of land ownership
by Delbert Trew
Surveying shaped view of nation
and measurement of land boundaries dates back at least 5,000 years
to riverside communities in the Middle East and Egypt involving lands
irrigated during the annual flooding of the great rivers.
Such boundaries did not mean ownership of the land but established
plots for which certain persons were responsible. Though individuals
or generations might occupy and exploit a parcel of land, it could
not be owned nor treated as personal assets for speculation like goods
or domestic animals. Actual land ownership was reserved for kings
Prior to the discovery and settlement of North America, personal ownership
of land was inconceivable. The idea that land could be treated as
personal property and speculated on like any other commodity required
a monumental change in thinking. As this thinking evolved and colonists
and others realized that raw wilderness could be transformed into
personal assets, America became the destination of the landless of
Though land in America was plentiful, the colonists were restricted
by the grants allotted by their respective king. Early measurement
efforts only established the metes and bounds of those grants. Home
sites were parceled out by the colony leaders by a head-right system.
Nearly all colonists had sponsors who furnished the money and means
for the trip to America. Repayment of this indebtedness was supposed
to come from sharing the income generated from the new property. As
a result, shared property was neglected while personal property prospered.
This was the principle reason why some colonies failed.
Religious freedom was quoted as the main reason for immigrating to
America. Eventually, the desire to own land became the greatest motive
of all. No doubt the success of America can be attributed to personal
land ownership. A second attribute has to be when a universal method
of land measurement was adopted and the metes and bounds of your property
Finding this method was no easy task as America was made up of many
nationalities each using their old country's terminology of weights
and measures. The tool finally responsible for settling the many disputes
was a simple linked chain. Designed and introduced in 1620 by English
mathematician Edmund Gunter (1581-1626), it consisted of a handmade
chain of 100 long wire lengths measuring exactly 22 yards or 66 feet
or 4 rods or one-eightieth of a mile.
All disputes were settled in 1785 when Congress adopted The Public
Land Survey Ordinance stating all government land measurements must
now be done with a Gunter's or Surveyor's chain. Most historians agree
on Sept. 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first geographer of the United
States, drove the first stake starting the Line of the Seven Ranges,
the first official land grid laid out in America.
From this grid and others across the land, the lines of America grew
"10 chains by 10 chains, acre by acre in every direction, from border
to border." It is a formula understood by all.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" May 1, 2008 Column