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Surveyors' Notes and Plats

U.S. General Land Office Surveyors' Field Notes and Plats

Map of Survey Plat for Madison in 1851.

Detail from the G.L.O. Survey Plat of Madison, 1851
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What can I find here?

The land that is now known as Wisconsin was surveyed by the federal government between 1833 and 1866. The survey was done in order to divide the vast public domain into salable-sized lots that could be sold, or otherwise divested, to raise funds for the federal government and to encourage settlement.

The land was divided into 6-mile-squares called towns or townships. The towns were subdivided into 36-mile-square sections. As surveyors traveled, they took field notes that became the official record of the surveys. They recorded vegetation, especially tree cover; land features such as soils, streams and rock outcroppings; and evidence of human habitation including villages, cabins, trails and roads.

Mapmakers at the U.S. General Land Office used these surveyors' notes to create official plat maps. The plat maps were used to sell or grant land to settlers, railroads, speculators and other interested parties.

These field notes and surveys are a unique resource for recreating Wisconsin's pre-settlement landscape, identifying Native American cultural sites, and tracing the earliest signs of settlement.

When used in conjunction with the Wisconsin Land Economic Inventory maps, developed between 1929 and 1949, you can compare the Wisconsin landscape before it was settled and approximately 100 years later.

How is it organized?

Physical

  • The Archives houses microfilm copies of the complete sets of both the surveyors' field notes and manuscripts of the survey plat maps for every section in each township in Wisconsin.
  • Interior and exterior survey notes are organized by township and range.
  • Interior survey notes fill 56 reels of microfilm.
  • Exterior survey notes fill 9 reels of microfilm.
  • To identify the appropriate reels, researchers will need to know the township and range survey coordinates of the township they are interested in researching. With that information, reference archivists can find the applicable notes.
  • The field notes and survey plats are also available by appointment at any of our Area Research Centers (ARCs).
  • They may also be ordered through interlibrary loan.

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