Public Land Survey System (PLSS)

Among the important steps required in transforming the wilderness of “that portion of the Michigan Territory lying west of Lake Michigan” into the State of Wisconsin, was the Public Land Survey. Over a 35 year period, surveyors, contracted to the United States General Land Office, trudged through the prairies, woods, marshes and thickets. Guided by a staff compass and measuring with a Gunters chain, these surveyors laid down the township, range and section grid that would become the basis for land ownership descriptions throughout the State.

The Public Land Survey of Wisconsin began in 1831 when Lucius Lyon established the Initial Point of the Fourth Principal Meridian on the northern boundary of Illinois about 10 miles east of the Mississippi River. The work of the survey fanned out from that point until, when James McBride and his crew completed the subdivision of a township in what would become southern Iron County, in October of 1865, the original land survey was essentially completed.

During the course of their work, the General Land Office surveyors laid out some 1600 townships of land in Wisconsin. In doing so, they walked and measured about 125,000 miles of survey line and placed approximately 250,000 wooden posts to mark township, section, quarter-section and meander corners, and marked and recorded as many as a half-million bearing trees.

This incredible undertaking not only created the framework by which the public lands could be sold into private ownership, but it was also the first systematic inventory of the natural and cultural resources of the State. While their primary responsibility was to measure and mark the lines of the survey, the surveyors were also to record natural features which they encountered including types of vegetation, watercourses, trails and the quality of the soil; human habitations such as settlers cabins and Indian villages; and resources which could be exploited like mineral deposits, salt licks, or potential mill sites. This information was eagerly consulted by potential land purchasers.

The importance of the original Public Land Survey, and the records which it created, to the land surveying and land information professions is vital. As land has been divided into increasingly smaller parcels from the 640 acre sections, each parcel must be described in reference to the work of the original survey. While most of the wooden post markers that were placed by the first surveyors have been replaced by more permanent stone or metal monuments, there are still areas where the original survey records and the remains of the wooden posts and bearing trees must be used to determine corner locations.

The records of the Public Land Survey have also been used for purposes beyond those of retracing the original survey lines. When the surveyors record the species of bearing trees and the types of vegetation encountered along their lines, they provided a valuable description of the forests, prairies and wetlands as they existed just prior to the extensive changes brought on by logging and settlement. This information has been used by biologists to understand what the natural plant communities were like and as a reference in locating undisturbed areas and in restoration efforts.

Historians have used the original survey records in locating Indian mounds, villages, sugar bushes and other features that were recorded. While there were not supposed to be settlers on the land prior to the survey, occasional mention of these squatters appears in the survey records. In many instances, their locations foretell the places where towns and cities would later develop. The original land survey records have also been used to determine the course of streams and rivers before they changed or dams were constructed.

There are few, if any, professions which rely on its own records as much as land surveying. Each new survey is based on a long line of previous work extending back to the Public Land Survey of the mid-1800’s. While it is seldom that a surveyor needs to refer directly to records of the original survey, it is vital that these records be maintained as the basis for all later work. Just as important is maintaining a knowledge of equipment and techniques of the original survey in order to be able to accurately interpret these records and understand what actually occurred on the ground. 

Land surveying in Wisconsin has a long and storied history. While the equipment and techniques have changed dramatically through the past 150 years, land surveying principles remain the same. The Public Land Survey is a vital part of our history and will continue to be a part of our future.

This information used with permission, and taken from a 1996 article by Rob Nurre.