How an Untamed Wilderness
Shaped the United States and
Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy

Andro Linklater
(Walker & Co.)

The single most important element in surveying early America was something called "Gunter's Chain," invented in 1624, literally a chain of twenty-two links that could be carried by a surveyor and his horse. Each link was about 8 inches long, and the chain represented 66 feet or twenty-two yards, and an acre commonly was 220 yards by twenty-two. A "perch" --- also a "rod" or "pole" was 16-1/2 feet, and was derived from "the area of agricultural land that could be worked by one person in a day." A "daywork" was 4 square perches, there were 40 "dayworks" in an acres, and 640 acres in a square mile.

If you are as confused as I am, welcome to the world of early measuring, and imagine what it was like for some poor bastard in the early 18th century trying to figure out how much land he owned, and how to buy a barrel of wheat or corn or flour or beer --- all of whose measurements varied from state to state and often from city to city.

And the American Revolution? We've been led to believe that it started because we were miffed over taxes the English put on our afternoon tea so in 1774 our forefathers climbed aboard ships in Boston Harbor, dumped the tea in the bay, and then, a short while later, Paul Revere left his silver shop and rode all night to tell the colonists that the redcoats were coming and so they got their muskets together and by sheer foolhardy native good sense, ran the bastards out of town and out of the country.

Fortunately we have Andro Linklater to set the record straight, and if you want to knock your history teacher on his pins, tell him that it all came about not because of import duties on tea, not at all --- but rather on 7 October 1763, King George issued a proclamation, what the author calls "a feudal proclamation," that stated that despite the general movement to the west by Americans hungry for land, all territory beyond the Appalachians was reserved for the king and the king alone. And those families who had moved into that area were to "remove themselves from such settlements." In other words:

    get your ass out now. You are trespassing on the king's private land.

It was no accident, says the author, that the first resolution to come before the Continental Congress was that Americans are "entitled to life, liberty, and property." And if you think our forefathers were only mildly interested, the land companies created to buy this land before the 1763 proclamation included the Mississippi Company (George Washington, founder), the Illinois and Wabash Company (Patrick Henry), and the Vandalia Company (Benjamin Franklin).

You'll also learn from Measuring America

  • That the very act of measuring land changes it from dirt into a commodity;
  • That the grid pattern of American cities came into being from a crude surveying system developed in England in the 18th Century;
  • That plat maps --- section, ranges, township --- affected the very use of land;
  • That Jefferson hoped that simple ownership of land by yeomen would preserve democracy;
  • That the layout of New York City (and most of the rest of the United States) was considered superior to the loops and circles of Washington because it was easier to buy and sell;
  • That the gridiron layout of New York City ultimately affected the health of its citizens for the worse;
  • That the currency of choice in America in 1821 was the Spanish "Piece of Eight" (when we call a quarter "two bits" --- it goes back to that coin);
  • That America was ready to adopt the metrical system in 1791 but it was killed by Louis XVI of France, of all people;
  • That if you lived in Louisiana in the 18th Century you measured land by a unit called the toise and weighed goods in livres (which had nothing to do with the English pound);
  • That in 1794 America tried to buy New Orleans from the French but Napoleon was broke so he said, "I'm gonna make you a much better deal," which was, of course, the Louisiana Purchase (it ended up costing this country four cents an acre);
  • That surveying the United States created a system of meridians and baselines (and sections, townships and ranges) which means that "long before the U. S. Postal service ever dreamed of zip codes, every one of these ... sections had a specific name."

And that the final word on measures --- decreed by the U. S. House and Senate in 1836, came under the purview of an exacting eccentric named Ferdinand Hassler who dressed in dirty white flowing robes, spoke with a heavy Swiss accent, and ran the U. S. Geodetic Survey in the summer and devised weights and measures in the winter --- coming up with standards for the yard, the troy pound, the gallon, and the bushel that are still used to this day.

The most lasting gift of the author in this fine book is the way that he demonstrates that, more than freedom of religion and freedom of speech and the concept of democracy, the United States came into being through land hunger, which spawned standards of surveying (it is impossible to buy or sell land when you don't know what you are getting) --- which, in turn affected the way cities were ultimately built.

Finally, in the Great Plains,

    Congress was so influenced by the land survey that wherever politics and geography permitted, it made the straight line king. It carved out two states, Wyoming and Colorado, to a perfect box shape, each being four geographic degrees high and seven degrees wide; it awarded three degrees of longitude each to Kansas, Nebraska, and South and North Dakota, then stacked them up like drawers in a filing cabinet between the thirty-seventh parallel and the forty-ninth. Alongside them to the west, it gave four degrees of longitude each to the drier states of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and piled them up from the thirty-seventh to the forty-ninth with the same geometrical regularity. Only Montana's western border with Idaho betrays a wanton crookedness.

    With neither the map nor the view from an airplane can reveal is the tension between these artificial shapes and the environment. From the Côeau des Prairies, a long escarpment marking the edge of glaciated plains in South Dakota, there is a view of squared-off prairie --- fields, farms, windbreaks, section lines --- stretching to the northern and western horizons and all obeying the survey; the sheer expanse of it is as moving and terrifying as an army on parade. Yet even on the stillest day, another power makes itself felt. The dry grasses rustle with it, and insistent pressure of the air, no heavier than breathing, that comes from far off and passes with irresistible momentum from the North to the warm South. The very gentleness of it is sobering. Out there a breeze would shake you on your feet, a storm would knock you flat. It carries the heft of a continent.

The most lasting gift of this excellent book is proof that more than through freedom of religion or freedom of speech or the pure concepts of democracy, our country came into being because of simple brazen land hunger which, in case no one was looking, is still the case.

--- Robert J. Wellborn

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