Surveying in the Early Midwest

Author: Dennis Kovener, 1986 surverying-in-the-early-midwest

"Surveying is the art of determining the relative positions of prominent points and other objects on the surface of the ground and making a graphical delineation of the included area. The general principles on which it is conducted are in all instances the same; certain measures are made on the ground and corresponding measures are protracted on paper, on a scale which is fixed at whatever fraction of the natural scale may be most appropriate in each instance. The method of operation varies with the magnitude and importance of the survey, which may embrace a vast empire or be restricted to a small plot of land. All surveys rest primarily on linear measures for direct determinations of distance; but these are usually largely supplemented by angular measures, to enable distances to be deduced by the principles of geometry which cannot be conveniently measured over the surface of the ground where it is hilly or broken." (Americanized Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1895, vol. Ix, p; 5635)

Included in the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 were provisions for the surveying of the Northwest Territory. Only seven ranges (rows of townships, one township or six miles wide, running north and south) in eastern Ohio were surveyed under the Ordinance of 1785. The lands of the Ohio Company grant, just west of these seven ranges, were surveyed on a system completely different than the rectilinear system (townships of 36 square miles, divided into one-square-mile sections) mandated by the Ordinance of 1785.

Following the addition of territory under the Treaty of Greenville (1795), this territory was surveyed along the rectilinear system; the section-numbering scheme was reworked in 1796, with section numbers beginning with 1 at the northeast corner, numbered consecutively to the west to 6, back to the east in the next row for sections 7 to 12, and alternating west to east through the rest of the section, ending with section 36 in the southeast corner of the township.

This section-numbering system was continued through the surveys of the remainder of the Northwest Territory. To aid the surveyors, principal meridian lines from which other surveying lines were measured were established, the first of which was at the eastern border of Indiana Territory. The meridian system and the rectangular system of townships were used not only in the Old Northwest but in all the U.S. territories (except Texas) surveyed thereafter. (Buley, The Old Northwest, 1:115-118).

Surveying Instruments

Surveying instruments were continually being improved through the mid-1850s, but a few basic pieces were used by almost every surveyor of the period. Equipment used by George Washington while surveying included: a brass plain (or plane) surveying compass, a jacob staff, a surveyor's chain and poles, an "18 inch Circumferentor with Sights to let down," a lodestone, a twelve inch brass Gunter [scale], full and compleat, one side to have inches and 10ths and the other inches and l2ths as usual," a brass parallel rule, and a case of surveyor's plotting instruments. (Bedini, Thinkers and Tinkers, p. l~4).

Jared Mansfield, surveyor-general for the surveys of the Indiana Territory, ordered his instruments from London: "A three-foot Reflecting Telescope, mounted in the best manner, with powers, lever-motion, Wollaston's Catalogue of the Stars, Mackelyne 's Observations and Tables, A thirty inch Portable Transit Instrument, answering also the purpose of an Equal Altitude Instrument and Therdolete, An Astronomical Pendulum Clock." (Dudley, "Jared Mansfield," p. 238).

The instruments used by colonial and Revolutionary surveyors were generally imported from England. After the Revolution, some instruments were made by skilled metalworkers in the East; the makers of astronomical instruments were usually mathematicians as well. The brass used for instrument-making was entirely imported from England until the second quarter of the 19th century, making even domestic-made instruments quite expensive. Some instrument makers experimented, using wood to replace certain brass parts. Most of the precision instruments produced before the 19th century were navigational devices. As the nation expanded westward, the need for surveying equipment grew, and production gradually shifted from nautical to land-measuring devices. (Bedini, pp. 186-187).

The most basic tools used in surveying were the chain and stakes, jacob staff, plain surveying compass, plane table, and transit; a theodolite often took the place of the compass and transit. The standard measuring chain was of the type called Gunter's chain, consisting of 100 links totaling 66 feet (7.92 inches per link). This was also called a four-pole chain, since it contained four poles (also called "perches" or "rods") of 16½ feet each. (Bedini, pp. 463-~64). These chains were usually made of wrought iron or steel.

In 1796, in an effort to standardize measurements, Congress commissioned David Rittenhouse to construct a surveyor's chain to serve as a standard for the U.S. Land Office. Rittenhouse produced a chain of 80 links measuring 66 feet (9.9 inches per link), made of brass. (Bedini, p. 317). This was presumably the prototype for chains used to measure territory under the system of 1796 (which included Indiana Territory).

The jacob staff was a long, straight wooden rod, usually round, which was used as a base for surveying instruments. One end was steel- pointed and sunk into the ground; the other was fitted with a brass head on which the instrument was mounted. Tripods, or three-legged stands, were also used, and probably provided a firmer base of support for the instruments.

The plain surveying compass ... was relatively easy to produce in wood. It consisted primarily of a circular body flat on the top and bottom, which could be easily turned on a lathe with a cavity inside which would accommodate a compass card and needle which would be protected with a glass pane set in putty. From the central body two arms extended which were slotted at each end to receive sighting bars which were whittled and fitted into place but could be removed for traveling. A turned piece of wood with a circular opening in its center was attached to the center of the bottom of the instrument so that it could be attached to a tripod or jacob staff. The compass card was generally the type used for marine compasses and engraved with the compass rose. A cover was also provided, cut from pine or other inexpensive wood, with leather thongs with which it could be tied over the glass pane of the compass (Bedini, p. 196)

Wooden surveying compasses were apparently produced solely in the New England colonies, and were made in substantial quantities from around 17240 through about 1825. (Bedini, p. 196). Brass was apparently used for most of these instruments produced elsewhere.


The theodolite was a 10- to 12-inch circle of brass having a limb divided into 3600 and again subdivided. A circumferentor (a device with sighting ridges used in measuring angles) was set into this ring, and a compass inset into the circumferentor. In early versions, a pair of sights was attached to turn on the center of the instrument; after 1720 a telescope replaced the sights. This instrument was used to measure angles of the field or the bearing of stationary distance lines from the meridian. Its chief disadvantage, as of the plain surveying compass, was that the sights or telescope could not revolve completely on the axis, limiting the sightings that could be taken before repositioning the device. (Bedini, pp. 2485-2486).

The surveyor's transit was basically a plain surveying compass with the sighting bars replaced with a telescope. This allowed horizontal and vertical angles of an objective to be measured simultaneously. The transit was an improvement over the surveying compass and the theodolite in that the telescope could be completely revolved on its axis. Transits were first produced commercially in about 1830 in Philadelphia, and soon achieved widespread use.

The plane table was a smooth wooden panel which was attached to a jacob staff or tripod. It was equipped with sighting bars on each end and a removable metal bar in the center; one edge was marked into a scale of equal parts, and another with divisions of the semicircle. This table served as a field desk on which maps and charts were made; plotting information obtained from the compass or transit was transferred to the paper clamped in place on the plane table, and the information could be checked with the sights on the table. (Bedini, p. 478).

Other instruments, primarily variations of those listed, were also used, but the listed devices were the ones most commonly used in American surveying to the mid-l9th century.

Education and Texts

Many of the early American surveyors were self-taught or learned the techniques from friends or as apprentices. George Washington was taught surveying by some of his early schoolteachers, attaining a high degree of proficiency in the art by the age of fifteen. (Bedini, p. 144)

In many Eastern cities, classes in surveying were offered as part of night schooling conducted for local apprentices. These night classes also served students requiring additional study before entering college.

Among the earliest academies offering courses in surveying were those at Charleston, SC, opened in 1712; New York, founded by John Walton, a Yale graduate, in 1723; and Boston, taught by John Vinal in 1727. Isaac Greenwood, a professor at Harvard, gave evening lectures during the school year and taught a private school during college vacation. Thomas Godfrey and Andrew Lamb set up evening schools in the practical sciences in Philadelphia before 1750. Among later schools were those taught by Robert Patterson in Philadelphia, 1768-1774, and by Christopher Colles in Philadelphia and New York. (Bedini, pp.155-162).


Many of these schools, particularly those in port cities, placed emphasis on teaching navigation, although the general course work included surveying and other branches of mathematics. As the western lands were opened and the demand for surveyors increased, it is probable that many of these schools shifted their emphasis toward surveying.

One of the major training centers for surveyors in the early 1800s was the Military Academy at West Point. Graduates of the Academy supervised all government surveys during the early nineteenth century. They constituted the first group of well trained professional surveyors in this country. (Bedini, pp. 364-366).

The first text on surveying designed for the condition of land grants in the New World was Geodaesia, or the Art of Surveying and Measuring of Land Made Easie, by John Love. First published in 1688, the book had gone through eleven English editions by 1792; two American editions were published shortly after that date. (Bedini, p. 53).

Suggested Reading:

Robert Gibson, A Treatise on Practical Surveying various American editions, 1803 to 1835

Abel Flint, A System of Geometry and Trigonometry; together with a treatise on surveying Hartford, CT: various editions,

Jacob Gummere, A Treatise on Surveying ... to which is affixed a perspicuous system of plane trigonometry, Philadelphia: various editions, l8l7

Frederic Walter Simms, A Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Levelling ..., Baltimore, 1837
(Buley, 1:123)

Surveying Techniques

Pre-1850 surveying techniques appear to have been fairly similar to more modern practices. While the early instruments may have been somewhat different, the object was the same: to determine the boundaries and area of a given piece of land, or the course of a given road. A description of more modern techniques and the uses of period instruments can be found in the appendices of this report.

By far the best description of early surveying practices in the Old Northwest is found in C.S. Woodard's "The Public Domain, its Surveys and Surveyors."

R. Carlyle Buley offered a basic overview of surveying in the Old Northwest: short on specifics but a good general study of surveying practices. The technique of Joel Baily, one of the surveyors of the Mason-Dixon line, was more fully described by Silvio A. Bedini:

Joel Baily was one of the few colonial members of the Mason and Dixon enterprise, and one whose role was of some significance. A farmer, gunsmith, self-taught clock-maker, sometime maker of surveying instruments, and surveyor, Baily lived in West Bradford, Chester County, three miles from the observatory on Harland's farm. He worked with the English surveyors from time to time as needed from 1764 through 1768 and occasionally producedspecialized instruments and surveying aids for them. When measurement was begun of the courses from Harland's farm southward to the Middle Point, Baily constructed sturdy pine frames to support the brass-tipped fir rods 20 feet long serving as surveying levels. Each frame was fitted with a plumb line hanging within a tube at its center, set up with the rod in a horizontal position along the line being measured, and its position marked to 1/100 inch on a stake placed at the lower point of the plumb bob. The next frame was placed in line end to end and aligned by the plumb line. The rods were periodically checked against a 5-foot brass standard of length which had been provided by the Royal Society. The levels were used in this manner for a distance of almost 82 miles, a major undertaking which Baily accomplished competently. According to Mason's journal, Baily also recorded the daily temperature over a period of several months in 1767 with a Fahrenheit thermometer that was part of the equipment. A plain surveying compass made by Baily in 1765, which has survived, may have been produced for the use of the Mason and Dixon party. (Bedini, p. 139)

Hervey Parke, a surveyor in Michigan in the 182Os and 1830s, and later in Wisconsin and Iowa, described his surveying experiences in his 1876 Reminiscences. He wrote that forward chainmen called "tally sixteen" when a corner was reached (sixteen chains). (Parke, p. 580).

In surveying then-remote areas of Michigan, Parke and his crew often camped outdoors during their travels, sometimes carrying packs of blankets and provisions into swampy areas where horses were unable to go.

In the prairie country we occasionally carried poles from two to three inches in diameter, from which to cut posts to set in mounds every half mile, when raised in the spring. These posts we marked with the marking iron -- township, range, and section. I have occasionally entered a prairie with three poles, equal to nine posts, with compass and staff in hand.

... in a prairie country the corners are made by raising mounds of earth two and one-half feet high; in the top a stake is driven and inscribed with marking-iron, denoting townLshipj, range and section. (Parke, "Reminiscences," pp. 590, 585)

Techniques used by surveyors working in Indiana before 1850 were not determined. John Tipton's letters frequently mentioned various surveys in which he was engaged, but provided no details on them. (John Tipton Papers, 2:passim)

Money appears to have been a problem for many surveyors. The surveyors often advanced money to their deputies, whose accounts were settled with funds placed to their credit by the government, and paid by the surveyors general. In 1844 the government agreed to pay the surveyors directly. (Dudley, "Jared Mansfield," p. 244).

Surveyors in Central Indiana

John E. Stretcher advertised his services as a practical surveyor in the August 20, 1836 issue of the Indiana Journal. His ad was repeated in the next issue, along with another ad offering a surveying compass and chains for sale. (Indiana Journal, Aug. 20, 1836, p. 3; Aug. 27, 1836, p. 3).

Stretcher is the only professional surveyor in Marion County about whom even this much information is available. The following individuals filled the office of county surveyor in Marion County from 1827:

Isaac Kinder, Feb. 19, 1827 to Nov. 7, 1831

George L. Kinnard, Dec. 12, 1831 - Mar. 25, 1835

Isaac Kinder, Apr. 6, 1835 - Oct. 2, 1835

Robert B. Hanna, Oct. 3, 1835 - Nov. 7, 1836

William Sullivan, Nov. 11, 1836 - Nov. 11, 1839

(Sulgrove, History of Indianapolis, p. 497)

No information on the job any of these men did as county surveyor was found in the sources consulted; it seems likely, however, that many of them probably did some work on various internal improvement projects in the county.

In Hamilton County, Nathan Hockett's 1839 probate included one "Set of plotting instruements" and, among other books, an introduction to Algebra and "Gummers Surveying." (Hamilton County Probates, part B, p. 160). Hamilton County likewise chose county surveyors: R.L. Hannaman, 1828 to 1830; James Hughey, 1830-1834; Ira Kingsbury, 1835-1836; James Hughey, 1837-1840. (Shirts, Primitive History, p. 74).

The major surveying projects in Hamilton County during the 1830s involved the laying out of roads. Whenever a new road was proposed to the County Commissioners, a team of men was appointed to locate the road and determine its usefulness and necessity to the county. This team included supervisors, surveyors (their job described as "surveying" or "locating"), chainmen who measured the road, and markers or blazers, who cut identifying notches in the trees along the road. Payment for all these jobs varied according to the number of days spend and, apparently, the nature of the road (state road, county road, etc.). (Hamilton County Court of County Commissioners records, passim.)


The Americanized Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1895

Bedini, Silvio A., Thinkers and Tinkers

Buley, C. Carlyle, The Old Northwest

Chambers's Encyclopaedia, 1879

Dudley, Charlotte W., "Jared Mansfield: United States Surveyor General" Ohio History 85:231246

Freidel, Frank, G. Washington Man and Monument

Greene, John C., American Science in the Age of Jefferson

Hamilton County Court of County Commissioners records

Hamilton County Probates

Indiana Journal, Aug. 20, 1836; Aug. 27, 1836

Parke, Hervey, "Reminiscences," Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, III (1879-80), pp. 572-590

Robertson, Nellie Armstrong, and Dorothy Riker, eds., Tipton Papers

Shirts, Augustus Finch, Primitive History of Hamilton County

Sulgrove, B. R., History of Indianapolis and Marion County

Woodard, C.S., "The Public Domain, its Surveys and Surveyors," Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, XXVII (1896)

Equipment images from Arbor, Tools & Trades of America's Past (Doylestown, PA, 1981)