A History Lesson in Surveying

Posted by on Jun 19, 2018

By: Roger Joiner, PLS / Survey Department Manager

Our company currently has offices in three states and has successfully completed projects in a total of 37 states. On some of these projects a survey is needed for the civil design. So what’s the big deal? Pack enough clothes for a week and leave Alabama early Monday morning, drive to Tennessee, get out of the truck, and get to work on the survey. Not so fast. A lot has to happen first. Let’s start at the beginning…

Surveying and Engineering are regulated by each state, and each state has a Board of Licensure to oversee the profession. To become a registered land surveyor you have to meet the qualifications for the state where you want to become registered. Then you will take the 8 hour national exam. Yes, it’s an 8 hour test! When you pass this portion (70% is passing), then you can take part 2 also a national exam just 6 hours long followed by a 2 hour state exam on the same day. You must learn the different methods, terms, and procedures for each state. There are many things related to surveying that are not quite the same in every state; for example, every state has its own State Plane Coordinate System.

Another reason surveying is different from state to state is because of the history of our country and how it was settled. Let’s start with the colonies. The original thirteen colonies developed a land ownership system based on land ownership in England. Today’s surveyors refer to these states as “Metes and Bounds” states or “Colonial” states. Tennessee and Kentucky were part of the original colonies.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the basis for the Public Land Survey System which was used to divide real property for sale and settling. The big change came with the Louisiana Purchase in 1802. The United States bought a bunch of land, actually 530 million acres, from France and had to develop a plan to make the land available to settlers. The Land Act of 1805 revised the Land Ordinance of 1785 to improve the Public Land Survey System. The federal government hired surveyors to lay out a grid. Townships are six miles wide either north or south of the baseline, and Ranges are six miles wide either east or west of the meridian. This creates a grid with squares six miles by six miles, and each of these squares are divided into 36 smaller squares called sections which are one square mile. This process took place over several decades as the western states were being settled. As states were created so were their public land systems. And we can’t forget Texas which has its own system. Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836 and was granted statehood in 1845. In southern Texas during this period, Mexico continued to hand out grants of land while in other parts of Texas land speculators sold land abstracts to settlers. An abstract was a random tract of land anywhere from 1000 acres to 5000 acres in size. 41 million acres were sold to settlers. There were boundary issues with both the state of Texas and the Louisiana Purchase, mainly because no-one knew where the exterior boundaries were located. It took decades to solve all of these issues.

While surveying procedures to obtain data have improved over the years, we do sometimes find ourselves searching through some of that antiquated but use-able information gathered more than a hundred years ago to complete projects today for our clients. When you understand how surveying was developed over the years from state to state, it makes sense why every state has different surveying rules and processes.

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