In my Ledger-Sentinel “Reflections” column March 27, I recognized all the work the earliest surveyors as they tried to get an accurate measure of the land in Kendall County. As usual, I was a little late off the starting line (a reasonable failing for a historian—even an amateur like me—in my estimation) since the week before had been National Surveyors’ Week.
The time was, surveyors were in the vanguard of settlement of the west. And after the first pioneers had arrived and local government was established, surveyors were still extremely important folks as the flurry of early land sales and resales took place. In fact, when Kendall County was established in 1841, one of the county officers required to be elected was the county surveyor.
Kendall’s first county surveyor was Archibald Sears. One of his successors was Lancelot Rood, one of my all-time favorite historical names. It’s also interesting that “rood” was an early surveying term, the name for a measure of 16.5 feet, later called a rod. Rood derives from the Old English word for “pole,” another old surveying term for a rod.
Those earliest surveyors in northern Illinois measured the land using a variety of simple tools, far less complicated than modern laser sights and GPS mapping in use today. The main tool was the surveyor’s chain. The chain was 66 feet long (four rods—or roods or poles) and was comprised of 100 links, each 7.91 inches in length.
The chain was not only the basis for surveys of open country, but here in the Fox Valley and beyond, the basis around which towns were laid out. Here in the old Village of Troy where I live (which was annexed by Oswego in the early 1990s), lots were laid out 66 feet wide and 132 feet deep. Streets were also 66 feet wide, except Main Street, which was 100 feet wide. Alleys were one rod—16.5 feet—wide.
Those measurements are pretty much standard throughout our region. Not so in all regions, of course. In Ottumwa, Iowa, for instance, lots are 50 feet wide, which leads to a dense cityscape.
The pioneer surveyors who first measured the land and then used those measurements to map the area, laid out the basic grid on which all future land surveys were based. The system was mandated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, an invention of Thomas Jefferson, who, as the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association points out, is one of three former surveyors whose faces now adorn Mt. Rushmore (Washington and Lincoln were the other two).
According to Jefferson’s system, surveys of all new government land were to be based on a grid system of one-mile square sections, each 640 acres. Thirty-six sections comprised a surveyed township, multiples of combined to create counties and states.
Surveys aren’t measurements randomly spotted about the landscape, of course. They have to be measured from standard baselines. In the case of the Public Land Survey that measured the land in the Northwest Territory (basically everything west of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio River), initial survey lines were located based on east-west baselines and north-south principal meridians.
Here in northern Illinois, surveys were measured west from the Third Principal Meridian, which extends due north from the mouth of the Ohio River, and north of an east-west baseline bisecting Illinois from a point just south of Allendale on the Wabash River. Surveyed townships are six miles square, containing 36 sections, each of which is one square mile.
The first survey in Kendall County was to mark the boundaries of the Illinois & Michigan Canal cession. According to the Treaty of St. Louis of 1804, the cession was to consist of all the land inside boundaries lying 10 miles east and west of the course of the combined Chicago, DesPlaines, and Illinois rivers all the way to Ottawa. In 1818-1819, Surveyor John C. Sullivan set stakes on the shore Lake Michigan and ran the canal cession boundaries, which forever after was known as the Indian Boundary Line.
It enters Kendall County on a roughly 45° angle along the east central border of NaAuSay Township at Walker Road and then makes a west-southwest dogleg in about the middle of Seward Township before exiting the county along modern U.S. Route 52 on the southwestern border of Big Grove Township.
Two other Kendall County parcels were surveyed before the vast majority of the county was surveyed in 1837 and 1838. In the Treaty of 1829 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin with the local Three Fires Confederacy, reserves were granted to individuals, 160 acres to Mo-Ah-Way and 960 acres to Waish-Kee-Shaw, the Pottawatomie wife of Indian trader David Laughton.
By law, public land could not be sold until it had been surveyed and mapped by the U.S. Government Land Office. So because land south of the Boundary Line and in the two reserves had been officially surveyed and mapped, it was available for sale much earlier than the rest of Kendall County, which was not put up for official sale at the federal land office in Chicago until 1842. The earliest parcel sold seems to have been the 128 acres in the southwest quarter of Section 30 of Big Grove Township bought by Edmund Week in September 1829.
Late in 1837, U.S. Government surveyor Eli Prescott was tasked with laying out the line running west from Lake Michigan at Chicago that eventually became the boundary line between Kendall and Kane counties.
Prescott anchored his line at the point established by Sullivan’s 1818 survey. His first task on Sept. 22. 1837 was to adjust his compass by taking a sight on the North Star. The next day he located the point on the lakeshore established by Sullivan in 1818 at modern Evanston. “Readily found the old bearing trees of the commencement of said line at this point,” he wrote in his notes. “But with extensive digging in the accumulated sand banks from the lake at this corner can find no vestige of the old corner post.”
Surveyors set corner posts and then as a backup, blazed and described nearby trees—Prescott’s bearing trees. Prescott also found some errors in Sullivan’s work, which he attempted to correct before running his baseline. By Oct. 5, 1837, Prescott’s survey crew was surveying what would one day be the border between Kane and Kendall counties.
The survey of the rest of Kendall County began the next year, with one of Prescott’s former chainmen, James Reed, doing the actual survey work. It fell to him to try to work the lines surveyors ran in 1818 and in the 1820s matched into the new survey lines. In that he was only partially successful. For instance, the western border of Oswego Township misses the western border of Aurora Township in Kane County by almost 1,100 feet, making Oswego Township’s Section 6 measure only about 431 acres instead of the 640 acres it should be. The surveyors accommodated the old lines, finding their new moved slowly west. By the time the line reached the extreme southwest corner of Seward Township, the border section had grown to 540 acres.
For those of us who enjoy trying to figure out why things are as they are, all those little kinks and jogs that mysteriously appear on modern maps are reminders of the past’s physical influence on 21st Century life.