Surveying History / Surveying & Mapping Education

The History of Writing the History of Surveying in Ohio

June 27, 2013
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In the 1960s, the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers’ magazine, “Ohio Engineer,” published several articles about surveying in Ohio by J. Merrill Weed, aOhio Gazetteer prominent engineer and writer.

For a young surveyor, he was an inspiration to me to continue to study surveying history in Ohio. Merrill's articles were based on a book familiar to every Ohio surveyor, C.E. Sherman’s “Original Ohio Land Subdivisions.”[i]

Merrill had a special understanding of the material. First, he was the son of a county surveyor, James T. Weed, first elected in Gallia County in 1888 who served as county surveyor or deputy county surveyor until about 1918. Secondly, Merrill, as an OSU student, was an assistant to Professor Sherman and worked on gathering material for “Original Ohio Land Subdivisions.” In the book Sherman recognized Weed’s contributions.”[ii]

Every surveyor who is licensed in Ohio has some familiarity with Christopher Elias Sherman’s “Original Ohio Land Subdivisions”, as it is required reading for the state board licensing exam. The author was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 28, 1869, graduated from Central High School in June 1887, and went to work in the Franklin County Surveyor’s office. He worked in the field, commenting that “work in the other portions of the county … was not so difficult but a survey in the Virginia Military District was always dreaded by the Franklin County surveyors.” He later attended Ohio State University, earning a civil engineering degree and became a professor at OSU.[iii]

Fewer surveyors, however, are familiar with the book that preceded it, “Ohio Lands and Their Subdivision,” by William E. Peters, first published in 1917.Peters was born in 1857, attended a one-room schoolhouse and graduated from National Normal University of Lebanon, Ohio, in civil engineering, surveying and bookkeeping in 1878. He was county surveyor of Athens, Ohio, from 1888 to 1890 and served as the first president of the Ohio Society of County Surveyors. In 1891, Peters was admitted to the bar and practiced law for many years.[iv]

Only a handful of historians and surveyors are familiar with earlier articles about original surveys in Ohio, such as Albion M. Dyer’s articles under the title “First Ownership of Ohio Lands,” published in 1911, and an article by Albert A. Graham in the “Annual Report of the Secretary of State to the Governor of the State of Ohio” in 1885, titled, “The Land and Township System of Ohio.”[v]

The earliest author who systematically wrote about the survey systems in Ohio was probably John Kilbourn. A nephew to James Kilbourn, surveyor and founder of Worthington, Ohio, John Kilbourn was a college-educated teacher, surveyor and geographer. Born in Connecticut in 1787, he graduated from Vermont University in 1810 and was immediately summoned to Ohio to become the principal of the new Worthington Academy, a school set up by his uncle and the Scioto Company.

While he was teaching at the academy, Kilbourn wrote a book on how to properly teach geography as well as the book “Columbian Geography,” a descriptive tome on American geography. Both books were successful enough that he left his position with the school and opened a bookstore in Columbus.

In 1816, Kilbourn produced the most popular book yet published in Columbus, “The Ohio Gazetteer, or Topographical Dictionary, Containing a Description of the Several Counties, Towns, Villages, etc. in the State of Ohio.” The book was so popular that a second edition was issued only four months later. Many more editions were published until well after the author’s death in 1831.

Graham, who became secretary of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society from its founding in 1885 until 1894, was born in Franklin County, Ohio, in 1848.  At age five, he was orphaned and moved with his brother's family to a homestead plot in Illinois. His early education consisted of attending one-room schoolhouses in the winter months. At age 13, he moved back to Ohio and at 19, attended a small college in Iberia for a year. After that, he applied for a certificate to teach school. By teaching school one year and attending school the next, he managed to advance his education. He pursued a career in journalism, which led to publishing the histories of many counties in Ohio.

Dyer was born in Butler County, Ohio, in 1858. He attended what is now Colgate University and obtained a bachelor’sdegree in 1884. He also chose a career in journalism, which led to an appointment as curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1906.

Blazes Posts & StonesThere are several prominent authors who should also be mentioned.

Charles Whittlesly wrote several articles on surveying history in Ohio, such as “Surveys of the Public Lands in Ohio” in 1884. In 1927, William T. Hutchinson published his dissertation, “The Bounty Lands of the American Revolution in Ohio,”which may have been the most comprehensive history of the Virginia Military District and the U.S. Military District published to that time. William D. Pattison, former chairperson of the geography department at the University of Chicago, wrote his dissertation, “The Beginnings of the American Rectangular Land Survey System,” in 1957.[vi]

We are about to enter into a new era in Ohio surveying history books. James L. Williams, P.S., who has been giving excellent seminars on the history of surveying in Ohio for years, is releasing a book in September.

Williams has been known to say that you should not trust historians who have no experience in the surveying profession to write about the history of surveying. He can cite many examples of errors attributed to this problem. One of his favorite targets is British historian Andro Linklater, who wrote “Measuring America.”[vii]

Williams has written a history about the original surveys from a surveyor's perspective. A professional land surveyor for more than 20 years, Williams attended Ohio State University and is a product of the late Professor R. Ben Buckner’s surveying program. Williams’ forthcoming book, “Blazes, Posts, & Stones: A History of Ohio’s Original Land Subdivisions,” can be preordered online.



[i] Unpublished biographical notes by Weed.

[ii] Professor Sherman wrote: “I am also under obligation to Mr. John M. Weed for help in seeing the work thru press,” in C.E. Sherman, “Original Ohio Land Subdivisions,” vol. 3, Ohio Cooperative Topographic Survey.

[iii] Ibid, 45.

[iv] William E. Peters, 1857-1952, was a land surveyor, abstracter of titles, lawyer, and local historian. Among other books, he also published “Legal History of the Ohio University” and “An Abbreviated History of the Legal Title of The Ohio Company to Land in Southeastern Ohio.”

[v] Albion Morris Dyer, “First Ownership of Ohio Lands,” Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1911; Albert A. Graham, “Annual Report of the Secretary of State to the Governor of the State of Ohio,” in “The Land and Township System of Ohio,” 1885, p. 18-29.

[vi] Col. Charles Whittlesey, “Surveys of the Public Lands in Ohio,” Tract 61, Cleveland: Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society,, 1884; William Thomas Hutchinson, “The Bounty Lands of the American Revolution in Ohio” 1927, reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1979; William D. Pattison, “The Beginnings of the American Rectangular Land Survey System,” Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1970.

 [vii] Andro Linklater, “Measuring America,” Walker Publishing Co., 2002. 

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