Tales and Tidbits: Surveying the land

By Lorna Hart - Special to the Sentinel

Map of Meigs County and its townships.

Map of Meigs County and its townships.

Courtesy Photo

Historian Zac Cunningham, pictured, is manager of Educational Programs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Courtesy Photo Lorna Hart | Courtesy

MEIGS COUNTY — With the opening of the Northwest Territory, surveyors were needed to measure boundaries and make maps in order for property to be sold and recorded. Upon arriving, surveyors found a wilderness difficult to traverse and to measure, and the number of requests made it almost impossible to keep up with the demand.

The profession of surveyor was considered a gentlemanly one and often taken up by men in the Colonies who were not landed gentry as a way of making an income and establishing themselves in the community.

There was no formal training, so young men interested in pursing the profession could read books to familiarize themselves with the job, but hands-on practice was the best way to learn, and many became apprentice to established surveyors.

President Thomas Jefferson began the process of selling land in the Northwest Territory to pay for debts of the newly formed United States. The land was sold in plots of 160 acres for $2.50 an acre or 80 acres for $1.25 an acre.

1786 marked the beginning of the formal survey of lands in the Northwest Territory that would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The survey is claimed to be the first major cadastral survey undertaken by any nation; the marked point now lies underwater on the state line between Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Zac Cunningham, a Meigs County native and Ohio University graduate, is currently Manager of Educational Programs at Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home. Cunningham provided insight into early surveying in the Colonies and George Washington’s connection to Meigs County.

The word surveyor first appeared in 1682. This relatively new profession used advanced technologically, and was essential in defining ownership of the land and natural resources.

“To Washington and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit,” he said. “In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.”

Cunningham added it was necessary for colonial-era farmers to have legally defined boundaries.

“They had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them. If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.”

George Washington was 15 when he took up the profession after purchasing a Gunter scale in1747. In 1748 he was asked to accompany a surveying group on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier, part of which is now West Virginia.

Washington again explored the area in the fall of 1750. An entry from his journal reads: “Walked part of bottom land in Great Bend of the Ohio, (Lebanon Township, Meigs County), the land as high, dry, and level as one could wish.”

The same tools and skills used by Washington were brought to the Northwest Territory and included a surveying compass on a tripod with “sighting vanes”.

“A surveying compass included sighting vanes” used to point the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object along the boundary line. These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.”

The distance between these targets was measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen. A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. By measuring the distance between targets the property’s boundaries were set, as well as its acreage.

Necessity altered the original chain length in the Colonies.

“Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical,” Cunningham said. “These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.”

According to Cunningham, it was not unusual for the lead chainman to find it necessary to clear his way straight through brush and undergrowth.

“To measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target,” he said. “Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth. Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.”

Once the fieldwork was completed, the surveyor drew a map or plat with a description of the property which were then copied and entered into the county survey book.

The group carried their own supplies and equipment, learning from earlier explorers the need to be self-sufficient.

There were at least seven members of the surveying compliment, the surveyor, two chainmen, two to hold the poles, horse and wagon with a driver, and a Long hunter for security.

The job was often romanticized with dangerous exploits that took the men into the “wilds of the back country.” What they found was an often a dangerous, unforgiving place that required preparedness and self – reliance.


Cadastral Survey: Operational program within the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior whose mission and focus includes performing legal boundary surveys for the Federal Government.

Chaining arrows or marking pins: Used to mark a point on the ground.

Colonial Tally Belt: Used to keep track of the number of chaining arrows.

Compass: Used to determine the bearing of a survey line.

Felling axe, hatchet, and Fascine knife: Used for clearing trees and brush from the survey line.

Gunter chain: Two 33-foot poles with fifty links used to measure distances.

Gunter Scale: Best described as a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve trigonometry problems common to surveying.

Longhunter (or long hunter): 18th-century explorer and hunter who made expeditions into the American frontier wilderness

Tree Scribe: knife for marking Witness trees.

Range Pole: Sighting point for the compass and drafting instruments for plat drawings.

Witness Trees: Documented trees that rested at the imaginary corners and angles of the parcels to mark their boundaries.

Map of Meigs County and its townships.
https://www.mydailysentinel.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2019/09/web1_Map-1.jpgMap of Meigs County and its townships. Courtesy Photo

Historian Zac Cunningham, pictured, is manager of Educational Programs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.
https://www.mydailysentinel.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2019/09/web1_Zac-1.jpgHistorian Zac Cunningham, pictured, is manager of Educational Programs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Courtesy Photo Lorna Hart | Courtesy

By Lorna Hart

Special to the Sentinel

Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at L.Faudree.Hart@gmail.com.

Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at L.Faudree.Hart@gmail.com.