Indiana's Public Land Survey
Article by Historian, Carl Leiter
Public lands in the State of Indiana were surveyed under the provisions of the Land Ordinance of 1785, a law accepted before the U.S. Constitution was written. Surveyors laid a giant grid across Indiana's public domain like a giant checkerboard consisting of townships six miles square. For more than two centuries this survey system has controlled the location of land property in Indiana, and most legal documents follow its guidelines.
The map to your left is the State of Indiana showing Congressional Townships, each six miles square, along with the Base Line in southern Indiana with the Township Ranges numbered to the east and west; and the vertical line named the 2nd Principal Meridian running from the Ohio River to the State of Michigan near the middle of the state. The Congressional Townships are numbered from 1 to 8 south of the Base Line, and from 1 to 38 north. Some fifteen Indian Treaty Cessions are also displayed.
The City of Kokomo is located where four Congressional Townships meet. The intersection at Markland Avenue and Apperson Way separates Townships 23 and 24 North; and Ranges 3 and 4 East. Each Congressional Township is six miles square, more or less, containing 36 square miles. In addition, each square mile is numbered and its 640 acres have been subdivided by rectilinear survey into half sections, quarter-sections, half-quarter sections and quarter-quarter sections. These plats contain areas approximating 320, 160, 80 and 40 acres respectively.
The 1876 Atlas map below shows the middle of Howard County where our civil townships named Clay, Howard, Center, Harrison and Taylor are mainly located. Superimposed on those townships are the four Congressional Townships outlined in red boundaries. The 36 Sections within each Congressional Township are numbered in the same manner from #1 to #36. The southernmost one mile strip of Township 23 North lies in Tipton County, as shown. Where the two red center lines intersect is the present day Markland Ave. / Apperson Way intersection:
Perhaps there is no place in Indiana where you will be more reminded of the Ordinance of 1785 than in Orange County, seven miles south of Paoli, the county seat. A historical marker alongside Ind. 37 directs travelers to Initial Point [it calls it 'Pivot Point'] a short distance west of the highway. That is the precise point where our state's Base Line intersects the 2nd Principal Meridian. An elaborate monument is also located on the courthouse square in Paoli to commemorate this important land survey.
The Orange County courthouse square in Paoli, IN commemorates Indiana's Initial Point location and the federal land survey in Indiana with this elaborate monument.
Martha Leiter enjoys a pleasant spring day in this picturesque city in southern Indiana as this story was being researched:
Our country's first settlers used English, French and Spanish systems of survey in locating their land property, often using streams, boulders and other natural landmarks as points of reference, a system that led to much litigation as streams changed their courses and landmarks eroded or disappeared. With our new federal government inheriting a vast public domain in the interior upon winning independence from England, leaders realized an orderly system was needed to acquire ownership of the public domain from various Indian tribes living there, then surveying that land into specific tracts. Also, a system must be devised to grant title of these tracts to private owners. It was a daunting task.
The grid system of survey had been around since the early 1600s and would be ideal for a flat earth, but since the earth is spherical, it followed that converging meridians would limit the acreage of many sections of land within each township, complicating any public land survey. The Ordinance of 1785 outlined procedures for the first public survey and Deputy Surveyors were named to carry out the work. A Surveyor-General gave assignments to deputy surveyors to locate principal meridians and base lines as well as township and range lines in Ohio and Indiana's public land. Special surveying parties also struck section lines within each congressional township, and field notes were to accompany their surveys.
A map of north central Indiana showing congressional townships in the Big Miami Reserve area where Howard County is located. Each township was six miles square containing 36 square miles. Howard County falls mainly in the horizontal Township rows # 23 and 24 North of the Base Line; and in the vertical Range rows # 2 through 5 east of the 2nd Principal Meridian. Names of Deputy Surveyor assignments are inscribed on this contemporary map of the Public Land Survey:
Coupled with the land problem was the problem of creating new states and providing a republican form of government within them. This was provided two years after the Land Ordinance with the passage of the Ordinance of 1787. These two ancient laws, the Land Ordinance and the Northwest Ordinance, provided for an orderly transition from an unbroken wilderness teeming with native tribes to states accepted on equal terms with the original states. When our federal constitution was written and ratified by the various states, a new federal government was launched in 1788. George Washington was elected as our first president, and these two ordinances were adopted by the first Congress as laws of the land.
The public domain north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes, and from Pennsylvania to the Mississippi River was a great wilderness known as The Northwest Territory in 1787 when the Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance were passed. The 1785 law prescribed procedures for the land survey and sale of the area while the Ordinance of 1787 outlined the transition from wilderness to equal states within the region. These states would be named Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin plus a bit of eastern Minnesota. They were admitted to statehood by Congress in 1803, 1816, 1818, 1837, 1848 and 1858 respectively. Since our national boundaries eventually were extended to the west coast, this region was renamed 'The Old Northwest Territory.'
There were older survey systems in the public domain, a few of them in Indiana. This was especially true in the Vincennes area, a region once controlled by France. Also, Virginia had granted land to George Rogers Clark and his men where Clark County is now, so the new survey system simply ran to those boundaries and allowed the older survey to stand. For the bulk of Indiana, however, the new rectilinear survey of the Land Ordinance was religiously followed, and was so satisfactory that it was endorsed for new territories as they entered the Union.
Much of the land near Vincennes in Knox County followed a grid pattern, but did not follow the cardinal points of the compass: north, south, east or west. The French surveys often began on the town's river and built away from there and the basic land tracts often contained hundreds of sections, each one mile square. This plat near Vincennes between the Wabash and White River (West Branch) was surveyed ahead of the Ordinance of 1785 system, although the north end of Knox County does revert to Congressional Townships: