THERE IS AN initial point to the USA. In fact, there are 37 of them. They are the original land anchor points for the first federal surveys that mapped and claimed the nation’s lands from its previous owners (the Indians, Spanish, French, Russians, etc). These Initial Points were established by surveyors dispatched into the field, usually soon after treaties and other agreements were signed, to tie the new territory to the Public Land Survey System, the rectilinear grid that covers more than two-thirds of the landscape of the USA, as mandated by the Continental Congress of 1785.
Each survey of new federal land had to begin from a single, precisely measured starting point. In 1785 the initial Initial Point was established, and it took more than a century for the process to play out. Finally, by 1881, the last of 32 Initial Points in the contiguous continental United States was set. Between 1905 and 1956, the final five in Alaska were completed, bringing the total to 37.
Starting in 2010, working with the Institute of Marking and Measuring, the CLUI began putting together an exhibit about these Initial Points as they look today, believing that it would reveal much about the often arcane process of surveying, as well as provide a new kind of historical portrait of the American land. The exhibit opened at the Center’s Los Angeles display space in late 2011, and was shown until February, 2012, after which it traveled to the National Museum of Surveying, in Springfield, Illinois.
These surveying points, located in places such as swamps, under manhole covers in roads, and on top of mountains, are the physical locations that tied the conceptual grid to the ground. Though many of them were made obsolete by subsequent surveys, they all remain as important overlooked historic sites. Looking at them in a contemporary context explores the process and importance of the endeavor of surveying, and reveals a latent cadastral history of the nation, as it expanded westward.
A look at three of the 37 initial points of the USA:
The Point of Beginning
The measuring of most of America began in Ohio in 1785, at a surveyed marker called the Point of Beginning, where Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia meet. Marking the Initial Point began when state surveyors from Pennsylvania and Virginia agreed on where the north/south line dividing their states met Ohio’s boundary, on the north shore of the Ohio River. The stake they drove into the ground that day in 1785 has long since washed away, and the land is now owned by an industrial supplies company. A stone monument commemorating the survey point has existed nearby, where the state line meets a public road, since at least 1881. The current monument was installed in 1960, and is 1,112 feet north of the original Point of Beginning–the initial Initial Point, that marked the edge of the land claimed by the 13 original colonies, and the beginning of “The West.”
The treaty made with the Spanish, transferring the ownership of Florida to the USA, was ratified in 1821, and in 1824 the federal government undertook the surveying program to legally measure and describe the land of the state. The Initial Point was selected to be at the newly-established seat of government, in what is now the state’s capitol city, Tallahassee. A site one-quarter mile east and one-quarter mile south from the future State Capitol building was selected to start the survey, and a wooden stake was set in the swampy ground. Lots in town went on the market a month later, and the American development of Florida began. Today, the Initial Point is in a park next to state offices on Meridian Road. The current monument was built in 1925 on top of a monument from 1892. The 1892 monument consisted of a one-ton boulder, hauled on a wagon from 20 miles away, and placed into a hole in the ground. The cardinal points (north, east, south, and west) were indicated with a cross carved into the stone, with the township and range numbers in the spaces between the lines. Research suggests that the monument constructed in 1892 (and thus the current one) is actually ten feet east of the original 1824 Initial Point location.
The Sixth Principal Meridian
The Sixth Principal Meridian is a north/south line used to survey several states, within an area mostly acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The meridian was established in 1855 in order to survey the newly created territories of Nebraska and Kansas. Surveyors started where the 40th degree of latitude met the Missouri River, and headed west to establish the baseline. After 108 miles they stopped, as instructed by the Commissioner of the General Land Office, due to “apprehensions of hostile interruptions from the Indians.” So the Initial Point was set there, and the meridian established north and south. The baseline was eventually extended west, and became the state line between Nebraska and Kansas.
By modern times, the Initial Point had been heavily monumented, mostly in 1986 and 1987 by a group known as the Professional Surveyors of the Sixth Principal Meridian, consisting of surveyors from the states affected directly by the meridian. The canted plaque on the left mentions the names of a few hundred surveyors singled out for distinctive recognition. The vertical text panel on the right describes the history of the site. The monument in the middle with the spire is pentagonal in shape, each facet engraved with the name and seal of one of the five states surveyed mostly or partly from this point: Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota.
The original surveyor’s stone, which had been broken and buried for many years, was rediscovered in 1986. The Professional Surveyors of the 6th Principal Meridian reburied it at the exact location of the original Initial Point, 66 feet west of the interpretive monuments. A 24-foot square concrete pad was poured around the stone, which was left accessible through a cavity in the middle of the pad, accessed by a manhole cover. Underneath the commemorative manhole cover, a couple of feet down, is the orginal red sandstone surveyor's rock from 1856, now embedded with a BLM surveying disc.
FOR A COMPLETE PICTURE OF THE INITIAL POINTS, SEE THE CENTER'S CLICKABLE MAP