The Official Ohio Lands Book by Dr. George W. Knepper

This booklet (81 pages), published by the auditor of the state of Ohio in 2002, was part of the handout at the Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous, held in Akron, Ohio in 2008. It is still available from the society for $35.00, including shipping. The conference handout also includes a copy of the “Map of Ohio Showing Original Land Divisions,” prepared by C. E. Sherman in 1922 to accompany volume three of the Final Report of the Ohio Cooperative Topographic Survey. This comparatively lengthy volume (231 pages), published in 1925 and entitled Original Ohio Land Subdivisions, was also written by C. E. Sherman. Roger Woodfill graciously sent me his spare copy of it. Although a comparison of the two books is inevitable, the subject of this review is really the first.

To provide some background, Ohio was the first state carved out of public lands, specifically the Northwest Territory. This is the expanse of land bounded on the east by Pennsylvania, on the south by the Ohio River, on the west by the Mississippi River, and on the north by several of the Great Lakes and a part of Canada. From the beginning, the intent was to divide this area into five states. It did eventually become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, although the most northwesterly corner of it became part of Minnesota. Ohio was the first of these states to be delineated, mainly because it was the most proximate to the original states. Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803, though strangely not declared a state by the U.S. Congress until 1953.

Ohio has the distinction of having the most numerous original claims and unusual settlements of land, and therefore, not surprisingly, the most varied cadastral layout. In colonial days, Virginia claimed a large portion of it and Connecticut the remainder. Virginia ceded its claim to the federal government in 1781 and Connecticut its claim in 1800. Nevertheless, the area that each had claimed was surveyed privately. For this reason, the Virginia Military District, located between the Scioto and the Little Miami Rivers, was, like Virginia, surveyed according to metes and bounds. The Connecticut Western Reserve, the land north of the forty-first parallel, was divided into a peculiar version of the rectangular system: each township into a five-mile-square subdivided into mile squares. A small portion of land to the west of it, however, called the Fire Lands, was divided into quarters instead. The central government also experimented with the five-mile square division in the United States Military District that covers much of central Ohio. The rest of the state, beginning with the Seven Ranges on the east, was divided into the newly established standard of six-mile-square townships, subdivided into mile squares. But the numbering sequence of the sections within a township applied originally in 1785 was changed in 1796.

This brief description of the land divisions of Ohio does little more than give a hint of the complexity of the situation. In addition to the major divisions, there were also numerous grants and sales of land to private groups. Section 16 of each newly formed township was set aside for educational purposes. Some of the land remained in the control of the federal government, while the state controlled the rest. Each of the main divisions had its own irregularities, and the
divisions do not always match exactly. As if that were not enough, each of the exterior boundaries of the state was disputed at one time or another. There was originally a sizable overlap with Michigan. The boundary with Pennsylvania had to be reestablished. The Ohio River changed course. The westerly boundary with Indiana bears special mention inasmuch as it became the first meridian of the public land system and took some time to be located correctly. 

Apparently, no comprehensive overview of this involved situation was attempted in the 19th century. But, beginning in 1908, a topographic survey of the state was undertaken in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey. The results of this survey were eventually published in 204 sheets. To make them useful, however, they had to be anchored to the original land divisions. This need occasioned the production of the map and report under discussion.

The report is a definitive study of both the chronology and the logic of the land divisions. Since several parts of the state were surveyed at the same time, the chronology is not a simple progression. And since the divisions varied so greatly, the explanation of the systems they embody is not reducible to simple rules. The report cautiously analyses each land division by itself and ends with a reference to the record of the surveys of that division, the point of departure for later surveys. The report ends with an interesting account of the origin of the rectangular system.  
In contrast to the report, The Official Ohio Lands Book is a popular presentation of the development of Ohio. It proceeds mainly in historical fashion, beginning with the occupation of the land originally by Indians and later by “banditti” (squatters). It then provides the legal background for its settlement: the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Northwest Ordinance, and the designation of statehood. It details the recognition of the various state and federal districts, the challenges to the boundaries of the state, and the numerous donations and grants of land, notably for universities, during the 19th century. It ends with a discussion of the way in which the original surveys have influenced the subsequent development of the state. The book is appealing because it contains portraits of leading personages and pictures of historical places. More to the point, it reproduces maps of the divisions contained in Sherman’s report, illustrating the extent and the type of each division.

Without doubt, the multitude and the complexity of the surveying systems in Ohio is a challenge to its citizenry and to surveyors alike. No wonder it is said that if you can survey in Ohio you can survey anywhere.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at willischmidt@verizon.net.

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