The Legacy of Gunter’s Chain and Early Surveying Techniques

March 19, 2024

Exploring history… check out this museum-worthy surveyor’s artifact: a Gunter’s chain from the 1800s. This original survey chain was used to survey the country (west of the 13 colonies). This chain spans 66 feet, comprising 100 links each measuring 0.66 feet and weighing approximately 30 pounds. This chain was an essential tool for early surveyors who had to measure out 80 of these to cover a mile. The significance of this chain is further enhanced when paired with an 1879 plat map and a compass, offering a glimpse into the detailed work required in mapping and dividing the land during that era.

This artifact’s significance intertwines with the historical development of the Land Ordinance of 1785. Congress, eager to raise revenues for the new federal government, sought to rectify the irregularly shaped plots that characterized the original 13 states. Departing from the “metes and bounds” system, Congress approved the creation of six-mile-square townships, further divided by surveyors into 36 lots. These lots, each a one-mile square comprising 640 acres, were designated as sections, numbered from 1 to 36, with lot (section 16) reserved for public schools. The importance of accurate surveying is epitomized by markers like Wisconsin Historical Marker 172, Wisconsin’s Point of Beginning, set in 1831. This marker delineated the starting point for the surveying and mapping of every section corner monument in the state and the boundaries of each county, city, village, township, farm, and lot, as well as the position of roads, lakes, and streams, underscoring the meticulous efforts of early surveyors in shaping the landscape of the American West.

To delve deeper into the origins of the Midwest’s square grid pattern and its connection to early land surveying practices, visit Why is Wisconsin (and the Midwest) Square? – raSmith

About the Author

John Casucci is a senior project manager of survey services in raSmith's Brookfield, Wis., office. He has expertise on a wide range of surveying projects, including boundary, aerial, construction, topographic and control surveying.

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