Point of Beginning

Located off of Route 39, straddling the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio, there is a short, granite marker indicating the beginning point of the U.S. Public Land Survey. The marker appears to have two metal signs on either side of it. I can’t tell what they say from Google street view, but presumably these are separate plaques erected by the Ohio and Pennsylvania Historical Society’s respectively to describe the significance of the spot. The borders of West Virginia (formerly Virginia), Pennsylvania, and Ohio meet at this location. It is also the arbitrary point of origin from which the government’s survey of the entire American West begins. Inaugurated in 1785 by a U.S. Ordinance entitled “for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the western territory,” the Land Survey was the first mathematically designed rectangular land survey system ever conducted in the modern era. As stipulated, the survey was to divide the land into townships six square miles in size laid out along east and west and north and south base lines derived from a staked point of beginning. These townships could then be subdivided in 36 separate square mile sections, which could be further subdivided into minor rectangles of any desired size; and so it was with this frame of measurement that all property west of Pennsylvania and Virginia was given boundary and made salable.

On September 30th of 1785, the Geographer of the United States Thomas Hutchins led a party across the Ohio River to the Point of Beginning and initiated the survey. Hutchins measured a baseline running 42 miles west into the wilderness. Due to threat of Indian attack from the North, Hutchins team only surveyed lands to the south of the line. This first tract to be mapped and platted out was called the Seven Ranges. The United States government parceled out the ranges and sold them at auction for a minimum price of $1 per acre. Such land sales would be a principle source of revenue for the federal government for much of the 19th century.

The effect that the rectangular land survey system has had on shaping and transforming the American landscape really cannot be understated. Not only has it served as a catalyst for westward expansion and for the peopling of the West, it is also why roads in the United States are constructed to run in straight lines—sometime in direct defiance of topography—and why they intersect at right angles. It is why the Midwest is a patchwork of rectangular fields and why the furrows in those fields are plowed as a succession of parallel lines. The rectangular land survey is a classic product of Enlightenment thinking: rigidly geometric and mathematical, an indisputable and endlessly reproducible demarcation of property emanating from the intersection of legality and engineering. It wrests with nature and forces it to submit to definition. Its maps are not maps of the land but maps of how the land might be used; they are procedural guides for making the land conform to human will and for dividing the plunder fairly among its owners.

The marker found on the side of the road on Route 39 is actually not the original Point of Beginning. The true point was submerged by damming of the Ohio and is no somewhere in the middle of the river. One assumes though that it could still be found from its recorded coordinates and by tracing the original geographer’s line and the state border to their point where they meet.

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