As It Were: Grid helped surveys grow from metes and bounds
The new country called the United States ended its successful struggle for independence owning an empire more than twice the size of its original 13 colonies.
In the agreements ending the American Revolution, Great Britain had ceded most of the land west of the Appalachians and south of Canada and west to the Mississippi to the new country.
And it is well that they did.
The new United States virtually was penniless and was looking at an army that had been largely paid with promises. A number of creditors also were looking for compensation.
Having little money and no real ability to tax, the new government looked to the one thing it could sell, barter or give: It had title to some of most fertile land in the world.
It was a land occupied by Native Americans and a remnant collection of British and French trappers, traders and soldiers. But in that new land north and west of the Ohio River, America’s new leaders saw release from debt and remnant groups that would be talked into leaving, bought into leaving or, if necessary, forced into leaving.
What followed was a complex process. Several of the original eastern states stood by royal charters that gave states like Connecticut and Virginia land grants all the way to the Mississippi River. Eventually, these claims would be resolved.
The place where the claims were resolved was that portion of the Northwest Territory closest to the Appalachians.
Connecticut released its claims but continued to hold for itself a Western Reserve in what is now the northeast quarter of Ohio.
Virginia reserved an even larger pie-shaped wedge of land between the Miami and Scioto rivers and ending near the sources of the two rivers.
There were several other major grants of land made about this same time.
A group of people called the Ohio Company of Associates were forming a colony that would purchase a large tract near the mouth of the Muskingum River and settle there at Marietta in 1788.
All this was being overseen by the American government that had been in place since 1777.
The government of the Articles of Confederation was less a government and more of an assembly of men who did not like or trust each other that much. It was a system that did not work too well.
Yet, in 1785, that government issued what later would be seen as a wondrous decree. The Land Ordinance of 1785 set out a system by which land – purchased, given or bequeathed – could be located. Almost a century later, an Ohio college resident explained the process:
“It provided for a rectangular system of surveys, dividing the public domain into ranges, townships and sections, the boundaries all being in the direction of the cardinal points of the compass, so that a locality is designated by its distance east or west from a given meridian and north or south of a given parallel, as a ship’s place at sea is designated by longitude and latitude. The starting point was at the place of intersection of the west line of Pennsylvania with the north bank of the Ohio.”
Initially, in 1785, surveyor Thomas Hutchins laid out seven ranges of 6-by-6-mile townships in eastern Ohio. The grid he perfected would march across Ohio and across America – with some exceptions.
The most notable exception was the Virginia Military District.
Land in the district was allocated by the system called “metes and bounds.” Under this system, one would locate the land one wanted and avoided nearby swamps or other impediments. The land was laid out from “ye river” to “ye tree” to “ye big rock” to “ye river” and back to the start.
This method left some land unsurveyed, left other land surveyed twice and made for all sorts of problems for later surveys when “ye tree” and “ye rock” were gone.
The system used by Hutchins and the men who followed him laid out a grid that avoided these problems.
Surveyor Lucas Sullivant understood these concerns and dealt with them as he surveyed much of the land in central Ohio west of the Scioto River.
He took his pay in land, and by the time he was done, he owned most of the land from Bokes Creek in Delaware County south to where the Big Darby Creek emptied into the Scioto near Circleville and from the Scioto to what is now Greene County.
Sullivant was the founder of frontier Franklinton and one of the biggest landowners in Ohio. But as he looked across the river at the forks of the Scioto, he knew that he would not be able to survey the “high banks” and take payment in land for his work. That land was grid-survey land and belonged to others.
It was called the Refugee Tract and was set aside for people from Nova Scotia who had been loyal to the American Revolution and had lost their property as a result.
The Refugee Tract is where downtown Columbus is today.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.