Democracy for Some: Defining the Indiana Landscape through the Rectangular Survey System

“Drawing of George Washington as Surveyor” in Andrew G. Gardner, “How Did Washington Make His Millions?” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2013) accessed http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter13/washington.cfm

A small group of men made their way through the thick southern Indiana forest dragging chains in their wake. Once in a while, they stopped to score a tree, plant a post, and record their progress. For those residents of the Indiana Territory who witnessed this bizarre parade in the fall of 1804, this group represented vastly different futures. For Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the young United States, this group of men sent to survey the Indiana Territory represented the spread of democracy. For the indigenous people who first called this land home, the marks cut and burned into the trees represented the impending and permanent loss of that home. Despite their disparate perspectives, both would soon see the redefinition and reorganization of the landscape by the rectangular survey system.

Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indiana Territory,” The Indiana Historian (March 1999), 4, accessed in.gov/history.

After the American Revolutionary War and via the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the British surrendered their claim to the thirteen colonies and ceded a vast amount of western and southern territory to the young United States. In order to grow the republic and repay war debt, the new government needed a system of organizing this land for sale. In response to these needs, the Continental Congress created a committee chaired by Thomas Jefferson to create a system for surveying the new territory.

Jefferson passionately believed that the system had to make small plots of land available to the individual farmer (as opposed to large plots available only to the wealthy, to speculators, or to large companies) in order to spread democracy throughout the territory. In 1785, Jefferson wrote:

We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation. Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s [sic] liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.

“Jefferson” engraving by William Holl, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The committee’s answer was the Land Ordinance of 1784 which attempted to define and standardize surveying methods to create a grid of small plots of land across the territories. These surveyed squares could then be subdivided, numbered, and recorded for sale. In this manner, the landscape could be divided and sold to settlers unseen — that is, without the surveyor having to physically walk the entire area, mapping the land in the old system of metes and bounds (which used natural markers like trees and rivers to define property). This older system was time consuming, required the surveyor’s physical presence in a sometimes dangerous landscape, and often led to land disputes as natural markers were altered or disappeared. While the 1784 Ordinance did not become law, it did define the rectangular system and laid out the principles that would measure and divide the landscape into what it is today.

“Surveyor’s Compass” in Andrew G. Gardner, “How Did Washington Make His Millions?” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2013) accessed http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter13/washington.cfm

On May 20, 1785, Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, a revised version of the 1784 plan which further described the system and codified a detailed survey plan which used mathematics and standardized chains for measuring. The ordinance stated that surveying would begin on the Ohio River, at a point that shall be found to be due north from the termination of a line which has been run as the southern boundary of the state of Pennsylvania.” According to historian Matthew Dennis, this rectangular survey system allowed the leaders of the young government to apply  their “nationalistic, scientific, and engineering mentality in transforming the continental landscape of North America, reconceptualizing its space, subduing and organizing it, and distributing it to white yeoman farmers in the interest of national expansion, and, they believed, democracy.”

Committee of Congress. Draft Report of Northwest Ordinance, March 1784. Broadside with emendations by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The removal of the native tribes living in the territories was the first step of the survey process.  Both the proposed 1784 Land Ordinance and the adopted 1785 Land Ordinance called for American Indian removal. The United States government worked towards this end through both military action, economic pressure, and treaties in order to make space for white male settlers to farm the land. On July 13, 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, an act which created the Northwest Territory (an area that would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) and provided a system for settling the area to create new states.

Map of the Northwest Territory, Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indiana Territory,” The Indiana Historian (March 1999), 4, accessed in.gov/history.

The U.S. government viewed conflict with indigenous populations in the area as the greatest obstacle to the expansion and settlement of white Americans in the territory. According to historian Eric Hemenway of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians:

Between 1774 and 1794, Indian villages in New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio were constantly attacked by the American army and militias. The Shawnee, Delaware, Iroquois, Miami, Odawa, Wyandot and Mingo saw unspeakable violence committed against their villages during this time period. Over 100 Indian villages were burned and destroyed, leaving an unknown number of civilian casualties.

“Battle of Fallen Timbers,” engraving, 1846, in John Frost. Pictorial History of the United States, accessed http://ushistoryimages.com/sources.shtm#F

The U.S. government applied military, economic, and diplomatic pressure on native peoples to cede land and create a peace, no matter how tenuous. The military pressure was applied by President George Washington’s assignment of General Anthony Wayne to battle a confederacy led by Miami, Shawnee, and Lenape (Delaware) chiefs. After suffering major losses at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, many tribes living in the Northwest Territory were resigned to settling for peace. This resulted in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, in which some tribal leaders ceded large sections of land in Ohio and Indiana to the United States and opened much of the area to white settlement. Many Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Miami, Eel River, Wea, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Piankashaw, and Kaskaskia lost large portions of their homeland. Still other native leaders resisted and contested this and subsequent treaties, and would later fight to regain their land under the leadership of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.

Detail of “Painting of Indian Treaty of Greenville,” oil on canvas, 1795, Chicago History Museum, accessed http://digitalcollection.chicagohistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16029coll3/id/1660

While the U.S. government offered payment in goods for signing the treaty, some Native Americans became dependent on these annuities as the land on which they made their living was taken from them. In some cases, they fell into debt and lost even more land as a result. This situation was often exploited by the United States government. For example, in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote William Henry Harrison:

We shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among [Great Lakes Indians] run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.

After the Treaty of Greenville provided prospective colonists the security of peaceful settlement, Congress passed the Land Act of 1796. This legislation provided for the sale of land in the Northwest Territory. It reiterated that surveys would be conducted in areas “in which the titles of the Indian tribes have been extinguished.” It also appointed a Surveyor General directed to employ deputy surveyors.

Jared Mansfield, Essays, mathematical and physical : containing new theories and illustrations of some very important and difficult subjects of the sciences, New-Haven : Printed by William W. Morse, [1801], accessed HathiTrust.
General Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran and an organizer of the Ohio Company, became the country’s first Surveyor General in 1796. Jefferson, however, became unhappy with Putnam’s irregular results and soon began to seek a more mathematically minded candidate who could factor in the curvature of the earth among other issues. Jared Mansfield (1759-1830) came to the attention of President Jefferson in 1801 upon the publication of his book Essays, Mathematical and Physical, one of the earliest works of original mathematics by an American. On May 21, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Mansfield, and conveyed his disappointment with Putnam for errors in “laying off the townships, not having been able to run parallel East & West Lines.” Jefferson expressed his confidence in Mansfield: “I am happy in possessing satisfactory proof of your being entirely master of this subject, and therefore in proposing to you to undertake the office.” Mansfield began his work as Surveyor General in the fall of 1803 as Congress and other U.S. government officials worked to open up the territories to settlement.

“Roger Woodfill, Greenville & Grouseland Treaty Lines,” accessed Virtual Museum of Surveying.

The land which would become Indiana was difficult to survey because much of it had yet to be acquired through treaty. The Vincennes Tract, an area ceded by local tribal authorities to French settlers in 1742, provided another unique obstacle. This area ran along the Wabash River and thus had been surveyed at an angle, and French settlers acquired titles to the land based upon this survey. Since 1787, the inhabitants of the Vincennes Tract regularly petitioned Congress to validate their titles. In May 1802, Congress determined that the territory should be surveyed by the rectangular method except where it had been previously surveyed. In other words, the Vincennes Tract would sit like an oddly angled puzzle piece within the rest of the rectangular pieces. The lines forming the rectangles would stop at the edge of the Vincennes Tract and then continue after it on all sides. According to survey historian Bill Hubbard, since the purpose of the rectangular survey was to organize the land for sale, there was no need to resurvey the tract.

Map of the Northwest Territory, Indiana Historical Bureau, “Indiana Territory,” The Indiana Historian (March 1999), 4, accessed in.gov/history.

Meanwhile, in March 1803, Ohio attained statehood, which left the rest of the former Northwest Territory as the Indiana Territory. Congress wanted the Indiana Territory surveyed in full in preparation for American colonization. In June 1803, the Vincennes Tract’s boundaries were confirmed through Indian treaties and the edges surveyed. Surveying the Indiana Territory around the irregular tract became Mansfield’s first challenge as Surveyor General. U.S. government officials assumed it was a matter of time before the rest of the territory would be acquired from the Native Americans, and thus Mansfield needed to develop a technique for surveying this vast landscape that did not include the time-consuming and even dangerous physical trek through the entire landscape measuring with steps and chains. Instead, he determined that he could create a meridian and a baseline ran off the corners of the Vincennes Tract which would be the foundation of a grid made up of six-mile by six mile square plots of land called townships.

Mansfield planned a baseline that would start at the southwestern corner of the Vincennes Tract and run east-west to the edge of the territory and a meridian which ran from the southeastern edge of the tract north through the territory. The north-south line was called the Second Principal Meridian and coincides with 86° 28’ west longitude. The base line coincides with 38° 28’ 20” north latitude and became known locally as Buckingham’s Base Line. From the intersection of these lines, survey lines could be calculated every six miles in all four directions to create the grid of townships. Each township could then be further divided into one mile squares creating thirty-six sections of land. Each section contained 640 acres of land which could then be divided further in half, quarter, half-quarter, and quarter-quarter sections as needed. These plots would then be numbered and sold to settlers without the surveyor hiking the entire territory, the running of the two lines being the only physical surveying needed.

While Mansfield mathematically planned the baseline which would serve as a foundational line for the survey of the Indiana Territory, someone still had to mark the line into the landscape and take measurements. That task fell to a small crew led by deputy surveyor Ebenezer Buckingham, Jr., and he would long be remembered for his efforts. Originally from Connecticut, Buckingham migrated to Ohio in 1796 and began work as a farmhand for General Putnam. He assisted Putnum on survey trips in several Ohio counties, and in 1799, Putnam swore in Buckingham as a deputy surveyor.

Michael P. Conzen, The Making of the American Landscape (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 143.

In 1804, Mansfield appointed Ebenezer Buckingham to lead a crew to run the base line. They began at a point on the south-side of the Vincennes Tract and ran a line east for 67.5 miles, marking off miles and half-miles on trees. Buckingham and crew then went to the southeast corner of the Vincennes Tract and ran a line due north until they reached the baseline. When they intersected the baseline, they marked the initial point. Then, they marked section corners and half-section corners until they reached the east end of the Vincennes Tract again. They packed up for the winter and returned the next season to finish extending the baseline east twelve miles and the meridian north in September 1805. The placement of the baseline and meridian in these locations allowed Buckingham and his crew to lay the foundations for the survey system and include the Vincennes Tract in it, all without encroaching on lands that still belonged to Native Americans. After this, the townships could be numbered and the land further divided. The township numbers would be increased east and west away from the Principal Meridian and be numbered away from the Baseline north and south, starting at the Initial Point where the two lines crossed.

“Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illinois,” daguerreotype, circa 1846-7,Daguerreotype collection, ibrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.53842/

Because the rectangular survey clearly mapped the land, organized, and numbered it, settlers knew that any land they purchased had a secure title. This was not true in states not mapped in such a standardized way.  For example, in Kentucky, the same land was sometimes surveyed multiple times in different ways giving rise to title disputes. For example, in 1808, a carpenter and cabinet maker named Thomas Lincoln purchased a farm near Nolin Creek, Kentucky. The following year, in the cabin that Thomas built on his land, his son Abraham Lincoln was born. The family soon moved to another farm, along Knob Creek for which Thomas paid cash years later in 1815. However, the titles of both his farms were challenged by competing claimants. According to Abraham Lincoln biographer William E. Gienapp, because Thomas did not have the resources to fight a possibly extensive court battle, “he simply sold out at a loss and in December 1816 moved to Indiana, where the federal government had surveyed the land.” Thus, the survey system played no small role in bringing the studious young man who would become the sixteenth President of the United States to Indiana.

Survey Map (left)accessed Elkhart County Surveyor, http://elkcosurveyor.org/history/;
Aerial View of Indiana (right) accessed Indiana Public Media,

The legacy of the survey system still defines how Hoosiers interact with the landscape today and is seen in our counties, townships, and the quilted pattern of Indiana farmland. In fact, much of the country is organized by this system. According to historian Michael P. Conzen, “Except for the original 13 colonies, Texas, and some western mountainous areas, most of the country is parceled out on the township and range system.” The methods perfected by Mansfield and executed by men like Buckingham were applied throughout the vast landscape of the United States to the benefit of some and the anguish of others. In 2018, IHB will place a state historical marker for Buckingham’s Base Line in DuBois County at one point of the line, literally inserting the story of this complex landscape back into the landscape itself – a reminder that as Hoosiers we share both the legacy of those industrious settlers who arrived following a dream of a better life in a bright new democracy and the legacy of those native peoples who were harmed to make that dream a reality.

Photo from Miami Nation of Indiana, accessed http://www.miamiindians.org/

Special thanks to Annette Scherber who contributed research for this post.

Irene Ray: Alleged “Witch” of Rochester

Irene Ray. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

In the spring of 1692, a small village in Massachusetts was swept with a hysteria that started after a group of young girls accused several local women of participating in witchcraft and forging pacts with the devil. That hysteria, of course, would lead to the infamous Salem witch trials and in the following months, approximately 150 people would face witchcraft accusations; over 20 of those would be found guilty and put to the gallows.

The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 12, 1938, accessed Newspapers.com

Two hundred and forty-six years later, newspapers across the country would once again run headlines including words like “witch”, “hex”, and “spells” and yet another woman’s life would be ruined due to false accusations of witchcraft.

On May 11, 1938, Irene Ray and her husband Charles were driven from the town of Rochester, Indiana due to allegations that Irene was a practitioner of witchcraft and had hexed several town folk. It was alleged that her hexes had caused personal property damage, serious illness, and even death. Irene and Charles had moved to the town six years prior to this unfortunate episode along with their daughter, Iloe, and their cat (a strange fact that many of the newspaper stories were sure to include). What could have happened in the intervening years that would cause the townspeople to call for her removal?

When the Ray family moved to Rochester, they settled in a shack on the outskirts of town. One article in the Logansport Tribune even claims that the couple were forced from the nearby town of Plymouth, Indiana before finding themselves in rather dire circumstances in Rochester. Soon, they applied for and were given “relief” or welfare support. They were placed in a house on Audubon Street, where their neighbors soon came to resent them. They were seen as outsiders who were living off of the tax money of the citizens of Rochester who, although themselves poor, did not apply for relief.

Georgia Conrad, “victim” of Irene Ray, The Tennessean, June 19, 1938, accessed, Newspaper.com.

It may be that Irene herself started the rumors of witchcraft as a way to scare people away from her, relieving the family from taunts and other attacks. No matter how the rumors started, though, soon they spread like wildfire. At first, the townsfolk merely murmured about the witch but after the sudden illness of Georgia Knight Conrad, those murmurs became shouts. Irene had been trying to purchase some antiques from Georgia and had made several visits to her house to pressure the 24-year-old into selling them. On one of these visits, it is said that Irene slipped into Georgia’s bedroom and plucked some hairs from her brush. When leaving, Irene pronounced, “You’ll be sorry soon!” That evening, Georgia fell into a faint and was soon diagnosed as having a “leaking heart valve.” It wasn’t long before the family connected the dots.

Another alleged victim of Mrs. Ray was Chief of Police Clay Sheets. After the chief oversaw the removal of Irene’s granddaughter from her home due to charges against the “morals of the household,” newspapers reported that “dancing with rage, Irene screamed: ‘You are just a tool of that Knight Woman and you will be sorry, too!’” A few days later, Chief Sheets died of what appeared to be a heart attack.

In addition to human hearts, she was accused of hexing one man’s crops. Mrs. Ray made a habit of taking a shortcut through a field owned by Mr. “Friday” Castle, who didn’t appreciate the alleged witch trespassing on his property. When he confronted her she “ran her eyes back and forth over the patch until they had covered every inch of it. Then she . . . said ‘It won’t make a bit of difference now whether anybody walks on it or not.’” According to Castle, no potatoes sprouted that spring.

Other accusations included Mrs. Ray inducing insomnia, nervous indigestion, fires, floods, and more. The alleged methods of hexing ranged from using voodoo dolls to taking hairs of the victim, intertwining them with hairs from her cat, placing them in vinegar and burying them. It was also said that she consulted a more powerful witch from Plymouth when the hex she wanted to perform was above her ability. This consultant would “chew a dime into somewhat the shape of a nail to drive it into a dead tree, by blows of the horny heel of his palm . . . the victim would surely drop dead as soon as the magician had time to say three times: ‘Black Jack of baccarat, hominy domini, corpse.’”

The allegations against Irene Ray mounted and police were increasingly pressured to charge her with witchcraft. Fortunately, unlike Salem Massachusetts in 1692, Indiana had no laws against witchcraft. The state did have vagrancy laws, in essence making it illegal to be homeless. Irene was charged with vagrancy and arrested, only to be released when she promised the new Chief of Police that she and her family would leave town.

Irene Ray press release, May 12, 1938. Courtesy of the Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection.

Although Irene denied the accusations against her, saying “The whole thing is wrong. I can’t do anything like that,” she and her husband Charles moved from the town and settled near Manitou Lake. The story of a “witch” being driven from town spread across the country and appeared in newspaper headlines from California to New York. Most were skeptical of the allegations and cast the whole affair in a grim light. In many of the articles, it is mentioned that Irene was of American Indian descent, although Irene admitted that even she wasn’t sure if this was accurate. The inclusion of this fact, along with that of her alleged consultant was African American, suggests that the incident was as much about race as it was about the financial situation of the family.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 05, 1938, Accessed Newspaper.com.

Just six months later, Irene was hit by a car and died from the injuries. The accusations of witchcraft would outlive the alleged witch. In every article about the accident, her death takes a backseat to the story of her being forced out of Rochester as a witch. Later, when her daughter petitioned to have her stepfather declared of unsound mind (he had sustained a head injury in the accident which killed Irene) the headline focused on the fact that he was the widower of “Rochester’s Noted ‘Witch-Woman.’” It is safe to say now that Irene Ray was no witch, but rather a woman whose neighbors’ dislike and resentment ran so deep that they convinced themselves that she was at the root of their problems.