey of geometrical patterns. Here, land was distributed to town groups, then among individuals of the group who usually ended up with rather small tracts with limited choice. Boundaries of a town were always defined prior to the land grant.

The Southern System was based upon more loosely defined methods. Here, survey was accomplished after a land parcel was claimed and the choice of location rested with the settler. Normally, natural features such as rivers and creeks were used as boundaries.
Irregular shapes of land parcels were the rule. The advantage to the system, of course, was that the settler could claim the best land in an area, and
reject the unsuitable portions such as swamp land or generally poor soils.

In order to reduce the Revolutionary War debt, the selling of frontier lands became a necessity. Yet the two systems already in practice were not deemed suitable because each carried many disadvantages. The northern system discouraged individual family migration by favoring the social group, and the southern system proved difficult to accurately survey; thus land titles were constantly in dispute.

The Ordinance of 1785 represented a compromise between the two systems. It became known as the Rectangular System. Here, all government-owned lands were divided into townships, six square miles, and further subdivided into 36 sections of 640 acres (one square mile) per section. Sections sold at a minimum price of one dollar per acre. Congress reserved four sections for government purposes, one section to sustain public schools, and later one for religion. One third of all mineral wealth was reserved, too. Sections were numbered in a south to north direction starting at the southeast corner and ending at the northwest corner (see Figure 1).

What is now eastern Ohio was the first area to be surveyed, and it is referred to as the "Seven Ranges" simply because Congress deemed that seven ranges were to be surveyed before settlement could occur. Work began, using the Ohio River as an eastern boundary for the seven ranges.

Eleven years later, in May of 1796, several changes were made in the survey law. Figure 2 illustrates the change in the section numbering system, but there were other changes, too. Most were survey engineering modifications and, to the delight of the surveyors, pay was increased to three dollars per mile. In the following years many additional modifications were made in an attempt to make the system more efficient. On April 25, 1812, the General Land Office was established, and given the responsibility and duty to "...superintend, execute, and perform all such acts and things touching or respecting the public lands of the United States...."

Not all surveying was accomplished by the government. The Ohio Company of Associates, for example, purchased land to survey and sell to settlers migrating to the area. Over a million acres of land were involved so that settlement might be encouraged and land could be held against the Native Americans. The eastern boundary of the purchase abutted the western edge of the Seven Ranges. The company terminated activities by 1849.

Oregon Lands

The Donation Land Act of September 1850 had several effects on Oregon Territory. First, it provided for the survey of all public lands and briefly outlined their disposition. Here, 320 acres were granted to male citizens over 18 or those who declared the intent to become a citizen by December 1, 1851. However, that land must have been occupied for at least four consecutive years prior to December 1, 1850. If the settler was married or became married by December 1, 1851, an additional 320 acres were deeded to his wife. Thus, the act served to legitimize all settlement before 1850. For others settling the area between December 1, 1850, and 1853, only 160 acres were granted, with the same amount for their wives.

Clearly, the act acknowledged the importance of women in the pioneer effort to some degree, although single women were not granted land. Needless to say, marriages reached very high proportions, and as one writer suggests, "...old maid, at that time, was an unwed female of twelve years...." Single women became very scarce.

The large size of the grants isolated many of the settlers, and probably prevented the rapid growth of towns. In the Willamette Valley, for example, crops, occupations, and commerce were not diverse. There was a tendency, it seems, toward localism. This, of course, had implications for the earl y economic growth of the area.

At any rate, survey of public lands began June 4, 1851. The Willamette Meridian, north-south line, was located near the mouth of the Willamette River in a position so that once the line crossed the Columbia River, it would not intersect it again. The Base Line, or east-west line, was drawn from the Willamette Meridian 7 3/4 miles south of the Willamette's mouth, then east to the Cascades Mountains to once again avoid the Columbia River. The Intersection of these lines became known as the Willamette Stone.

Many of the individuals who settled the lands prior to the Donation Land Act requested their lands be surveyed in order to receive their titles. In some instances, however, surveyors noted that many individuals simply waited for them, especially those filing under the Homestead Act of 1862. One surveyor wrote:

It was not uncommon to find squatters on unsurveyed land, waiting for
the survey so that they could file for a homestead. And this township was
no exception. In fact there were two squatters in this instance with
buildings and other improvements well established.

We were not long on the job when we ran across the claim of Adolph
Schwagerman, a crusty, stocky-built old Swede with a stubby beard and
heavy eyebrows, who looked more like one of Bluebeard's pirates than a
peaceful settler. He was about sixty-five years of age and was dressed in
home-made buckskin clothes, complete with a hairy hat without a brim.

It was evident from his conversation that he would have been more
pleased if the land was never surveyed so long as he was not disturbed in
his peaceful location. He told us in no uncertain terms that he knew we
were coming for his head began to ache a few days before anyone came
near. He had a well-built cabin with a shake roof which was rather long
for its width, and the reason for this arrangement of its three rooms. The
entrance was at one end of the cabin, and the first room was the barn for
his one horse which he used to pack in supplies twice each year. The next
room was the wood shed, which was filled each fall with a supply of
wood to last him through the winter, and the third room at the other end
was a kitchen-living-bedroom combination. A large fireplace provided the
heat. Over the fireplace hung a large sword of a cutlass type, generally
associated with pirates. Along the walls, filling all available space, were
bookshelves filled with books and magazines, mostly standard works of
literatures such as Shakespeare, Scott, Victor Hugo, etc. He was
apparently well read, for he often quoted from various authors, especially
Shakespeare. While we were working in the vicinity, he often followed us
on the line, talking incessantly, and when in a jovial mood he would
suddenly burst out with his favorite song:

"I'm just as happy as a big sunflower,
That blooms and nods in the breezes.
My heart is as light as the wind that blows
The leaves from off the treeses."

We heard many stories concerning his past life: one that he was a former
seaman with a questionable reputation and that he had retired to the
mountains to live down a past life, that he made only two trips each year
to Camas Valley or Roseburg to pack in supplies and reading matter, and
that when his horse broke its leg, he killed the animal and dried its meat
and sold it for elk meat.

For those interested in reading surveyor notes and examining plot maps, the Bureau of Land Management in Portland is the repository of work done by the General Land Office. Information is contained on microfilm or microfiche. Copies of notes and maps can be made at modest costs. Most of the surveys made extremely detailed maps accompanied by very copious notes. Information regarding trails, vegetation, existing structures, soil quality, slope, and so on are commonplace in their notations. For example, the surveyors of the area established for the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation noted that most of the land was not really suitable for habitation.

Bench Marks

Unlike the miners, foresters, farmers and others who are considered to be early inhabitants of the hinterlands, the surveyors left virtually no physical remains. They did not disturb the land, nor did they have permanent encampments. They were extremely mobile. They did, however, leave bench marks which serve as reference points for their measurements. Most of us have seen these features, but may not fully understand their meaning.

There are two forms of bench marks. One is circular bronze or aluminum. It is 3 1/2 inches in diameter and 1/4 of an inch thick. The stem, 3 inches in length, is cemented into a hole drilled into rock, or some other permanent structure. The other type is used when no permanent feature is available. This 4 foot long, 3 1/2 inch diameter, form is set into the ground and a cap is fastened to the top. One other style is used to mark points considered to be unimportant.

All caps are then lettered with the appropriate information. The name of the state is lettered on the cap where states have cooperated with the survey work. Numbers on the cap refer to elevations to the nearest foot from mean sea level. Mean sea level is that level that the sea would assume if the influence of tides and winds were not present. In other words, it is the average height of the water with all stages of the tide being considered.

Glossary of Selected Surveyor's Terms

Chain 66 feet
Dough God Baked bread in a frying pan. Stiff dough mixed and placed in a frying pan and browned. A staple of the field surveyors.
Link 7.92 inches
Mile 80 chains or 320 rods
Rod 16 1/2 feet (measure set by Henry VIII in England)

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Billington, Ray, and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion. 5th ed. New York,
Macmillan, 1982.

Ernst, Joe. With Compass and Chain. New York, Arno Press, c1958 (reprinted
1979).

Marshall, Robert. Spirit Leveling in Oregon. (U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin, no. 462) Washington, D.C., U. S. Government Printing Office, 1911.

Stewart, Lowell. Public Land Surveys. Ames, Iowa, Collegiate Press, 1935.

Stout, Ray. "Section Lines and Dough Gods." Roseburg, Oregon, Umpqua
Trapper, vol. 1, no. 3, 1968.

White, Albert. A History of the Rectangular Survey System. Washington, D.C., U. S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, U. S. Government
Printing Office, 1985.

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