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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 historians. It 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.

Mineral Point 1834 Stevens Point 1852
Green Bay 1834 Superior 1855
Milwaukee 1836 Eau Claire 1857
Muscoda 1841 Bayfield 1860
St. Croix River Falls 1848 St. Croix Falls 1860
Hudson  1849  Wausau 1872
Menasha 1852 Ashland 1886
La Crosse 1852

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 Vegetation symbol. , 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 themselves.)

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 Structure 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, Street layout 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 Structure 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.

Principal Indian
Map and caption
reprinted from
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, Indian village symbol.,  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 Terrain symbol. 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-
day Shawano
County. (Click on
the image for a
larger version.)

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 surveyor.

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 instructions: U.S. 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 General.

Sources used for this article include:

  1. "A Guide to the Land Records at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin," by Michael Edmonds;
  2. Order Upon the Land: The U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country (1976) by Hildegard Binder Johnson;
  3. Wisconsin: A History (1973) by Robert C. Nesbit; and
  4. "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. 
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.


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