Cadastral History

Old GLO truck with survey crewThe rectangular survey system, which was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson and enacted into law by the Land Ordinance of 1785, forms the backbone of the Nation's land surveys. As a young nation, we faced the daunting task of surveying over 1.8 billion acres of public domain lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase, and other acquisition actions. Contract surveyors chosen through competitive bidding were eventually replaced with today's professional cadre of Cadastral Surveyors.

Over the past two centuries, almost 1.5 billion acres have been surveyed into townships and sections and monumented. This impressive accomplishment represents the greatest land surveying project ever undertaken: there are about 2.6 million section corners throughout the United States, each one located about a mile apart. Placing these corners required a vast expenditure of human energy in carrying heavy surveying equipment, dragging chains, cutting trails, climbing mountains, placing monuments, digging pits, and blazing "witness" trees.

Today, the BLM is the Federal Government's official record keeper for over 200 years' worth of cadastral survey records and plats. In addition, the Bureau is still completing numerous new surveys each year, mostly in Alaska, as well as conducting resurveys to restore obliterated or lost original survey corners, to enhance the management of all federal and tribal land.

Historical Links

Cadastral Slide Show  - Shockwave presentations showing a brief history of cadastral surveying, survey monuments, and seasonal work.

History of the Rectangular Survey System by C. A. White.   - Please note this is a fairly large pdf file( 47 mb.) and depending on your service, could take some time to download. 

Virtual Museum of Surveying - Web page containing exhibits which cover a variety of topics related to surveying history.

The Compleat Surveyor - Site contains antique surveying equipment.