There is a photo on page 224 of “Measuring America” that, I suspect, anyone who has ever flown across the continental United States west of the Alleghenies will recognize.
It’s an aerial view of a few square miles of farmland in South Dakota, but they could just as well be in Ohio or Iowa or Minnesota or New Mexico.
They’re all squares and rectangles. The property lines are sharply delineated and bounded by right angles. The roads that run along those lines are straight as straight can be. Forty years ago, looking out an airplane window and seeing a similar scene, I wrote a poem that began, “Patchwork of earthwork, pattern of soil…”
Andro Linklater, describing an eastbound flight from Los Angeles in “Measuring America,” notes that the same sorts of squares and rectangles can be seen in the property lines of that city. Then, after passing over desert, he writes:
High up in the mountains [the pattern] emerges again in patches of cultivated bottomland where the edges of rectangular fields are aligned with the cardinal points of the compass. All at once, looking down through the clear air, you can imagine the surveyor’s straight line, drawn west to east along the base of one of those fields, running invisibly over the bare rocks and dry earth, then coming into sight again blacktopped, graded, rollered and rules plumb down the center of a street in Phoenix.
And when the aircraft takes off heading east again, the line is still there, stretching ahead as a street, along a rank of shopping malls, faster than a Boeing’s shadow, the edge of an industrial park, the limit of an executive housing development, a desert track straight as a die, suddenly ending in red cliffs and obliteration, until 10 or 100 miles farther east, wherever people have settled, it is reborn as a section road or the boundary of a trailer park.
A commonplace in the American mental landscape
Look at a map of any American city, and you’ll see the same straight-line streets and rectangular blocks.
Even in the suburbs, where subdivisions replaced the urban grid with winding avenues, the real estate developments themselves form rectangles along straight-line highways.
This is such a commonplace piece of the American mental landscape that it’s virtually invisible, seemingly written in the human DNA. Yet, as Linklater explores in “Measuring America,” there was nothing foreordained about imposing right angles on property lines.
Indeed, in Europe and in the original American colonies and some other early states, as well as in Texas which began as part of Mexico, real estate lines were drawn using the metes and bounds system.
Under this system, a family or individual wanting to claim a piece of land would spell out the shape and boundaries of the parcel. For instance, “from this tree to that rock to the river and then along this ridge.” Then, as long as no one else had put in a prior claim, the land would be surveyed and registered as being owned by the family or individual.
Irregular shapes and legal disputes
This led to problems, Andros writes:
In the Virginia Military Reserve it quickly became apparent that all the best land had gone to the first-comers, and as the late arrivals tried to fit themselves in, the shapes to be surveyed became increasingly complex. Soon the reserve resembled a jigsaw puzzle. One parcel ended up as a polygon with 118 sides, while another, supposed to contain only 458 acres, was discovered to measure 1,662 acres.
Metes and bounds tended to favor the rich, and enable them to get richer. Linklater argues that it was a major factor in the development and continuation of a sharp division in the South between the large estate owners (who, prior to the Civil War, were major slave owners) and small freeholders.
The irregular shapes of the parcels led to frequent legal disputes, exacerbated when key markers, such as a boulder or a tree, disappeared, were obliterated or simply moved.
The rectangular survey was the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson who loved all things rational.
Instead of using markers, the rectangular survey employed scientific instruments to delineate, invisibly on the land, east-west baselines and north-south meridians. From this, square townships of six miles along each border were laid out. These townships were divided into sections of one mile along each border. And then these sections were subdivided into 40-acre lots (the origin, by the way, of “40 acres and a mule”), and then, in cities, further subdivided into 10-, 5- or, more commonly, 2.5-acre lots.
On the face of the earth
The rectangles and squares that resulted made it easy to know exactly where a parcel was on the face of the earth and understand its dimensions. This helped people who were not at the location — whether speculators or potential homesteaders — buy land from a distance.
Jefferson had seen a rectangular survey as a means of promoting democracy, and it’s certainly true that the uniformity of lot size meant that many people in a city owned equal-size parcels.
Even more, because the system was clearer and easier to use, more people were able to buy land. In fact, in her 1837 book “Society in America,” Harriet Martineau, a British visitor, wrote:
The possession of land is the aim of all action, generally speaking and the cure for all social evils among men in the United States. If a man is disappointed in politics or love, he goes and buys land. If he disgraces himself, he betakes himself to a lot in the west. If the demand for any article of manufacture slackens, the operatives drop into the unsettled lands. If a citizen’s neighbors rise above him in the towns, he betakes himself where he can be monarch of all he surveys.
Another British visitor, Fanny Trollope, wrote in her 1832 book “Domestic Manners of the Americans” that widespread property ownership made life in the U.S. much different from the class-stratified society of England, a development she saw as a mixed blessing:
Any man’s son may become the equal of any other man’s son, and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion; on the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined.
A commodity and the American psyche
The rectangular survey and the rectangular parcels that were its result also served as the final and most complete step in the transformation of land — once held in common or not held at all — into a commodity. Into a product.
Noting that during its first century, the survey converted a quarter billion acres into real estate, Linklater says:
The grid, designed by Thomas Jefferson to create republican farmers, also turned out to be ideal for buying, trading, and speculating. The consequence was what D. W. Meinig, doyen of American geographers, termed “the most basic feature of the settlement process. That it tended to be suffused in speculation.”
The paradox was that most of the speculators were not big-time financiers — though there were plenty of them — but small-time republican farmers. Speculation or, as the nineteenth century called it, capitalism, and democracy went together….
The fact that the grid could fractally subdivide a continent into minute, graph-paper squares might appear to be simply a triumph of the mathematician’s art, but the ease with which it made land available to anyone who went west in search of it had an almost incalculable influence on the development of the American psyche and the American economy.
A book going in two directions
I find the story of the rectangular survey fascinating, but I have to say that “Measuring America,” published in 2002, was a frustrating read for me.
The survey is an example of a subject that might have been contained in a long magazine article or a relatively short, direct book. But a short book might appear insubstantial,
So Linklater and/or his publisher decided to graft onto the account of the rectangular survey another, somewhat related subject, the creation and development of the metric system. Hence the title “Measuring America.”
What’s frustrating is that, although a version of metrics was considered for the survey, it wasn’t used. And the main battles and victories for the metric system were fought in Europe and had little to do with the U.S.
The result is a 263-page book that’s going in two directions. I’m glad for Linklater’s understanding of and insights into the survey. I wish he’d left all the stuff about metrics out.
Patrick T. Reardon