Initiation of the U.S. Public: Land Survey, July 17, 1851
When California joined the United States in 1850, it became part of the nation’s public domain and subject to the federal laws governing cadastral surveys. Congress enacted the law of the land, now known as the United States Public Land Survey or Township and Range System, on May 20th 1785 (Thrower 1966, 4). Sixty-six years later, on July 17th 1851, a contract surveyor named Leander Ransom inaugurated the survey in California by establishing an initial point on Mount Diablo (White 1982, 115). This solitary act initiated a process that has shaped landscapes throughout the state.
The Public Land Survey is noteworthy for its geometric organization and grounding in coordinates of latitude and longitude. Two sets of lines govern the grid. A north-south line, or principal meridian, intercepts an east-west parallel, or base line, at the initial point. Running parallel to both the base line and principal meridian are lines that form a latticework of rectangles that are called townships. Each township incorporates thirty-six square miles and is, in turn, subdivided into square mile sections. Furthermore, each section is progressively quartered into smaller and smaller geometric units (Campbell 1993, 171). Three initial points, including the original monument at Mount Diablo, were utilized to map approximately eighty-two million acres, or about four-fifths of the state. The only portions of California not mapped in this fashion were the colonial ranchos, the Channel Islands, and certain mineral lands (Uzes 1977, 147-148, 157; White 1982, 117). The main intent of the survey was to exactly describe and identify land so that it could be readily transferred by the United States, by the State of California, and by private individuals.
The Congress of the United States enacted a number of land alienation policies - the body of laws that govern land transfers - that assisted in the distribution of the public domain to state and private concerns. Many of these measures, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, allocated parcels of land concomitant with the quarter sections of the Township and Range System. Furthermore, the Land Ordinance of 1785 also contained provisions for the transfer of larger units such as the full sections granted in considerable numbers to the Southern Pacific Railroad. However, in an effort to inhibit the monopolizing of land in large contiguous units, only alternate sections were initially available for ownership by any individual concern (Johnson 1976, 143). These alienation policies and their cadastral context are visibly distinguishable on the landscape today.
In the San Joaquin Valley, for example, the moister eastern regions were settled relatively early during the 1850s and 1860s as the public domain was transferred to homesteaders through a variety of alienation acts (Eigenheer 1976, 275-284). Although these initial land ownerships were relatively small, the cadastral framework assured that farmsteads were spatially scattered and isolated from those of neighboring landholders (Jordan-Bychkov 1999, 79). On the other hand, where alternate railroad sections were present in the Central Valley, these lands were initially unavailable or avoided by early immigrants. Later, in the 1870s and 1880s when the rail road owners began selling off the sections that had been previously granted to them, landholders from adjoining sections or newcomers to the region began purchasing the available land in larger units. This explains why in some rural areas of California east of the coast range there are fewer farmsteads and associated settlement forms visible in sections once owned by the railroad (Preston 1981, 109).
Visual contrasts between alternate sections of townships are apparent in a number of other locations in California. A case in point is the pattern of planned housing developments in the Mojave Desert. Contrasting landscapes between alternate sections are distinctly revealed in the vicinity of California City where subdivided sections containing roads and houses are interspersed among sections of desert. Similarly, oil drilling and pumping in western Fresno and Kings counties began on alternate sections during the first decades of the twentieth century. Since then, oil development has spread in some areas to adjoining sections, but the checkerboard contrasts between the landscapes of oil and ranch or farm land still exist (Jennings 1953).
The Public Land Survey has contributed both directly and indirectly to the contrasting landscapes between certain regions of the Great Central Valley. In contrast to the east side, a much greater portion of the land on the west side of the valley was monopolized during the 1860s and 1870s. Owing to the inaccurate environmental assessments of the original surveyors, the availability of land, and the fraudulent use of alienation policies such as the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Acts and Military Scrip, the public domain on the west side was acquired by relative few claimants (Eigenheer 1976, 312-320). Land speculation was often the motive for these endeavors, and resulted in the removal of huge portions of the public domain. Most notorious among the monopolists was Henry Miller whose acquisitions included a one hundred mile stretch of land along the San Joaquin River (Robinson 1979, 192-193). The contemporary legacy of his and other land monopolies during the nineteenth century is readily visible in the extensive corporate landscapes that contain larger fields and fewer homesteads than the rural landscapes on the eastern side of the valley (Preston 1981, 111-112). An indirect consequence of this division is that settlements on the west side of the valley such as Mendota and Corcoran tend to be more impoverished than those in the east as fewer landowners contribute less to the local economy. The corporate settings on the west side are largely responsible for these economic and settlement disparities and the visible landscapes of poverty bear testimony to the linkage between the Public Land Survey and community health (Goldschmidt 1978).
Perhaps the most striking contemporary legacy of the Public Land Survey is the visible geometry of rural California (figure 4). In the flatlands it imparted rectangularity to the landscape that is visually inescapable. Public jurisdictional boundaries (e.g., parks, forests, military bases, national monuments, wildlife reserves), property lines, homesteads, fences, roads, canals, field and orchard patterns, and even a few water bodies dearly demarcate the cardinal orientation and checkerboard fabric of the cadastral system. The settlement infrastructure conforms particularly well to sectional boundaries, its rectangularity intensified through subsequent farm fragmentation and consolidation. In more densely populated areas, section lines serve as the framework for continuing subdivision.
County roads in the Central Valley, for example, usually conform to sectional and township boundaries. Many straight north-south roads make an abrupt right angle jog where they encounter the survey correction lines that occur every twenty-four miles north and south of a base line (Greenhood 1971, 25). Even interregional roads such as Highway 99 and Interstate 5 in the northern San Joaquin Valley are congruent over extensive stretches with the adjoining sectional or township boundaries (Johnson 1976, 143; Johnson 1990, 137-141).
The impact of the Public Land Survey is equally impressive among urban landscapes where variations on the rectangular grid pattern sometimes occur. A number of settlements established by the railroad exhibit a rectangular street framework oriented to the tracks rather than to the cardinal directions inherent in the survey. However, once successful railroad towns expanded into the countryside, developers commonly broke from the original cadastral orientation established by the railroad and built in accordance with the Public Land Survey. The street patterns of Modesto and Fresno, like those in most railroad towns, display this phenomenon.
Figure . Figure 4. The familiar checkerboard pattern of the Township & Range land division system is especially pronounced in flat areas such as the San Joaquin Valley near Kettleman City. Photograph provided by the California Department of Transportation.
In towns and cities that have strictly adhered to the geometric dictates of the Township and Range System, its influence extends to all aspects of the human landscape. Even the smallest features such as town lots and the organizational geography of homes, yards.fences, and driveways in these communities are oriented to the straight lines of the survey system. Its impact is evident, as well around the expanding margins of California’s burgeoning cities. Cities grow at the.expense of open countryside and in the process adopt the configuration of pre-existing cadastral patterns. In this fashion, urban boundaries spread along the edges of sectional roads before filling in the development tracts (Jordan 1982, 54). Moreover, land incorporated for urban expansion is usually acquired in rectangular units of varying sizes that is, in turn, a legacy of the survey’s influence on ownership patterns. As a result, the distinction between new urban developments and the rural hinterland is often stark and delineated in conformance with the cardinal directions. The zones of suburban growth around downtown San Bernardino and Sacramento, for example, are distinct for their miles of rectangular blocks and uniform streets.
After dark, the rectangtangularity of urban lights is one of the most prominent and singularly striking patterns of California’s nightscape. This nocturnal panorama is especially impressive from an elevated perspective offered by highlands or aircraft. Indeed, the westward descent into Los Angeles International Airport at night provides unsurpassed visual testimony to the sinews of the Public Land Survey.