HomeThoughts and MusingsLines Askew: Irregular Township Shapes South of Ohio’s Western Reserve

One of the benefits of speaking to various groups is that inevitably, you will be asked a great question to which you do not know the answer. Such was the case yesterday while speaking to the Summit County Genealogical Society. Afterwards, a gentleman asked a question about the cause of the irregular township shapes of Franklin and Green Townships in Summit County, Ohio. These two townships are the only two Summit County townships south of the Western Reserve, part of the Congress lands north of the Seven Ranges survey. You can clearly see these irregular quadrilaterals (impressive diction, I know) on this township map of Summit County:

Map courtesy of Wikipedia, used under public domain and GNU Free Documentation License

After a little research, I believe I have at least a partial explanation how the irregular shapes may have occurred.

In 1799, Rufus Putnam contracted for the survey of the Congress lands north of the Seven Ranges Survey, south of the Western Reserve, and east of the Tuscarawas branch of the Muskingum.1 The contract stated that the range lines were to be run parallel to the Pennsylvania boundary, however the law stipulated that they be run according to true meridian, which presented a problem for Putnam and his crews. This survey covered nine ranges, and the area was split between three surveyors: Ebeneezer Buckingham in the west, Zachariah Biggs in the center, and John Bever in the eastern three ranges.2

Given that information, when looking at a map of the survey lines of these nine ranges, it is clear that all of the lines within the western three ranges assigned to Ebeneezer Buckingham are quite a bit off from the Pennsylvania lines fairly closely followed by Biggs and Bever in the eastern six ranges.

Base layer created at http://nationalatlas.gov


Based on the above information concerning the division of the survey areas, and convincingly confirmed by the map, Ebeneezer Buckingham is likely the reason that these townships have their irregular shape. While the details of how and why this might have occurred can certainly almost certainly be discovered through additional research, it is this difference in orientation of Buckingham’s surveying in 1799 that results in the map as it appears today. Not to blame Mr. Buckinham entirely – it would appear that he simply extended the original survey line of the Seven Ranges survey (the line running between the green and orange areas on the above map) , which was itself several degrees off, as his point of reference.

The 1805 Treaty of Fort Industry opened areas west of the Tuscarawas for survey and settlement.3 A new meridian, seemingly corrected to again be parallel with the Pennsylvania line, was used for the surveys completed between 1806-1807.4. It also served as the western border of four townships (Franklin Township in Summit County and three Stark County townships) between the Western Reserve and the U.S. Military District.  This corrected line made the irregular shapes more pronounced.

The next challenge will be to try and identify who the gentleman was asking the question so he might have a chance to see my answer! Keep those great questions coming, guys. I love solving problems and learning new things in the process!

  1. Albert C. White, A History of the Rectangular Survey System. Volume 2, Appendix to a History of the Rectangular Survey System, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management, 1983), 37; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com/books: accessed 19 Feb 2012) []
  2. ibid, 37-38 []
  3. George W. Knepper, The Official Ohio Lands Book, (Columbus: Ohio Auditor of State, 2002), 44; digital images, Ohio Auditor of State (http://auditor.state.oh.us/publications/general/OhioLandsBook.pdf: accessed 19 Feb 2012) []
  4. ibid. That the corrected line follows the Pennsylvania line is based on interpretation of the map, not Knepper’s work. []


Lines Askew: Irregular Township Shapes South of Ohio’s Western Reserve — 3 Comments

  1. Chris,

    Do you think that the non-rectangular shape was caused by a compass problem where the surveyor did not account correctly for the declination of the magnetic field?

    The surveying in Norfolk County in Ontario province is really trapezoidal, and I’ve often wondered about that also.

  2. To me, it looks as though Buckingham’s initial line simply extended the survey line of the Seven Ranges survey, and the rest of his work was based on that line. However, that Seven range line he used was not parallel to the Pennsylvania line that the other two surveyors were using in the central and western areas.
    So perhaps Mr. Buckingham wasn’t entirely to blame, as the geographer’s line established by Thomas Hutchins which established the base line for the Seven Ranges survey was actually the line that was initially off by several degrees (see http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/490306.pdf). As you mention, the reason that this geographer’s line is off is due to the differences between true north and magnetic north.

  3. Actually, let me qualify my qualification. I wouldn’t necessarily blame Thomas Hutchins either. Even in 1785, the government was willing to settle for lower quality rather than pay to do it right: “Hutchins’s field notes indicate that he made no effort
    to determine variation, and his report mentions the difficulty of surveying
    by reference to the meridian when the pay was only two dollars per
    mile.” (from http://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/490306.pdf)