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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Origins of land ownership
Surveying shaped view of nation

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Surveying and measurement of land boundaries dates back at least 5,000 years to riverside communities in the Middle East and Egypt involving lands irrigated during the annual flooding of the great rivers.

Such boundaries did not mean ownership of the land but established plots for which certain persons were responsible. Though individuals or generations might occupy and exploit a parcel of land, it could not be owned nor treated as personal assets for speculation like goods or domestic animals. Actual land ownership was reserved for kings and rulers.

Prior to the discovery and settlement of North America, personal ownership of land was inconceivable. The idea that land could be treated as personal property and speculated on like any other commodity required a monumental change in thinking. As this thinking evolved and colonists and others realized that raw wilderness could be transformed into personal assets, America became the destination of the landless of the world.

Though land in America was plentiful, the colonists were restricted by the grants allotted by their respective king. Early measurement efforts only established the metes and bounds of those grants. Home sites were parceled out by the colony leaders by a head-right system.

Nearly all colonists had sponsors who furnished the money and means for the trip to America. Repayment of this indebtedness was supposed to come from sharing the income generated from the new property. As a result, shared property was neglected while personal property prospered. This was the principle reason why some colonies failed.

Religious freedom was quoted as the main reason for immigrating to America. Eventually, the desire to own land became the greatest motive of all. No doubt the success of America can be attributed to personal land ownership. A second attribute has to be when a universal method of land measurement was adopted and the metes and bounds of your property were assured.

Finding this method was no easy task as America was made up of many nationalities each using their old country's terminology of weights and measures. The tool finally responsible for settling the many disputes was a simple linked chain. Designed and introduced in 1620 by English mathematician Edmund Gunter (1581-1626), it consisted of a handmade chain of 100 long wire lengths measuring exactly 22 yards or 66 feet or 4 rods or one-eightieth of a mile.

All disputes were settled in 1785 when Congress adopted The Public Land Survey Ordinance stating all government land measurements must now be done with a Gunter's or Surveyor's chain. Most historians agree on Sept. 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first geographer of the United States, drove the first stake starting the Line of the Seven Ranges, the first official land grid laid out in America.

From this grid and others across the land, the lines of America grew "10 chains by 10 chains, acre by acre in every direction, from border to border." It is a formula understood by all.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" May 1, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
 
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