U.S. General Land Office Survey Plat Maps
This article originally appeared in Exchange,
a newsletter published by the Wisconsin Historical
Society. (Volume 37, Number
3, 1995) It is the 18th in a series of articles titled Researching
Community History. The series highlights
the Society's resources available to local
was written by Deborah Kmetz, former local history
specialist for the Wisconsin Historical Society.
During the period 1833-1866, draftsmen, first in Cincinnati and later
in Dubuque, created plat maps for almost every portion
of Wisconsin. These plats, produced as part of the
federal government's land survey, represent some of
the earliest attempts at mapping Wisconsin land at
a local level. Copies of the plat maps, some as beautifully
hand-drawn renderings and others as photostatic reversals,
can be found in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical
Society. The plat copies exist for virtually every
area of the state and contain fascinating information about
the nineteenth-century landscape. Each map allows significant
detail and many maps note the locations of individual
cabins, springs, millsites and landings as well as
trails, rivers, streams and villages.
The clerks and draftsmen who produced these maps probably never saw
the land and instead created the plats using information
contained in the field notebooks of contract surveyors. These surveyors,
hired by the federal government, walked the land marking and measuring
the township boundaries, and then further subdivided each township
into 36 sections. As they walked these measured lines, the surveyors
also recorded their observations about the landscape, noting natural
features and evidence of human habitation. The surveyors drew sketch
maps of each township in their notebooks and marked the major features
of the land. These sketch maps served as a basis for the plat maps.
The program of surveying, called the U.S. Rectangular Land Survey,
began in Ohio and proceeded westward. It advanced two purposes, both
related to the sale of land. One purpose was to explore and describe
the land, then regarded by the federal government as a source of income
but also a virtually unknown frontier wilderness. The second purpose
involved parceling the land into manageable pieces for relatively
efficient and quick sale to a growing number of European Americans
eager to settle.
Federal land offices used the plat maps to provide information about
the land to prospective buyers. The interested parties
could presumably go to a land office, look at the plat maps created
from the surveyors' field notebooks, and get a sufficient idea of
the quality and type of land available for sale. Since each plat map
covered only a six-mile square of land, they provided enough suitable
detail for an informed purchase. The first U.S. government land offices
in Wisconsin Territory opened in Mineral Point and Green Bay in 1834.
An office opened in Milwaukee in 1836, and 12 more would follow throughout
the state. A list appears below.
|St. Croix River Falls
||St. Croix Falls
Using the plat maps, the federal government sold the land by section
(640 acres) or by subdivisions of a section: half sections
(320 acres), quarter sections (160 acres) and quarter-quarter
sections (40 acres). The plat maps clearly delineated
the 36 sections and the quarter sections for prospective
buyers. The local land agents could also further subdivide
the sections on the maps into smaller acreages for
smaller land sales. By looking at the maps, prospective
buyers could see the locations of rivers, streams,
lakes, springs, mineral outcroppings, bluffs, salt
licks and other elements of the natural landscape which
had been recorded in the field notebooks. The surveyors
also noted vegetation, and the plat maps showed the
location and extent of different kinds of land cover
including prairie, groves, openings, sugar bushes,
windfalls, marshes, tamarack swamps and cranberry bogs.
In their notes, surveyors made efforts to distinguish
between high and low ground and rated the land as first, second or
third rate for agricultural use or other economic purposes such as
logging. The ratings sometimes appeared on the plat maps.
A look at an individual plat map, the one for Township 1 North, Range
2 East, suggests some of the things a 19th-century
land purchaser or a 20th-century researcher might find
when using the maps. (See illustration below.) This
township is located on land in present-day southwest
Lafayette County. Lucius Lyon completed the interior
survey for the township on April 8, 1833. This particular
map is quite beautiful, hand drawn on a beige paper
backed with muslin. The markings appear in black, brown,
red, green and blue ink. The square township outline
measures 12 inches by 12 inches.
Black ink lines divide the township into 36 sections
and red ink lines subdivide it into quarter sections.
This visually creates the "rectangular" grid
for which the survey is named. Looking at the map reinforces
the image of an abstract measurement overlaying the
land. Each section in the grid contains a number which
identifies it, beginning with Section one in the upper
right-hand corner and ending with Section 36 in the
lower right-hand corner.
The square township outline represents the major east-west and north-south
boundary lines which define the township itself. The
sections running immediately inside of the outline's top edge (an
east-west line) and its left-hand edge (a north-south line) are further
subdivided into half-quarter sections and quarter-quarter sections.
The true acreage of each of these parcels is noted within the subdivision
itself, for example, "A80" or "A41.29." These quarter-quarter sections
immediately adjacent to the top and left-hand township boundary lines
vary from the standard 40 acres because of adjustments made to compensate
for the earth's curvature.
Within this grid of 36 sections, the mapmaker drew in symbols for elements of the natural landscape. On this map brown ink marks the natural watercourses which are all fairly small creeks with tight meanders. The lines appear almost as "squiggles." On other maps, where the watercourses are wider, shorelines are drawn, and blue shading represents the water itself.
The mapmaker also noted vegetation. An irregular and continuous line
begins in Section 35 and moves to the northwest, loops
back to the southeast, and reaches out again to the northwest. The
line is accompanied by the mark , appearing
at intervals along one edge. This same edge is shaded
green on the map in the archives collection. The area within the marked
and shaded side of the line represents prairie; the area on the other
side of the line stands for a mixture of prairie and groves of oak
trees. (Though somewhat difficult to see at the reduced scale in the
accompanying illustration, the symbols appear clearly on the maps
In addition to these natural features, the map also offers evidence
of human habitation. The mapmakers used brown ink to
indicate transportation routes which the field surveyors
had seen. These are marked by a line accompanied by
a series of small dots that appear at intervals.
On this map the routes may be Indian trails, wagon roads, or both. Often early wagon roads followed pre-existing Indian trails. Several routes converge in Section 32 at "White Oak Spring." The route which runs to the southwest eventually reaches Galena, Illinois. At the time Lucius Lyon surveyed this township, these routes probably served as wagon roads along which teamsters hauled lead, smelted in the township's furnaces, to Galena for transportation down the Mississippi River.
The map also shows "Gratiot's Grove," a settlement in Sections 22 and 23, located near the words "Furnace" and "H. Gratiot's," each accompanied by the symbol . On survey maps this symbol can represent a variety of structures ranging from cabins to inns, lead furnaces to fur trading posts. Here the symbol probably marks a lead smelting furnace and H. Gratiot's residence. Shullsburg, another settlement located in Sections 3 and 10, is marked by a different symbol, , representing several blocks in a street layout.
The mapmaker noted additional single dwellings or furnaces along various trails or roads, including "McGoon's Furnace," in Section 25, "N. Davis" in Section 34, "Berry's" in Section 22 and a "Furnace" in Section 31. The plat also includes several unidentified structures marked with the symbol .
How does the information contained in this map correspond to the
written observations made by surveyor Lucius Lyon?
In Lyon's 1833 written summary of this township (see
article 17 of this series: U.S.
General Land Office: Surveyors' Field Notes) he notes, "The afore
described township, embracing as it does, some of the
oldest wrought and richest mines in the country; is
generally rolling, 1st rate land, about half prairie
and half thinly timbered with oak, with an undergrowth
of hazel." The
map does not locate any of the mines. It does, however,
offer the location and range of the prairie and oak
savannahs. The written summary underscores the land's value as 1st
rate land and gives a sense of the topography with the word "rolling." In
the written summary Lyon names all three settlements
marked on the map: "Shullsburg," "Gratiot's
Grove," and "White Oak Spring" and adds "each of which settlements
now contain about five or six families, but the two
former, in the most prosperous days of the mining business,
have heretofore at one time, contained not less than
forty families each..." Lyon
also mentions abandoned mines, "The mines which have heretofore been
very productive are situated principally on sections
2, 3, 10, 11, and 14 but are now many abandoned as
they are thought not to be worth working." Although
the mines do not appear on the map, the section numbers
do. Locating the numbers on the map reveals that the
sections containing the abandoned mines are clustered
together in an area surrounding Shullsburg.
The summary and the map convey different kinds of information. The
written word provides descriptive information such
as the number of families living in a settlement or
the status of the mines. It also provides evaluative
information where Lyon perceived a mining operation past its prime.
The plat map, on the other hand, provides spatial information — specific
locations, sizes and shapes of natural or man-made features, and distances
such as a settlement's proximity to a transportation route. Either
source provides valuable information, but used together the written
summary and the plat map produce a fuller picture of the township
landscape at the time of the survey. Sometimes it is vital to use
the two sources together, as in the case of the vegetation. The written
field notes identify the exact nature of the vegetation which is not
apparent from the map symbols.
Lucius Lyon initiated Wisconsin's rectangular survey in 1832 with
his work on townships in today's Grant and Lafayette
Counties. That same year George Harrison, J.W. Stephenson,
Robert Clark, Jr., Harvey Parke and Sylvester Sibley surveyed townships
in present-day Green, Rock, Iowa and Sauk Counties. John Mullet and
Henry S. Howell surveyed two townships in Columbia County and two
in Marquette County. Mullet and Ira Cook surveyed two townships in
Marquette County and one in Marquette and Green Lake Counties. All
of Mullet's surveys involved land along the strategic transportation
route between Fort Winnebago and Fort Howard. By 1836, the year the
federal government established Wisconsin Territory, surveying had
begun on selected townships in another 21 present-day counties. The
surveying continued at a steady pace through 1866, when surveyors
completed work in the northern interior of the state.
Two factors intertwined in the timing of the surveying and mapping:
Native American land ownership and desire on the part
of European Americans for land to settle. As late as
1825, the federal government formally recognized that
virtually all of the land in what would become Wisconsin
was owned by Native Americans. By 1848 only 23 years
later, Indian land titles for all of this land, except
the small Oneida Reserve, had been transferred to the
United States government in exchange for payments of
cash and goods, and sometimes with the retention of hunting and fishing
rights. The land cessions took place between the United States government
and individual tribes and affected different parcels of land at different
times. The cessions began with land in the south owned
by certain Ojibwe (Chippewa), Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago)
groups. The cessions continued with land owned by the Menominee on
the shores of Lake Michigan and Green Bay and moved northward to include
land held by the Dakota (Sioux) and the Ojibwe. Menominee Indians
retained the last land tract to be transferred to the U.S. government
in the state, a tract located in east-central Wisconsin and ceded
at Lake Pow-aw-hay-Kou-nay (Lake Poygan) in 1848.
Map and caption
from Robert C. Nesbit's
Wisconsin: A History,
Second Edition, Revised
and updated by
William F. Thompson.
c. 1973, 1989.
(Click on image
for larger version.)
Generally, the surveyors did not begin their measurements until the
U.S. government secured title to the land. This map,
reprinted from Robert C. Nesbit's Wisconsin: A History, shows
the dates and extent of the 11 principal treaties
of cession. It can be very instructive to parallel
that map with the path of the rectangular survey across
the state. Comparing the two helps explain the timing
of the surveying, underscoring the fact that the exchange
of land title was supposed to occur before the survey could proceed
and the government could sell the land to new European
American settlers. European Americans did not always
wait for the official land transfer or the surveying
to occur. Settlers squatted on Native American land and engaged themselves
in mining, farming and trading. In fact, the incursion of European
American settlement precipitated tensions with resident Native Americans
and sometimes accelerated a land cession. The survey
plat maps may record the locations of early European American settlement,
but other research sources must be used in order to determine whether
the settlements pre-date treaties.
Evidence of Native American habitation varies from map to map, depending on the date of the survey and the nature of the settlement. Although a hunting camp probably would not appear on a survey map, a maple sugar camp or a permanent village might be recorded. The survey plat for Township 26 North, Range 16 East in present-day Shawano County provides a rich source of information about resident Native Americans in 1845. (See illustration below.) The symbols, , denote an Indian village, probably Menominee, along the west bank of the Wolf River in Section 29. Directly across the river, on the east bank, a trail leads to two sugar camps, one located a mile and a half away and another about two miles farther. Approximately two miles north of the village, along the river in Section 16, a "Trail to Green Bay" begins at an "Indian Landing." It proceeds to the southeast and intersects the sugar camp trail at the border of Sections 22 and 23. Theodore Conkey completed the interior survey for the land east of the Wolf River in this township in 1845.
When using the map in conjunction with Conkey's field notes, a researcher finds the land is composed primarily of wetlands and a mixture of deciduous and coniferous forests. A line with the marking accompanying it at intervals creates three irregular shapes on the map, one in the southeast, one in the center and one in the north center. The area within the marked side of the line represents wetlands and swamp conifers, including white cedar, black spruce, tamarack and hemlock. The others contain a mixture of deciduous and coniferous forests including sugar maple, basswood and oaks; pines, birch and beech. The sugar maples are concentrated in the areas marked "sugar camps," where the Indians probably tapped maple sap in the spring.
Detail of the survey
plat map for
Township 26 North,
Range 16 East,
located in present-
County. (Click on
image for a
The approach developed through the rectangular survey for organizing
the land has continued to exercise influence well past
the survey's completion. The plat maps created by the Cincinnati and
Dubuque mapmakers have been used as base maps for subsequent endeavors
including later 19th-century county atlases. The divisions of section,
half section, quarter section and quarter-quarter section, along with
the township coordinates, still form the fundamental basis of legally
identifying parcels of land in Wisconsin.
The survey plats, as examples of cartography, also offer insight
into 19th-century aesthetics and technology. The maps
were drawn on sturdy, fine quality papers. Their fiber-based
content has preserved them well. Mapmakers used hand
held pens that they dipped into a variety of inks, made from minerals
and organic materials. The delicacy and deftness of the drawing offer
a tactile and visual beauty that differs from the standards of 20th-century
mechanical and electronic uniformity and regularity. The maps,
as well as the field notes themselves, vary in detail
and presentation, revealing the skill of the mapmaker as well as the
The United States General Land Office survey plat maps comprise Archives
Series 698 at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Twenty-one
bound volumes contain hand-drawn plat maps for townships
in township tiers 1-30. These tiers cover approximately
two-thirds of the state from the Wisconsin-Illinois
border to an east-west line running through Medford.
Photostatic reversals of the maps are available for
townships north of this line. The maps are also available
on reels of microfilm, through interlibrary
loan. In order to identify the appropriate volume, photostat or
microfilm reel, researchers will need to know the township
and range coordinates of the township in which they
are interested. (See article 17 of this series for
General Land Office: Surveyors' Field Notes) The Board of Commissioners
of Public Lands in Madison holds the set of original
plat maps used at the land offices in Wisconsin. The
maps in Archives Series 698 are certified 19th-century
copies of the original maps, signed by the U.S. Surveyor
Sources used for this article include:
Order Upon the Land, Wisconsin: A History and articles appearing
in the Wisconsin Magazine of History may
be ordered through interlibrary loan. The author would
like to thank Gerry Strey, former Wisconsin Historical Soceity
map curator, for her assistance in preparing this article.
- "A Guide to the Land Records at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin," by Michael Edmonds;
- Order Upon the Land: The U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country (1976) by Hildegard Binder Johnson;
- Wisconsin: A History (1973) by Robert C. Nesbit; and
- "Wisconsin: A Natural Laboratory for North American Indian Studies" by Nancy Oestreich Lurie, which appeared in the Wisconsin Magazine of History , Vol. 53, No. 1, Autumn 1969.