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From the vaults: Opening of Land Surveying in Saskatchewan

Commissioned by the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association, Land Surveying in Saskatchewan: Laying the Groundwork for Property Rights and Development talks about the work of surveyors past, present and future in the province. And here’s a good long chunk of Chapter 1, which (you should pardon the expression) lays the groundwork for the rest of the book:

Land Surveying in Saskatchewan: Laying the Groundwork for Property Rights and Development

By Edward Willett

Nobody knows who the first surveyor was; he’s lost in the mists of time. That’s not too surprising, considering surveying dates back to the beginning of recorded history, some five millennia ago (which is why it’s often called “the world’s second-oldest profession.”) Hunter-gatherers had no concept of owning land, but once hunting and gathering gave way to farming, the fact that the amount of fertile land was limited meant that people needed some way of identifying and marking boundaries between different plots of land.

The ancient Egyptians in particular needed the skills of the surveyor, because all of their agricultural land was located along the Nile River. It was very fertile land because the river inundated it every year, but that annual flood also meant that property boundaries had to be relocated year after year (in part for that most modern of reasons: to determine who owed how much tax). The results of the survey were recorded on the walls of tombs of prominent land owners.

The Greeks and Romans developed land record systems further, a few centuries later. The Romans’ record of units of land for taxation purposes was called a “capitastrum.” From that word and concept we get the word “cadastre,” which can be defined as any system for collecting and utilizing information about “real property”—land, and anything immoveable (such as large buildings) attached to it. (The latter are known as “fixtures.”) Over the centuries, cadastre became the primary method of defining and protecting rights to land, whether the rights of the state or the rights of individuals.

The Romans were also the first to treat land surveying as a profession, and it was a profession they made good use of, as their spectacular cities, roads and aqueducts make clear.

A firm foundation

The work of land surveyors provides the foundation of the property rights system, analogous to the foundation of a building. If a building’s foundation is poorly constructed and/or poorly maintained, the upper structure will eventually deteriorate and collapse. Similarly, without a proper foundation laid by professional land surveyors, the property rights system would deteriorate and collapse.

Central to that foundation is the establishment of well-defined boundaries to titled lands, the concrete reality described by the title document. Although natural boundaries can be used to define lands, river banks and lakeshores can change over time. As well, not all lands for which a title is desired can be described by natural boundaries.

As a result, land surveyors’ primary function—their raison d’être—is to define artificial boundaries through survey techniques and monuments, providing a solid foundation for a property rights system that has complete confidence of both the general public and the government and allows for the peaceful occupation of parcels of land.

Surveyors in the vanguard

As Europeans began settling in North America, surveyors were in the vanguard, helping lay out new towns and farms. The earliest settlements naturally tended to occupy blocks of land about six miles square, with public buildings (a school, a church, a meeting house) at its center and farms around that. Within a block that size, you can walk between any two locations in an hour or perhaps a bit more. Many of the early grants of land to individuals or groups by the British Crown were also about this size.

After the American Revolution, the Continental Congress needed a method of allocating lands in the western part of the new country (today’s state of Ohio). The Congress adopted a plan that divided the land into townships, each six miles square and consisting of 36 sections. Each section was further divided into individual holdings of 160 acres each. The American Plan, as it came to be known, also called for the land to be surveyed in a grid pattern—and not just agricultural land, but all land. Swamp, mountain, marsh—all of it was to be subdivided and its disposition recorded and tracked in the Land Titles Office.

At the time of Confederation, several different systems of land sub-division were in use in Canada. Starting in the early 1600s, a system of river lots, like that used in France, had developed in Quebec. These were narrow strips of land fronting on navigable streams, the highways of the day. Once the river lots were filled, a second range of lots back from the river was filled, then a third, and so on. In turn these tiers of lots were formed into irregularly-shaped parishes.

Ontario’s first method of subdivision was similar, but later townships ranging from six to ten miles on a side were developed.

When the fledgling Dominion of Canada purchased the Hudson Bay’s Company’s interest in Rupert’s Land, which then became the North-West Territories, one of the first things it did was send Lt. Col. J.S. Dennis to Fort Garry “for the purpose of selecting the most suitable localities for the survey of Townships for immediate settlement.” Dennis was also ordered to come up with a recommendation for the best way to survey the enormous new lands coming under Canada’s control, so they could be allocated in good order to the settlers Canada wanted to quickly flood the region in order to cement the federal government’s control and fulfill Prime Minister John A. McDonald’s vision of a country stretching from coast to coast.

Unfortunately, the new government rather bungled the task of dealing with the people already living in the region. The arrival of Dennis and his surveyors added fuel to the growing suspicion of the First Nations and Métis that their existing rights to the lands in question were about to be extinguished. That concern was one of the sparks that would ignite the rebellions led by Louis Riel.

Dennis’s four-point plan

Dennis was well aware of the hostility his presence had evoked, but he still had a job to do. On August 28, 1869, he mailed William McDougall, the minister of public works, a four-point plan for surveying the North-West Territories:

1. The system to be rectangular; all townships to be east and west or north and south.

2. The townships to number northerly from the 49th parallel of latitude and the ranges of townships to number east and west from a given meridian, this meridian to be drawn from the 49th parallel to a point say ten miles west of Pembina, and to be called the Winnipeg Meridian.

3. The townships to consist of 64 squares of 800 acres each, and to contain in addition 40 acres, or five percent in area in each section, as an allowance for public highways.

4. The townships on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers where the same had ranges of farm lots laid out by the Hudson Bay Company, to be surveyed, the broken sections abutting against the rear limits of such range, so as to leave the same intact as independent grants.

Dennis’s plan obviously borrowed heavily from the American Plan, with a couple of notable exceptions, most importantly the size of the lots: Dennis recommended 800-acre sections broken into 200-acre lots, rather than the 640-acre sections broken into 160-acre lots of the American plan. (McDougall had urged him to do so, noting that “the first emigrants, and the most desirable, will probably go [West]rom Canada [today’s Ontario and Quebec] and it will, therefore be advisable to offer them lots of a size to which they have been accustomed”); in other words, settlers from Ontario might be disappointed if they discovered their new land in the west came in smaller chunks than the lots in the east.

The federal government approved the plan, but although 200 miles of control lines and township lines were surveyed in Manitoba in 1869, surveying stopped as unrest grew and then blossomed into the Red River Rebellion. (Despite the fourth point of Dennis’s plan, which seemed aimed at alleviating the concerns among the Métis and First Nations that the land they were already farming would be taken away from them, one of the first acts of rebellion involved Métis standing on Col. Webb’s surveyors’ chains so surveying could not proceed.)

After the rebellion, the government reconsidered the original plan and decided to use the American system of 160-acre homesteads after all. One reason: under Dennis’s system, the 5,250,000 acres available to grant in Manitoba would have produced 25,000 homesteads. Under the American system, there would be 32,800. More homesteads meant, potentially, more settlers.

Dennis’s intention to set aside five percent of each township for road allowances was also altered; instead, all township and section lines were to have road allowances 1.5 chains (99 feet/30.174m) wide. That differed from the practice further east, where most recent road allowances were one chain (66 feet/20.117m)

On May 1, 1871, the Surveyor General signed the “Manual Showing the System of Survey Adopted for the Public Lands of Canada,” which explained the Dominion Lands Survey System to what were then known as deputy surveyors. (With the passage of the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, land surveyors were appointed as “Surveyors of Dominion Lands”—Dominion Land Surveyors. The very first one was a Mr. William Crawford; the last one was appointed in 1878. Today federal land surveyors are known as Canada Land Surveyors.)

Early in July of 1871, 13 survey parties, organized by Lindsay A. Russell, first assistant to the Surveyor General, began work in Manitoba, six in settled areas and seven in areas not yet touched.

Numbering the townships

As Dennis had recommended, the 49th parallel—the border between the United States and Canada—was chosen as the base for numbering townships. Additional township lines were surveyed parallel to it at intervals going north. Thus, Township 1 is the first six-mile square north of the boundary, Township 2 the second, and so on.

East-west numbering is based on meridians. The First Meridian is at 97º27’28.4” (97 degrees, 27 minutes, 28.4 seconds) west longitude. It may seem like a rather arbitrary choice—why not choose, say, 97º even?—but it in fact there was a good reason for it: Pembina, North Dakota (referred to in Dennis’s original recommendations) was the end of the telegraph line from Chicago. To determine longitude, you have to have accurate time, and the telegraph allowed surveyors to obtain accurate time from Chicago.

Townships and ranges

In general usage, townships refer to the six-mile blocks of land that are further divided into sections and quarter-sections. However, township (abbreviated tp) also refers to the entire six-mile-wide strip of land that runs east-west between township lines. The six-mile-wide strips of land that run north-south between consecutive range lines are called, not surprisingly, ranges. By cross-referencing township and range numbers, you can find any particular 36-square-mile township. Township 3-8-3, for instance, would be the third township north of the border and the eighth township to the west of the Third Meridian.

The Second and Third Meridians, both located in Saskatchewan, are at the more straightforward 102º W. and 106º W., respectively. The Fourth, the Alberta-Saskatchewan Border, is at 110º W. (well, very slightly east of that, actually, due an error in the assumed longitude of the First Meridian and other accumulated errors along the way).

As a glance at a globe makes clear, meridians converge as they approach the North Pole. In practical terms, this means that simply establishing lines that run due north and due south as the eastern and western borders of a township will result in townships shrinking as you move north. (For example, Township 17-19-2, the 17th township north of the border and the 19th west of the Second Meridian, which includes the city of Regina, is theoretically 95 feet narrower at the north end than at the south.)

To deal with this unavoidable consequence of the Earth being a sphere, “correction lines” were introduced every 24 miles—every four townships—that allowed the townships to remain approximately the same size: they simply jog west so that a township immediately north of a correction line does not line up directly with the one underneath it. The jogs are small close to a meridian; they increase in size as you move west. The first jog west of a meridian is about 225 feet, and if everything had been laid out perfectly on a smooth globe, they’d increase by that same amount for every township you move further west.

The incredible shrinking townships

The correcting jogs to the west, though they keep townships from shrinking as you move further north, have the opposite effect for a few townships right along the eastern edge of each meridian west of the First Meridian.

In that range of townships, the further north you go, the closer the first range line east of the meridian gets to the meridian itself. Eventually, the two converge, and that’s the end of the townships in that range.

For example, Range 30 west of the second meridian shrinks to nothing just north of Old Wives Lake.

In practice, however, the surveyors made small errors along the way that accumulated, and correction lines were used not only to keep townships from shrinking to nothing as you moved further north but also to correct those accumulated errors.

Sources of error

Of course the early surveyors did everything they could to survey the land as accurately as possible, but the land—and the equipment of the time—didn’t always cooperate.

The main unit of measurement for surveyors was a Gunter’s chain: a length of chain 100 links long. Each link of the chain was about 2/3 of a foot, so the chain itself was 66 feet long. Ten chains gave you a furlong and 80 chains a mile. An area of one chain by one furlong—that is, 10 square chains—equaled one furlong.

Over time the links of the chain would wear and the chain itself would stretch. To periodically check the accuracy of the chain, surveyors were provided with a wooden yard stick. They’d measure out 22 yards, then compare the length of their chain to that measurement. If their particular chain was a little bit too long or a little bit too short, they’d include that variation in their measurements. But over vast distances, even small errors can add up: a mistake of just 1/100th of a foot in laying out the 22 yards would result in an error of 8.8 feet every half-mile.

Heat causes metal to expand and cold causes it to contract, which meant chains could vary slightly in length due to temperature. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to measure a distance accurately on flat ground than on uneven ground; among other things, the way a suspended chain sagged had to be considered, as well as its slope. As a result, very few quarter sections are the exact 2,640 feet on a side they are theoretically supposed to be.

Another source of error was simply the fact that the surveyors were under immense pressure to survey the North-West Territories as quickly as possible. In 1883, the survey’s biggest year, 1,221 townships were subdivided and 1,380 outlined.

Organizing the survey

The first task in surveying the North-West Territories fell to the Block Surveyor, who surveyed the principal meridians and the baselines that together formed the outlines of blocks. Block Surveyors had to work to a very high level of accuracy, which made their work expensive, so although at first each block contained four townships, it was later increased to 16 townships.
Once the Block Surveyor had established the outline of each block, a Township Outline Surveyor subdivided the block into townships, surveying lines running both north-south and east-west at six-mile intervals, creating a grid whose squares each contained 36 square miles.

After that, a Subdividing (or “Contract”) Surveyor would lay off the township into 36 640-acre sections, and further divide each section in quarter sections.

The Block Surveyors established their meridians and range lines using astronomy. A skilled surveyor of the time could, by a series of star observations, locate his position on the earth’s surface within 150 feet north and south and 200 feet east and west.

How parcels of land are identified; or, your farm is where?

The sections were numbered 1 to 36, beginning in the southeast corner and continuing east to west (1 to 6), then, in the next row north, west to east (7 to 12), then east to west (13 to 18) and so on. The four quarter-sections of 160 acres each are identified by compass direction (NW, NE, SW or SE). Each quarter section may also be broken down into “legal subdivisions” (16 in all, each of 40 acres, and numbered in a pattern like sections) and legal subdivisions may also on occasion be further subdivided into 10-acre quarters, again identified by compass direction. So, a particular 10-acre patch of ground could be identified as, say, the north-west quarter of legal subdivision 9 of section 15 in tp 6 range 20 west of the second meridian: NW of L.S.D. 9-15-6-20-W2. Since a quarter-section was the size of most initial homesteads, more commonly quarter-sections are likely to be identified: NE15-6-20-W2 would be the northeast quarter-section of section 15, tp 6, range 20 west of the second meridian.

All of this sounds rather cold and clinical when described in purely technical terms. In reality, surveyors were attempting to do their work in country without roads or towns, transporting their equipment on horseback or in Red River carts. They struggled with blizzards and snowdrifts, intense heat, weeks of rain, clouds of mosquitoes, mud and marshes. Many were away from family and friends for months or even years; any opportunity to travel home was a major and joyful event.

Russell reported that in that first season of 1871, “The surveys during the season were much delayed, owing to extensive fires and the resulting smoke…Two of the parties, that of Mr. Wagner, and Mr. F.H. Lynch-Staunton, were completely burned out, losing all their provisions, tents, equipage, clothing, some of their instruments and barely escaping with their lives.” Even those who weren’t caught in fires struggled in their aftermath, trying to keep their pack animals fed: “Very few patches of grass remained, they were often obliged to carry feed long distances.”

A long list of duties

Despite difficult conditions, the surveyors had a long list of duties they were expected to perform, beginning with their primary task of marking corners with monuments, in the manner specified by The Manual of Survey.

Originally, wooden posts about four feet long were used for section corners. (In forest, if a tree happened to be located at just the right place, it could be squared and marked on all four sides to take the place of the post.) The tops were shaped to a three-inch-square cross-section and each side was marked in Roman numerals with the appropriate township and section numbers. From 1871 to 1915 township corners were marked by iron posts five feet long. Typically four square pits 12 inches deep were dug, then the stake or post was planted, often in a small mound of dirt, midway between the four pits. (Over the years the methods of marking corners have changed many times; see Chapter 5 for a detailed look at the history of surveyors’ monuments in Saskatchewan.)

When posts couldn’t be used (when the corner was in a lake, for instance), a “witness monument” could be erected, usually a circular trench, possibly mounded in the middle, with a stake at the centre. A sign on the stake and an entry in the field book would specify the bearing and distance of the true corner from the witness monument.

Normally monuments were placed on the south and west limits of the road allowances. Along correction lines and the boundaries of Indian Reserves, however, corners were typically marked on both sides of the road allowance.

Although it has been illegal from the very beginning to destroy survey monuments, many of the original monuments have been lost over the years due to agricultural and development activities. Since the original, undisturbed monument governs the location of the true corner of a piece of land (even if that monument’s location is slightly different from that shown on the survey paln), part of a modern surveyor’s task is often trying to locate evidence that indicates where those monuments were originally placed.

But surveyors were expected to do much more than just place monuments. They were expected to keep extremely detailed field notes which had to be written down on the spot: nothing could be left to memory.

The field notes included the length and exact bearing of every line run, the course and distance from all witness mounds, what kind of monuments were used, where the line intersected with settler’s claims and various natural features, and the extent and height of all “remarkable hills or ridges.”

Surveyors were to note the course, width, depth and current speed of all streams, whether any lakes discovered were fresh or salt, whether the country was level or rolling, what the soil was like and how fitted it was to agriculture. They had to describe the kinds and quality of any timber present and any rapids or waterfalls that could power mills, and report deposits of coal and other minerals (specimens were to accompany their report). They were to make a careful description of, and separate reports on, any improvements made by settlers, including the names of the settlers, the types of improvements, and an estimate of their value.

Everything had to be dated, of course, and at the end of his field notes, the surveyor had to make an affidavit saying that the notes were “correct and true in all their various particulars, to the best of his knowledge and belief.”

Far from “just” marking out the locations of future homesteads, surveyors were providing the government of the expanding nation its first detailed record of just what resources its vast new lands contained.

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1 comment

    • Jim on February 11, 2013 at 11:58 pm
    • Reply

    This an information article highlighting the benefits of land surveying.

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