Selling America: The General Land Office and the Rector-Conway Family Surveying Dynasty Part 1

Stone monument in eastern Ohio marking the beginning of U.S. land surveys. Credit: White, A History of the Rectangular Survey System, ii.

Never in the history of humanity was there an opportunity and a perceived mission for a country to spread its citizens across an entire continent, and for them to become owners of such a landmass, except in the rush to settle North America in the 19th century. It seemed that many citizens of the new United States were eager to move westward to make a new life for themselves. In 1780, western North America was lightly settled by many tribes of Native Americans. There was no such thing as individual land ownership in their world. Not so for European American settlers (here after referred to as Americans) moving into the lands west of the Appalachians. They wanted private ownership. For these new settlers, the only way to obtain private ownership of land and protect it from others was to survey its boundaries, purchase it, and record it with local government. For Native Americans, it was to become both conquest and displacement.

Land Territories and Land Purchases

Diagram showing how a section can be subdivided, how sections within a township are numbered, and how townships are identified in relation to a principal meridian and base line. Credit: Detail from Diamond Publishing Company, Land Measures Illustrated (Minneapolis, 1901). Courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:0r96fp53p Accessed October 6, 2020.

Before this land could be made available to new settlers, there were land ownership claims to clear. Virginia had claims to land that is now Kentucky and what became West Virginia after the Civil War. Connecticut claimed lands westward based on early colonial charters. Connecticut was also promised compensatory lands for its citizens whose homes were burned by the British in towns along Long Island Sound—the so-called Ohio Firelands. Five other states postured for western lands based on their colonial charters, but eventually ceded their lands to the Continental Congress. Following these land cessions, the federal government moved to obtain land ownership from Native American tribes, through treaty, purchase, or war. Lands conveyed by the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 became territories and then the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and parts of eight other states. The land that first became the Mississippi Territory and then the state of Mississippi was purchased from Spain in 1816.

A Grid Survey System and The General Land Office

Matthew Carey’s 1796 map of Ohio’s Seven Ranges. Notes on the map indicate that some of these properties were previously sold in New York; others will be sold in “Pitsburg,” and if unsold thereafter will be sold at the “Seat of Government.” Credit: Plat of the Seven Ranges of Townships . . .(Philadelphia, 1796). Courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:3f4630054 Accessed October 6, 2020.

Until 1792, there was no office of the President of the United States. The original thirteen colonies had negotiated the Articles of Confederation among themselves in 1781, giving power to a Continental Congress composed of delegates from each former colony. This Congress was desperate for revenue in order to pay off war debts, fund the running of a federal government, and provide bounty land to war veterans for their service. Other citizens were anxious to become owners of these newly available lands. In 1785, Congress passed the Land Ordinance Act, which authorized a survey system and an organization for selling lands to individuals and land companies. Thomas Hutchins was appointed First Geographer of the United States to oversee these initial surveys. Initially, the U.S. Treasury Office was charged with management of this operation since land sales brought revenue into the U.S. government.

Albert Gallatin took over the U.S. Treasury Department in 1801 and ran it until 1812. During his 12 years in office, he established 14 of the 18 Land Offices operating during his tenure. There was extreme pressure on the land-sales system from the very beginning. Citizens were eager to purchase land to start new lives, and the U.S. government was eager to sell land to support its financial demands. When Gallatin assumed his position, a Land Office consisted of Surveyors and Deputy Surveyors, Registers, Receivers, and Clerks. The first surveyors were paid $2.00 per mile to cover their expenses for chain-carrier laborers, horses, field equipment, and supplies. The Registers were in charge of the executed survey plats. Their role was to identify each tract when it came up for sale and mark it “sold” when auctioned. In 1812, the General Land Office was created as an agency within the Treasury Department to oversee these activities. In 1849, this agency was transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior.

There was no nationwide currency in circulation until 1863, so local currency and debt instruments were carefully scrutinized. The Receivers received a 1 percent commission on funds remitted to the U.S. Treasury. Both Registers and Receivers were required to post a bond on their financial activities. Clerks performed both Register and Receiver functions. No one was a specialist. Backlogs continued to build. Gallatin realized quickly that he needed to restructure responsibilities in these local offices. He assigned clerks to be either full-time Registers or full-time Receivers to solve the problem. It alleviated the problem only temporarily.

Shortly thereafter and on into the future for the next 25 years, the demand for land purchases by buyers and land sales by the government put the Surveyors, Registers, and Receivers under continual pressure. It was often total chaos, and the frustration of the Surveyors General shows up in their annual reports to the Commissioner of the General Land Office. There was also significant potential for fraud and loss of proceeds. Most sales involved a periodic payment plan. Interest was charged on the unpaid balance. Defaults were common. Many senior Land Office employees were buying and selling for their own accounts as were territorial governors, territorial judges, and other territorial officials. Land Office clerks speculated in certificates of indebtedness. There were no rules against these conflicts of interest in the early days. During the Gallatin period, over four million acres were sold.

Northwest Territory: Rector—Conway Domination

Kaskaskia surveys made by the French and confirmed by the Rectors. Credit: William and Elias Rector, Plan of the Common Fields and Town Tract of Kaskaskia (Washington, DC, 1807). Courtesy of Larry Caldwell and the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/2020.

In 1805, nine Rector family brothers walked into the picture, arriving from Fauquier County, Virginia, to the town of Kaskaskia, a river town in the Indiana Territory, itself part of the Northwest Territory. Each was six feet tall or taller. Aside from the small French settlements of Vincennes, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and several other settlements as well as the larger towns of New Orleans and St. Louis, the Americans viewed the 550 million acres of the Louisiana Purchase open for the taking. At this very same time, Lewis and Clark were underway exploring the West. Much later, from 1824-1825, William Clark would be appointed Surveyor General of Illinois, Missouri and the Territory of Arkansas. William Rector, the patriarch of the family, secured the job of surveying the southernmost strip of the Indiana Territory from Surveyor General of the Northwest Territory Jared Mansfield whose office was in Cincinnati. This survey job included the town of Kaskaskia. He hired four of his brothers—Wharton, Elias, John, and Nelson—to help him with the surveying. This project was long and difficult. It involved surveying the lands of town residents already living along the banks of the Mississippi River. These private lands were primarily old French and Spanish grants.

Boundaries were claimed, disputed, and fought over. These holdings had not been surveyed in grid form. Rather, the holdings were laid out in long strips of land running from the riverfront back into the interior. This French system provided river transportation access to more landowners than was otherwise possible. The survey map shows the complexity of these plots. Kaskaskia later became the capital of the Illinois Territory for a brief time. Following the Kaskaskia project, the five brothers were joined by their four other brothers, Stephen, Thomas, Samuel, and Henry Rector, in broadening their survey activities to other parts of the Illinois Territory. Brothers William, Wharton, Elias, Nelson, Stephen, and Thomas became Deputy Surveyors while in Illinois, a job that called for supervising and approving the actual work of field surveyors. Projects in Illinois were interrupted by the War of 1812. A number of the brothers were deeply involved in the War and distinguished themselves.

At the end of the War of 1812 in 1815, Edward Tiffin, Surveyor General Northwest of the Ohio, was directed by Congress to survey 6 million acres of land in the Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri Territories. This land was promised to American soldiers, and it was to be good land. The plan was to survey 2 million acres of land “fit for cultivation not otherwise appropriated, and to which the Indian title is extinguished.” In 1813, Commissioner of the General Land Office Josiah Meigs had called William Rector “one of the most intelligent and able surveyors.” In that same year, Rector was appointed Principal Deputy Surveyor General for the Missouri Territory, which included what is now the State of Arkansas. In 1815, he was directed to begin the surveying. It became quickly apparent that Michigan had very little land “fit for cultivation.” In early 1816, Congress redistributed Michigan’s quota of 2 million acres, 1.5 million acres of land to the Illinois Territory and 500,000 acres to the Missouri Territory. The new plan was to survey 3.5 million acres in the Illinois Territory and 2.5 million acres in the Missouri Territory.

Missouri and Arkansas Territories: Rector—Conway Control

The 5th Principal Meridian survey line, the longest line in the United States. Courtesy of Elgin, The U.S. Public Land Survey System for Missouri (2016).

During the period 1805-1815, the federal land office had established the Second, Third, and Fourth Meridians. Several months prior to the direction of William Rector to commence surveying the potential Bounty land in 1815, he was directed by General Land Office Surveyor General Edward Tiffin, under the direction of Josiah Meigs, to establish the North-South Fifth Principal Meridian Line in eastern Missouri Territory (Figure 5) and an East-West Base Line in southern Missouri Territory.

Meigs provided a number of specific instructions for Rector:

  1. “You are required to have surveyed two million acres of land between the Rivers St. Francis and Arkansas…”
  2. “Let a standard line be accurately run from the confluence of the Arkansas with the Mississippi due north according to the true meridian so far, that a base line run due west from the mouth of the River St. Francis to the Mississippi will intersect it as laid down on the plan…”
  3. “Furnish every surveyor you employ with one of the deputations enclosed, and see that both himself, his chain, and axemen are duly sworn before they proceed to work…”
  4. “Furnish every surveyor with a plan of the whole military district and a copy of instructions enclosed…”
  5. “When work is done and returned to your office, you are to examine and see that it is done agreeable to law and the instructions given…”
  6. “You are furnished with a copy of a form of contract, so that you may enter into contracts with the deputies…”
  7. “All the surveys contracted for to be done in the Michigan and Illinois Territories have been at 250 cents per mile. It is therefore expected you will be able to get the military lands done in Missouri at the same rate, but if … impracticable, you are authorized to give 300 per mile…”
  8. “When any deputy surveyor has finished his contract…, the accounts will be paid off in such manner as may be most convenient to … the Treasury Department…”

Part 2 to be continued in the next issue.

Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 109-Winter 2020 of The Portolan, the publication of the Washington Map Society.

Larry Caldwell is a collector of maps showing the progression of the settlement of America. Several years ago while researching his family roots, he came across the Rectors and Conways. His great-great grandmother was married to Surveyor General Frederick Rector Conway.