One of humanity's most vexing problems throughout history has been discovering the best way to fix property boundaries. Most markers are not permanent; for example, a boundary may line up with a certain tree, but the tree may die. Stones or rocks may be used, but they can be carried off. Even biblical King Solomon had to admonish those after him to "Remove not the old landmark."
The Congressional solution to legal boundaries may not have been divinely inspired, but its system was nonetheless durable, and it is outlined in the Land Ordinance of 1785. The new system was implemented in the Territory of Michigan after its formation in 1805 and led to the first successful public-private partnership in Michigan history.
This new boundary system employed a rectangular survey method that subdivided the Michigan territory into a pattern of sixmilesquare townships. All these squares were then oriented to two principal reference lines. One is a baseline that runs along presentday Eight Mile Road on the northern border of Detroit and extends west to South Haven on Lake Michigan. The other is a principal meridian that starts at the Ohio border south of Hudson, runs just east of Jackson and terminates at Sault Ste. Marie. (See map below.)
Permanent markers were placed at all the important points in what became a map resembling a checkerboard. Once this was accomplished, every piece of property in Michigan could be precisely delineated within its own square in relationship to the principal reference lineseast or west of the principal meridian and north or south of the baseline.
A map of early Michigan shows base and meridian lines. William Burt, early surveyor and inventor of the solar compass, is shown, left.
But first somebody had to establish those reference lines. The task was initiated in 1815 when the federal government contracted with private surveyors to lay out the lines. Working at a flat-fee rate per mile, the private surveyers hired and managed their own work crews including chainmen, ax men, and packers.
These crews faced an extraordinarily hostile wilderness: a land blanketed with swamps and barely penetrable forests. They could not follow the watercourses and trails that the natives used in traversing this forbidding landscape. They had to go where the surveying system took them. Typically surveyors' field notes were laden with comments like "entered tamarack swamp," "entered cedar and black ash swamp" and "entered black ash and alder swamp." The trees that blocked the straight sightings needed for precise survey lines had to be laboriously chopped down.
The work was so arduous that in some cases it taxed human endurance beyond its limits. The surveying party doing the baseline at the point that now separates Detroit and Ferndale had to give up in November 1815. The contract surveyor wrote, "We have been wading in ice and water for three days and are completely worn out. Quit and went into Detroit . . . about nine miles distant." In summer, the menace was not only swamps but the pests that breed in them. Mosquitoes were so thick and unrelenting that surveyors could barely jot down their notes.
Some of the early survey work was substandard. Although the harsh conditions under which the surveyors worked provided some excuse for less-than-perfect results, some lines nevertheles deviated unacceptably far from the true compass points they were supposed to follow.
One virtue of contracting with private parties was the same then as it is today. Those whose performances fall short of contract specifications get weeded out—their contracts may be terminated or not renewed. The process identifies superior performers and rewards them with more projects.
One early private-sector surveyor who rose above the rest of the pack was Joseph Wampler. He was hired to rerun lines done earlier that were too far askew to be left permanent, and he did an outstanding job of correction. Wampler's Lake in northern Lenawee County was named for him.
Another lake memorializing a great surveyor is Burt Lake near the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula, named for William Burt, a selftaught genius who spent only six weeks in formal schooling but had a wide range of interests in the natural sciences including geology, astronomy, and botany. He invented the typewriter as well as a highly accurate solar compass to replace the uncertain readings of magnetic compasses. Entrepreneurial surveyors like Burt were far and away more innovative than their public-sector counterparts.
He ran the principal meridian across the Straits of Mackinac and then through the swampy brush and forest north to Sault Ste. Marie. He was so highly respected for his accuracy and dedication that he was contracted to survey much of the Upper Peninsula, where his solar compass became indispensable in the ironrich land. He discovered and charted many ironore formations and also collected botanical specimens. Later he was retained to check on the accuracy of Lower Peninsula surveys completed by others.
With Burt and most of the other surveyors, the taxpayers got their money's worth and more. Surveys of basic reference lines were the essential first step to permanent settlement, and private contractors generally completed the task with a great deal of competence despite formidable obstacles.
This early exercise in contracting out got off to a somewhat shaky start, but in the end it proved a major success, to which Michigan's vitality still attests. The territory received a critical service performed at a reasonable cost and with high quality. The private-sector survey effort of Michigan laid the foundation for the state's later—and phenomenal—development and growth.