Where the Land Came From

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Rick Zimmerman

The rectangular Public Lands Survey system was generated in the US west of the Appalachians through the innovative genius of Thomas Jefferson.  He was the surveying Representative from Virginia who chaired the transfer of 80% of his native state, 172 million acres, into the US Western Lands.  Thomas was the son of a surveyor, Peter (co-author of the Jefferson-Fry map of Virginia).

By 1802, the US had imposed the rectangular Public Lands Survey system on its Western Lands from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, excepting only Virginia's Kentucky (1792 statehood) and North Carolina's Tennessee (1796 statehood).  The story in general follows.  In 1776, the Continental Congress declared thirteen colonies independent, invited the Canadian provinces to join, and offered a land bounty to regular enlistees in the Continental Army.  Congress had no land to transfer, but hoped to negotiate cessions from seven states with extensive Crown grants (MA, CT, NY, VA, NC, SC, GA).  Maryland, without such a grant, refused to offer the bounty to its citizens.  It and others (NH, RI, PA, DE, NJ) feared that the grant states would sell their lands only to their vets, or pocket the money.  Enterprising Maryland refused to promise recruits land, but instead offered a $10 cash bounty.

The other states feared a bidding war to meet their quotas from Congress.  Each side took into account the gravest concerns of the other to reach a compromise.  Three-year enlistment brought cash bonuses; regulars in for the duration received both cash and a land bounty.

In the original draft of the Articles of the Confederation, Congress would have disposed of the Western Lands.  But the copy forwarded to the states for ratification explicitly denied Congress authority to deprive states' territory for the benefit of the US.  Delaware and New Jersey were won over from their initial opposition to the Articles, but Maryland remained aloof.

New York first offered to cede its claims, then Connecticut, then Virginia fell into line, but its qualifications involved Congress in another three years of arguing.  Once Maryland signed the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the onus was back on Virginia.

The Virginia legislature sought to forestall Indian-granted titles to special interests which overlapped titles given to former colonies.  Congress accommodated Virginia when it took over Virginia's cession as a "common fund" in 1783, thus bypassing the speculator's Indian title claims.

With Jefferson chairing the committee authoring Western Lands cessions and surveying systems, the conflicting (and easily abused) Indian, Crown and colonial systems were abolished.  Parcels were then referenced according to grids, scientifically repeatable by Jefferson's fellow surveyors.  Only greed and duplicity could compromise the system, and once uncovered, land grabbers and speculators did not create endless domino effects among homesteaders, since legitimate settlers staked their claims relative to the grid system.

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