The rectangular survey system was enacted by the Land Ordinance
Act of 1785. Now known as the Public Land Survey System, this system
divided the western lands into grid-shaped townships and sections. Surveyed
land was sold by the government, providing important revenue for the cash-starved
nation. Previous to the Public Land Survey System, land was surveyed using
a confusing landmark-based system called metes and bounds.
The Public Land Survey System is coordinate-based, with all
distances and bearings made from north-south running meridians and east-west
base lines. The largest subdivision of land is the Public Land Survey
Township (as opposed to political township), and measures six miles square. Each township is comprised of 36 sections, and each section has an area of
one square mile (640 acres).
Office of U.S. Surveyor General
The office of U.S. Surveyor General was created in 1796 to
survey lands as the nation expanded westward. In 1836 the office was
placed under the jurisdiction of the General Land Office (GLO). In 1849,
the GLO was moved under the Department of Interior. The office of Surveyor
General was closed in 1925, and surveying responsibilities remained with the GLO. In 1946, the GLO was abolished, and surveying duties transferred
to The Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Surveying in Minnesota
The earliest land surveys in Minnesota were conducted under
the jurisdiction of the Surveyor General of Iowa and Wisconsin, headquartered
in Dubuque, Iowa. These surveys, completed between 1848 and May 1857
were primarily on land located between the St. Croix and Mississippi
rivers or in the southeastern corner of Minnesota.
The Office of Surveyor General of Minnesota was established
in 1857 — one year before statehood — and was responsible for conducting the
original government survey in the territory and state of Minnesota.
The surveyor general’s primary duties were to award contracts for the survey
of specified tracts, supervise the field work of the deputy surveyors, prepare
the official plats, and manage the accounts of the office.
Because part of Minnesota had belonged to the Northwest Territory
and part to the Louisiana Territory, land in the state was subject to two
different surveys. Land east of the Mississippi was platted under a
survey originating on the Galena Base Line (near the Wisconsin-Illinois border)
and was controlled by the 4th Principal Meridian. The survey
of land west of the Mississippi commenced on the Clarendon Base Line (running
through Clarendon, Arkansas) and was controlled by the 5th
The Office of Surveyor General of Minnesota continued to operate
until December 1907, when the survey of Minnesota was complete except for
some areas in the north of the state. After 1907 the commissioner of
the GLO served, ex officio, as Surveyor General of Minnesota, and was
responsible for completing the survey and answering questions relating
to the survey.
How the Plats Were Created
The survey progressed continuously in some areas and discontinuously
in others. The surveyor general and the commissioner of the GLO decided
which tracts were to be surveyed in a given fiscal year. Preference
was often given to lands that had commercial value and could be sold immediately.
The ongoing settlement of Indian lands also affected the process. Often
reservation lands were not surveyed until significantly later.
In The Field
Contracts for survey work were awarded to deputy surveyors
by competitive bid. The deputy surveyor, with a crew of chainmen, axemen,
and a compassman, ran the survey lines in the field and was responsible for
erecting survey monuments, marking “bearing trees,” and recording all measurements
in his field notes. The deputy surveyor’s work was verified by the surveyor
general, and the field notes and plats submitted to the commissioner of the GLO
Distances were measured using chains and links. Chains
measured 66 feet long, with 80 chains equaling one mile. Each chain
was made up of 100 links of 7.92 inches each. Alignment was determined
using a compass or a solar compass. In areas where measuring by chains was
not possible, such as lakes or hilly terrain, distances were calculated
To demarcate the boundaries of townships and sections, surveyors
usually placed monuments — typically wooden posts — at township and section
corners, and at quarter-section corners. To insure these corners could
be found if the posts were destroyed, surveyors marked “bearing trees” nearby
the posts. In prairie areas, they built earth mounds around the posts,
about three feet high.
When a corner fell in a body of water, a “meander corner”
was established, and the true corner then ascertained by triangulation or
direct measurement. Meander corners marked the intersection of section
lines and a water body. A “witness corner” was used to designate a section
or quarter corner when the corner was located where monumentation was impractical.
The deputy surveyor was also responsible for mapping the physical
geography of surveyed lands. Plats show lakes, rivers, swamps, waterfalls,
and areas of prairie and forest, and other features. In areas with navigable
watercourses or sizeable lakes, plats sometimes include surveys of bank meanders.
Also occasionally noted are man-made features such as settlements and roads.
The deputy surveyor’s field notes include more detailed information, such
as soil type, vegetation, and mineral deposits. The field notes have been
digitized and are available on-line at:
www.glorecords.blm.gov The original field notes are preserved
State Archives of the Minnesota Historical Society. Since the
original field notes are fragile, and digital copies are available for
use, the field notes may only be used with permission of the Minnesota