Land Hilly, Soil 2nd Rate – The Public Land Survey

By Ginny Gaynor, Maplewood Natural Resources Coordinator

In October and November1847, Deputy Surveyor Isaac N. Higbee and his crew trudged through the woodlands, wetlands, and savannas of Maplewood conducting the Public Land Survey.  Their field notes transport us back to the pre-settlement landscape:   “Rolling oak openings interspersed with lakes marshes & swamps,” “land hilly, soil 2nd rate,” “timber scattering bur & white oak.”
The Land Ordinance Act of 1785 provided a system for selling and settling land in the western territories and established a new survey system – the Public Land Survey System. The government did not have taxing authority at that time so selling land was a way to generate revenue. Before land was sold, it of course needed to be surveyed.  Most of Minnesota was surveyed between 1847 and 1907.
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The Public Land Survey System divides land into square townships that are six miles on each side. Each township is further divided into 36 square sections, each one square mile (640 acres).  Maplewood was carved out of two townships – Township 29 N Range 22 W (New Canada Township) and Township 28 N Range 22 W (McLean Township).
To survey a township, the crew had to measure and mark a grid of north-south and east-west lines each one mile apart. The Surveyor General was responsible for the survey work for a large region.  He contracted Deputy Surveyors who hired a crew, managed the survey in the field, and recorded the field notes. The Deputy Surveyor or a compassman handled the compass.  Chainmen hauled the measuring chain and measured distances. A chain was 66 feet long, had 100 links, and weighed four to ten pounds. Distances were measured in links and chains; a mile was 80 chains. Axmen cleared vegetation.  
At each ½ mile, the crew set a monument – typically a wooden post.  They also marked bearing trees near the post, by cutting blazes into a tree and carving an inscription. If the posts disappeared, the bearing trees could be used to determine property lines.  If there were no trees nearby, the survey crew dug a pit and created a mound of soil or rocks.
In the field notebook, the Deputy Surveyor jotted notes on bearing trees, vegetation, soil, and topography. Today these notes provide a glimpse of the pre-settlement landscape. For instance, the survey notes for Maplewood often mention “timber scattering” or “sparse bur, black and white oak timber,” which is a description of oak savanna. The bearing tree information has proved an invaluable recording of forest composition at the time of settlement. 
The surveyor’s notes occasionally have some fun tidbits, such as this general description of McLean Township (south Maplewood and St. Paul):
“This township is rough and broken 2nd rate sandy land timber Br Oak Black & White Oak Maple Elm Ash of a poor quality nothing remarkable about it.  The town of St Paul in Sec 6 is on a beautif[ul] site and will someday be a place of some importance.”
Today, this historic land survey still stands as a legal basis for real estate.  When you drive the major thoroughfares in Maplewood, such as Century, McKnight, County B, County C, you’re traveling the same mile lines the surveyors measured nearly 170 years ago.

Selected resources:
To access the Minnesota survey notes on-line: www.mngeo.state.mn.us/glo
TO access Wisconsin survey notes on-line: digicoll.library.wisc.edu/SurveyNotes
Diagrams explaining the grid system:  http://www.mngeo.state.mn.us/glo/Origin.htm