Land surveys describe pre-settlement landscapes

Ray Mueller

OSHKOSH – Ever wonder why there's a gentle curve in the roadway when crossing a township line in Wisconsin?

The reason might well be due to errors by the original land surveying by the federal government from 1832 to 1866, attendees learned at the 2017 Toward Harmony with Nature conference sponsored for the 21st year by the Fox Valley Area chapter of Wild Ones.

Wild Ones has a special interest in the notes about native plants taken by the surveyors who were working for the United States General Land Office. Those notes and accompanying maps are available today at Specific sites can be accessed by the township, range and section.

Survey setting

Rob Nurre portraying David Giddings

During the conference here, Rob Nurre of Baraboo appeared in a character portrayal as David Giddings, who worked in parts of east central Wisconsin in 1839 as a deputy surveyor. Nurre read selections for Range 18, Section 24 from the notes of Giddings, who was one of the early founders of Sheboygan Falls in Sheboygan County and who was a state legislator and unsuccessful candidate for higher public offices.

Nurre is a landscape historian who worked as the land records manager for the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands for several years. He has also been a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

During in character entrance at the conference, Nurre expressed wonder at the features of the building he was in. He was also curious about the “people carrying crickets in their pockets” — a reference to portable electronic and battery operated devices.

Surveyor's techniques

When the Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836, the land survey starting point was based in the southwest part of the state about 10 miles from the border of the Illinois Territory, Nurre pointed out. The measurements were in distances of 6 miles north and east for the range and for sections in township squares of six miles. Each section consisted of 640 acres (one square mile).

The surveyor's task was to measure every one mile with a 66-foot chain — 80 such measurements for one mile. For accuracy, this meant that the chain had to be taut and level for each of the 80 placements, Nurre explained. On a good day, a surveyor team could cover 10 miles.

A compass was used to assure the proper orientation in order to maintain direct north and south lines, Nurre noted. Referring to a Range 18 north in the Oshkosh area, he said this means the site is 128 miles to the north of the starting point of the survey in southwest Wisconsin.

Each township had 36 sections. At the time, much of the land was sold in blocks of 40 acres at $1.25 per acre. “That was a fairly good deal,” Nurre remarked.

Marking points

Given the available resources at the time, pins were placed and then trees were often chosen to mark every one half and full mile on the survey lines. The survey team included an ax man who blazed or trimmed 4- or 5-foot saplings with a square pointing to the four directions.

The township range and section number were then inscribed to a wooden post or tree serving as the marker. “So there was no reason for anyone to get lost,” Nurre quipped.

For each full size township, the surveyors had to cover a distance of 60 miles and four markers were placed at the township corners, Nurre pointed out. He noted that there were also some fractional townships because of land still belonging to native American tribes. Some treaties were not completed until after the surveying of the land then owned by the federal government had begun in the 1830s.

Problem situations

Despite the efforts of the surveyors, there were some instances of mischief, Nurre indicated. There were cases in which the early settlers removed the surveyor's marking posts in order to acquire more land, he observed.

In the notes that Giddings compiled in 1839, he cited instances in which settlers, also referred to as squatters, who arrived before it was legal to own the property, had claimed land parcels along rivers, Nurre reported. The Giddings notes also described marshes, fields and trees such as burr oak and hickory in the area, he added. Nurre wishes a lot more such documentation would have been created and available to researchers today.

Cartographers used the data supplied by surveyors to create plat maps, Nurre indicated. These then served as references for land buyers at auctions in Green Bay and elsewhere.

Measurement discrepancies

With the approximately 125,000 miles of survey lines that were created in Wisconsin over more than three decades in the original round (resurveys were conducted from 1858 to 2009), there were bound to be some mistakes in measurement, Nurre acknowledged.

Giddings discovered that one of his measurements was off by two chain links — each link was 7.92 inches — over a distance of one mile, Nurre pointed out. He said such errors were reconciled at the north and west edges of a township, thereby leaving the owners with land parcels either larger or smaller than 40 acres or multiples of 40.

If such errors met at a town or county line, that could well be the reason for an otherwise unexplained curve in the roadway which crosses the border, Nurre indicated. With a few exceptions such as Texas and Louisiana, he said most of the states joining the country after the original 13 colonies had land surveys to create township lines.