The size and shape of the land defined the country's nature

On Books

October 27, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

In midsummer, my wife and I bought a very rural house, surrounded by rough woodland, to flee urban woes on weekends. I have been scrambling through thorns and deadfall trees, dodging thickets and limestone outcroppings with a copy of a generations-old land plat in one hand and a large tape measure in the other. This has amplified my interest in boundaries.

Happily, I believe all or most of our neighbors -- far out of sight or sound of our place -- care little or nil about where their bit of forest ends and ours begins. Loggers cleared the land perhaps 60 years ago; there's no mother lode of tall timber. A few dozen yards here or there make no real difference. But it set me thinking about lines and points -- marks on trees, designated posts and the like that are cited on the official land record, which is in feet and yards. Then there came into my sights a dawn-fresh book: Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy, by Andro Linklater (Walker, 320 pages, $26).

It's a fascinating work, which underscores the importance of how people define property and establish who owns it.

Early on, Linklater, an English historian and journalist, dips into the Maryland area to dramatize the importance of surveying. "It cost the Calverts of Maryland and the Penns of Pennsylvania," he writes, "the immense sum of L3500 to have the 244 miles of what became known as the Mason-Dixon line surveyed with such accuracy. To them it was money well spent, for in a new country there was no other way of establishing ownership. Without a survey, anyone could claim the land."

That historic line was resurveyed over a period of three years by the Mason Dixon Line Preservation Partnership, which celebrated completing its task only eight days ago, on Oct. 19. Working with the most modern equipment, a Sun article reported, the volunteer group found the original survey's remaining crownstone markers extraordinarily accurate.

The practice of surveying, Linklater relates, has a history of some 5,000 years, from which records of land marking have been found in the Middle East. But generally speaking until little more than three centuries or so ago, ownership of land was restricted to sovereigns -- kings, emperors, not even noblemen. Then private ownership began evolving in the 1500s in England, and as much as 100 or 200 years later in continental Europe, and beyond.

Going back to pre-Norman usages, Linklater traces land measurements in Britain, the Colonies and the nascent United States. It's a compelling tale -- in which the right to own property was at the foundation of both revolution and evolution.

Throughout Europe and the United States, as commerce grew, development of precise weight, size, distance and volume standards was a vital need and extremely difficult. In France, there was complete chaos: Measures varied from province to province, sometimes even town to town. This led to rampant cheating, and was a bar to the development of trustful trade. In the 1770s and 1780s, there were huge flurries of attempts to standardize measures of all sorts -- considerably confused by revolutions.

When George Washington addressed Congress for the first time as president, on Jan. 2, 1790, he declared that a uniform system of weights and measures was secondary only to defense and establishment of a coherent national economic system. He appointed as his secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, who had just returned from a long stint as ambassador to France, where he was deeply involved with the Academy of Science's attempts to establish a system of weights and measures. In the U.S., settlers were moving in mass into territories west of the Appalachians, which had never been seriously surveyed.

Linklater quotes a plaque near East Liverpool, Ohio, on the Ohio River. It is headed "The Point of Beginning" and reads: "1112 feet south of this spot was the point of beginning for surveying the public lands of the United States. There on September 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins, first Geographer of the United States, began the Geographer's Line of the Seven Ranges." From that point, gradually, was laid out a grid that ultimately has covered more than 3 million square miles -- the entire United States west of that point, stretching now to the Pacific, Canada and Mexico.

The forms of measurement that were in use in England in the 18th Century and before were used by Hutchins, and thus became the basis of the entire land-scheme of the United States. His basic land-measure was a "chain" -- established as 22 yards -- which in turn was divided into 100 "links." The length was invented by Edmund Gunter, a brilliant surveyor, in the early 1600s.

Today, Linklater reports, Gunter's chain is integral "to the town planning of almost every major city in the United States (the lengths of most city blocks are multiples of it)."

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