Surveying History

by Terry Hogan

Despite the claim of environmental awareness, thousands and thousands of pages of regulations published each year to protect the environment, and the congressional debate on whether the EPA is a bureaucracy "running amuck," one small segment of our community has had a dramatic effect on the Midwestern landscape and goes unnoticed and unfettered. The influence is so pronounced, so prevalent and so pervasive, that it is no longer part of our recognition. It is rooted in our history, but largely unrecorded in our folklore. It is like a chronic ringing in the ear that we cease to hear. It only become noticeable if we step out of our daily environment. Look out the airplane window. What do you see in Knox County: farms, roads, cities and towns. Look again.

Did Mother Nature impose the rectangular grid system upon the face of Knox County, on Illinois, on the Midwest? Why is rural acreage generally in discrete increments such as 40, 80 or 160 acres? Why are country roads straight like an arrow, but then suddenly have a sharp zigzag? Who determined that the new interstate should travel through the front room of the old family homestead or that the rail line would pass between the barn and the field? Have you noticed that Knox County itself has a suspicious rectangular shape to it? No matter where you look, the land surveyor has been there, measured it and recorded it.

The surveyor is responsible for the Midwestern boring landscape of one rectangular field after another. Even the most hilly areas are overlaid with a rectangular template. Walk through the woods and you'll encounter property fences (good fences make good neighbors) in a straight line, with 90 degree corners, without regard to slope, stream, tree, or rock. Is Mother Nature fenced in or out?

Most of us have heard some story fragment or two of George Washington Gale and associates founding Galesburg. Perhaps you have an image of this band traveling west and upon divine inspiration or sheer exhaustion, finding the flat prairie, free of trees, with dependable water supply, declaring this to be the site of Galesburg. In fact, this area was already a defined part of the Military Tract of Illinois. It was land set aside by Congress as bounties to the veterans of the War of 1812. Remaining lands not claimed in this manner were opened up to others. In 1820, Congress set the price of the land at $1.25 per acre. Nehemiah West and Silvanus Ferris traveled to the area and selected the land to become Galesburg. They traveled to Quincy via Oquawka ("Yellow Banks") and then down the river to buy 10,336.81 acres from the US government.

Land speculators are not a recent phenomenon. It seems that Richard Barrett from Knoxville found out about the plans to lay out a village and traveled to Quincy before West and Ferris. He bought alternate 80-acre blocks in a line through the tract in anticipation of reaping economic benefit. His line selection was a little off, however. The line ran through the proposed surrounding farm land, rather than through the proposed village.

After completing their purchasing task in Quincy, West and Ferris returned to Knoxville and had the purchased land surveyed by George A. Charles of Knoxville, the official surveyor for Knox County. A square mile was reserved for the village and two more sections for the campus and associated farm. The outlying land was marked off in 80-acre tracts. The town was named Galesburgh (the "h" was dropped later) and the streets were named for those present­­ West, Waters, Ferris, Simmons, Tompkins, and for the absent Kellogg. As we know, the streets were laid out in a grid pattern, providing the organized, although somewhat predictable, footprint of another Midwestern town.

Of course, this brief glimpse of history functions to show the impact of land surveyors even in the early 1800s in undeveloped Illinois. The surveyors' efforts are reflected everywhere. Counties in the Midwest prairie are divided into townships, six miles square (36 square miles), in rows of 6 square miles each. Each square mile is a "section" and each bears a number beginning in the upper right hand corner of the county (northeast), running west to number 6, and back to the next row, again numbering toward the east, resulting in the southeast corner section being 36. Each section contains 640 acres, that can be subdivided by halves, quarters, and eighths. An eighth of a section is 80 acres, driving the size selection by both Galesburg's founders, and the land speculator, Richard Barrett.

Knox County currently consists of 20 townships. The townships are arranged four across and five down. It originally had 22 townships but two were removed in the process of forming Stark county in 1839. This rectangular grid system accounts for the shape of Knox County and the patchwork quilt pattern of the farm fields most easily discerned from above.

Roads generally run between the townships, further emphasizing the checkerboard. The periodic zigzag in roads, mentioned above, reflects a concession by the surveyor to Mother Nature; it is the adjustment for the curvature of the earth's surface.

How does this organized grid system coexist with the American folklore of the great independent frontiersman like Daniel Boone? Land surveying started before the American Revolution. The "Father of our Country" was one of them. Old George, being a notorious land speculator, was out surveying the lands west of Virginia before the American Revolution. In fact, some argue that the English effort to limit western expansion was a root cause of the Revolution. There was money to be made from the land west of the Appalachians. Land surveyors were always on the frontier edge of the western expansion. If the Indians had been smart, they would have selectively tracked down the land surveyors­­ the carriers of western civilization. They transmitted the concept of individual land ownership, largely alien to the native population of the Midwest.

The real life Daniel Boone not only carved out large segments of lands, claiming title to them for himself, but he also hired himself out to land speculators. He didn't carve out the Wilderness Trail from the goodness of his heart; he was paid by a land speculator who realized that if you created a trail, settlers would follow.

Originally, the lands were not neatly cut up into rectangular units. In the original colonies, land was routinely described by "metes and bounds." However the acquisition of large parcels of land by the newly independent nation required a more organized way of describing it. The government needed the quick and profitable sale of land. The Land Ordinance of 1785 was passed, being known as "The United States Rectangular Land Surveying System." This law, as amended and implemented, was the basis for the six mile square township that was to forever leave its mark on the face of America. By 1822, the familiar grid was imposed upon much of Illinois.

As America pushed west, so did the surveyor. John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, led the first exploration down the 1,000 miles of the Colorado River in 1869 with a crew of nine geologists, geographers, scouts, and adventurers. He was a surveyor and subsequently became the first Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Powell is credited with filling in the last white space on the map that represented the last unsurveyed area in the continental United States. One hundred years later, John Wesley Powell had a 6¢ postage stamp issued in honor of his efforts. It was, of course, rectangular.

This article posted to Zephyr online August 1, 1997
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