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Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise ofD emocracy

Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise ofD emocracy

4.8 4
by Andro Linklater

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In 1790, America was in enormous debt, having depleted what little money and supplies the country had during its victorious fight for independence. Before the nation's greatest asset, the land west of the Ohio River, could be sold it had to be measured out and mapped. And before that could be done, a uniform set of measurements had to be chosen for the new republic


In 1790, America was in enormous debt, having depleted what little money and supplies the country had during its victorious fight for independence. Before the nation's greatest asset, the land west of the Ohio River, could be sold it had to be measured out and mapped. And before that could be done, a uniform set of measurements had to be chosen for the new republic out of the morass of roughly 100,000 different units that were in use in daily life.

Measuring America tells the fascinating story of how we ultimately gained the American Customary System—the last traditional system in the world—and how one man's surveying chain indelibly imprinted its dimensions on the land, on cities, and on our culture from coast to coast.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Linklater] has the talent not just to let us know how things work, but to make us want to know...A magical mystery tour that leaves the reader both mildly footsore and exhilarated by unexpected connections." —The New York Times

"What's great about history, when done well, is how even the most familiar topics, from the American Revolution to WWII, can be revisited again and again, not just to retell stories but to offer a fresh perspective. That is what Andro Linklater does in Measuring America." —USA Today

"Remarkable...Linklater traces with unusual elegance and a keen wit the epic story of measuring our nation, charting the process by which, with each length of the surveyor's chain, new states were literally bought into being." —Los Angeles Times


On September 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins (1730–89) began a project that would transform the American frontier. On that day, the man designated as "the geographer of the United States" began a survey of the infant nation's public lands. Beginning in the Seven Ranges district of present-day Ohio, Hutchins set a grid that would eventually extend to Pacific Ocean, although he did not live to see its completion. This project was, however, much more than a feat of labor. The survey of public lands and their subsequent sale created a structure of land ownership unique in history. In Measuring America, Andro Linklater explains how Hutchins's survey reconfigured our country.
Margaret Wertheim
remarkable—The Los Angeles Times
The New Yorker
In 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, began the improbable task of literally measuring the expanding new nation, yard by yard. Inching west from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and equipped with Gunter's chain -- a handy surveying device stretching exactly twenty-two yards long -- Hutchins' crew chopped the tangled frontier into Enlightenment-friendly six-mile-by-six-mile townships, the effect of which can still be seen from any airplane window. Measuring America, by the British journalist Andro Linklater, tells the eye-opening story of how this "immaculate" grid gave birth to the radical notion of fixed measures (the variable cooms, kilderkins, and rundlets quickly went out the window), the uniquely American idea of land ownership (yeomen farmers were drawn westward to such would-be new states as Assenisipia and Polypotamia), and our continuing anachronistic fealty to yards, acres, and miles (Thomas Jefferson proposed using a decimal system, only to be trumped by Gunter's chain).

"The grid was to the rationalization of nature what the Declaration of Independence was to freedom," writes Case Western professor Ted Steinberg in Down to Earth, a meditation on the overlooked role of nature in American history. For Steinberg, American history began 180 million years ago, when the giant landmass Pangaea broke apart, and continues through such major events as the Laramide Orogeny (which created the Great Plains), Millard Fillmore's 1850 State of the Union address (which lamented the high price of imported Peruvian guano), and the proliferation of the boll weevil (which may have spurred the exodus of black Americans to the North).

(Mark Rozzo)
Publishers Weekly
American democracy was less a product of revolutionary war and constitutional ferment than it was of a particular way of measuring land, argues British historian Linklater in his delightful new study. Private ownership of land was a new concept in England in the 17th century, one that was grounded (so to speak) in the developing science of surveying, in particular, Edmund Gunter's simple new surveying system of squares and grids. But the idea that land could "be owned as a house or a bed or a pig was owned" was central to the new United States. Thomas Jefferson and others contended that property belonged to those who could purchase it and labor upon it. Thus, when the land west of the Ohio River was purchased by the United States, a new wave of settlers headed there with the intention of owning their own patch of land. Before the land could be sold, however, it had to be measured in roughly equal plots, and the surveyors used Gunter's method of drawing the boundaries of land in square miles. Linklater's detailed chronicle of the physical development of early America demonstrates the ways that the desire to own private property grew out of the individualism of the frontier and shaped the peculiarly American notion that the individual's right to property is both a foundation and a guarantee of democracy. 35 b&w illus. (Nov.) Forecast: Fans of Dava Sobel's Longitude (also published by Walker) and other books that examine systems of measurement as a foundation for the history of ideas will love Linklater's book. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Why do we use gallons, feet, and dollars and cents? How were these measurements created? Why do we not use the metric system, and why do so many cities and states have grids visible from the ground and the air? To answer those questions and more, British historian Linklater brings to life the creator of the system we use today, a rector named Edmund Gunter, along with a host of major personalities (Washington and Jefferson) and unknown or forgotten players (geographer Thomas Hutchins and geodesist Ferdinand Hassler). These figures play out against Linklater's elegantly drawn backdrops-national and international history, politics, economics, and business-to reveal how we came to measure as we do. Linklater also shows how as the United States expanded from the original Colonies to the West Coast over its first 100 years, our choice of measurement became part of the American psyche and legal system and also affected society. This expertly written and eminently enjoyable chronicle is highly recommended for history and history of science collections.-Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sturdy prose conveys the remarkable, still inspiring story of the struggle to standardize measurements and to apply them from sea to shining sea. Linklater (The Code of Love, 2001) begins on September 30, 1785, near Liverpool, Ohio, where Thomas Hutchins began surveying the public lands of the US. "He was Robinson Crusoe," the author writes, "landed in an uncharted wilderness, and his purpose was to measure it so that it could be sold." (We learn later he was also incompetent.) The narrative then circles back to early-16th-century England and to the nascent and novel notion of land ownership. Linklater guides us confidently through Henry VIII's sale of monastery properties to Edmund Gunter's creation of the 22-yard-long surveyors' chain. He provides a primer in surveying and then recounts the long effort to standardize weights and measures. Twenty pages later, we are back in the New World where, by the mid-18th century, land had become a hot commodity. The author notes wryly that the land's previous occupants surrendered their territory after potent doses of treaty and terrorism. Linklater sometimes tells us more than we want to know (e.g., the French systems of measurement), but we learn new stories about Washington and Jefferson (especially the latter), and we struggle along with the early surveyors who crossed swamps, forests, fields, streams, rivers, and purple mountains majestic as they unrolled chains, plotted townships and states, and established the stunning grids still visible today by cross-country air passengers. Linklater emphasizes the connections between measurement and commerce (measure it first, then sell it), and although he sprinkles a few dangling participles on thelandscape of his prose, he writes with a firm command of detail and an ample measure of wit: Fanny Trollope, he observes, was "a Tory to the tip of her parasol." Immeasurably informative and lots of fun. (30 b&w illustrations, 5 maps, not seen)

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Measuring America

How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy
By Andro Linklater

Walker Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Andro Linklater
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0802713963

The Invention of Landed Property

The imposing library of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London is strategically situated. In one direction its tall windows look over the street to Whitehall, where the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns ruled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in another they gaze across Parliament Square toward the House of Commons, power base of the rising class of landed gentry who during those two centuries challenged the royal authority. It is just possible to imagine the atmosphere of righteous indignation and pervading apprehension that accompanied the struggle between the two, but in the small, leather-bound books kept in the institution's library, the reality that gave rise to the battles remains vividly alive.

In the earliest, such as Master John Fitzherbert's The Art of Husbandry, published in 1523, a surveyor still filled his original, feudal role as the executive officer of a landed nobleman. His duty was primarily to oversee (the word surveyor is derived from the French sur [over] and voir [see]) the estate. He was to walk over the land and make a note of the boundaries-the "buttes andbounds"-of the tenants' holdings, and then to assist in drawing up the official record or court roll of what duties they owed. A model report, Fitzherbert suggested, would record that the land of a particular tenant "lyeth between the mill on the north side, and the South Field on the south, butteth upon the hyway, and conteyneth xii perches and x fote [feet] in bredthe by the hyway, and ix perches in length, and payeth ... two hennes at Christmas and two capons at Easter."

To "butt" upon something is to encounter or meet it, for which the equivalent word was mete. This ancient method of surveying, which identified the boundary of an estate by the points where it met other boundaries or visible objects, thus became known as "metes and bounds." Even in 1523, English landlords were engaged in a practice that was to transform the feudal order. There were infinite variations in feudalism, but this was its heart-that the land was the state, and only the head of state could own it outright. The dukes and barons, the king's tenants-in-chief, technically held their broad acres of the Crown in return for the dues or service they paid, and their vassals held their narrower farms from the great lords in return for rent or service, and so on down to the villeins who often had no land at all but exchanged goods, service, or rent for the right to work it. What the sixteenth-century manuals inadvertently reveal, as they detail the surveyor's duties, is how that order was subverted from within.

Under the old system, tenants farmed narrow strips, or rigs, of land, often widely separated so that good and poor soil was distributed evenly among those who actually worked the land. For centuries, impatient land users had attempted to consolidate the strips into single compact fields that could be "enclosed" by a fence or hedge so that crops were not trodden down or herds scattered, but the pattern remained fundamentally intact. In the early sixteenth century, however, a period of savage inflation occurred, and every lord and tenant tried to squeeze the maximum profit from the land. Repeatedly, Fitzherbert stressed the need for the surveyor to realize that enclosed land was more valuable than the strips and common pasture because it could be made more productive. The urgency was unmistakable, yet essentially the old values were still in place.

Then in 1531 came the publication of The Boke Named the Governour by Sir Thomas Elyot, which gave advice on the education of rulers and landowners. An essential part of their training was to learn how to draw so that, according to Elyot, they could make a map or "figure" of their estates. In this way, they would have a clear picture of what they owned, or as Elyot put it, "in visiting his own dominions, [the governor] shall set them out in figure, in such wise that his eye shall appear to him where he shall employ his study and treasure." In the course of the sixteenth century, it became a habit of English landowners to have their estates and the surrounding countryside measured and then mapped. By 1609 John Norden could insist in the Surveior's Dialogue that "the [map] rightly drawne by true information, describeth so lively an image of a Manor ... as the Lord sitting in his chayre, may see what he hath, where and how it lyeth, and in whose use and occupation every particular is."

There was a special significance in making this part of the surveyor's duty, because in that era only the rulers of states and cities made maps. A map was a political document. It not only described territory but asserted ownership of it as well. In 1549 a map of Newfoundland and the North Atlantic seaboard detailing Sebastian Cabot's discoveries was displayed in the Privy Gallery at Whitehall outside the royal council chamber, so that foreign ambassadors waiting to see the sovereign would know of England's claims overseas. When the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius produced the first modern atlas in 1570, his Theatrum orbis terrarum, with the freshly discovered territories of the New World and the newly explored Pacific and Indian Oceans, he took care to dedicate it to his sovereign, Philip II of Spain, and to ensure that Philip could find in it his own claims across the ocean.

Consequently, when the sixteenth-century English landowners ordered a map of their estate, they were implicitly asserting a claim to ownership in a way that only rulers of states and kingdoms had been able to make. For a long time only landowners in England made such a claim. Surveying manuals were published in the German states, but there were hardly any estate maps until late in the seventeenth century. Sweden produced its first national map in the sixteenth century, but it was 100 years later before noblemen began measuring and mapping their estates. In sixteenth-century France, the Jesuits taught math and all the theory needed by a surveyor, but no plats, or plans parcellaires, of aristocratic land were drawn before 1650. The first Spanish maps appeared as early as 1508, but another 200 years passed before it became the custom for Spanish lords to measure their lands. Only in the economically sophisticated Netherlands, where the mathematician Gemma Frisius wrote the first manual on mapmaking, A Method of Delineating Places, in 1533, were farms, especially those close to cities, measured and mapped, yet even there the aristocrats' landed estates remained feudal. But in England, estate maps were so common that an inventory of Henry VIII's possessions made at his death in 1547 showed he had "a black coffer covered with fustian of Naples [which was] full of plattes."

If there is a single date when the idea of land as private property can be said to have taken hold, it is 1538. In that year a tiny volume was published with a long title that began, "This boke sheweth the maner of measurynge of all maner of lande ..." In it, the author, Sir Richard Benese, described for the first time in English how to calculate the area of a field or an entire estate. He was probably borrowing from Frisius, but his values were purely English. Noting that sellers tended to exaggerate the size of a property whereas buyers were inclined to underestimate it, he advised the surveyor to approach the task in a careful and methodical manner.

"When ye shall measure a piece of any land ye shall go about the boundes of it once or twice, and [then] consider well by viewing it whether ye may measure it in one parcel wholly altogether or else in two or many parcels." Measuring it in "many parcels," he explained, was necessary when the field was an uneven, irregular shape; by dividing it up into smaller, regular shapes like squares and oblongs and triangles it became easy to calculate accurately the total area. The distances were to be carefully measured with a rod or pole, precisely 16 1/2 feet long, or a cord. And finally, the surveyor was to describe the area in words, and to draw a plat showing its shape and extent.

Like the maps, this interest in exact measurement was also new. Until then, what mattered was how much land would yield, not its size. When William the Conqueror instituted the great survey of England in 1086, known as the Domesday Book, his commissioners noted the dimensions of estates in units like virgates and hides, which varied according to the richness of the soil: a virgate was enough land for a single person to live on, a hide enough to support a family, and consequently the size shrank when measuring fertile land, and expanded in poor, upland territory. Other Domesday units like the acre and the carrucate were equally flexible, but so long as land was held in exchange for services, the number of people it could feed and so make available to render those services was more important than its exact area. Accurate measurement became important in 1538 because beginning in that year a gigantic swath of England-almost half a million acres-was suddenly put on sale for cash.

The greatest real-estate sale in England's history occurred after king Henry VIII dissolved a total of almost 400 monasteries, which had been acquiring land for centuries. He justified his action on the grounds that these houses of prayer had grown depraved and corrupt, but tales of drunken monks and lecherous nuns served to conceal a more mundane purpose: Henry needed money to pay for England's defenses. Upon the monasteries' dissolution, all their land, including some of the best soil in England, automatically reverted to their feudal overlord, the king. These rich acres were then sold to wealthy merchants and nobles so that a navy could be built to defend England's shores against the French.

The sale of so much land for cash was a watershed. Although changes were already under way, with feudal services often commuted for rents paid in coin, and feudal estates frequently mortgaged and sold, up to that point the fundamental value of land remained in the number of people it supported. From then on the balance shifted increasingly to a new way of thinking. Prominent among the purchasers of church property were land-hungry owners, like the duke of Northumberland, who had been enclosing common pastures, but far more common were the landlords who had done well from the rise in the market value of wool and corn, and chose to invest in monastery estates. In Norfolk, Sir Robert Southwell attracted attention because of the mighty pastures he carved out from common land for his fourteen flocks of sheep, each numbering around 1,000 animals, but others who did the same on a smaller scale almost escaped notice. In the neighboring county of Suffolk, the Winthrop family, who acquired and enclosed hundreds of acres of monastic and common land, might have remained in the background had the grandson, John, not sailed for America in 1630 as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company.

The new owners and their surveyors realized that the monasteries' widely separated rigs and shares of common land would become more valuable once they were consolidated into fields. Their predecessors, the old abbots and priors, had understood landownership to be part of a feudal exchange of rights for services. But those who had bought their land knew that ownership depended on money passing hands, and that the old ways had to change if they were to maximize the return on their investment.

"Jesu, sir, in the name of God what mean you thus extremely to handle us poor people?" a widow demanded of John Palmer, an enclosing landlord in Sussex who, having bought the monastic estate on which she lived, had evicted her from her cottage.

"Do ye not know that the King's grace hath put down all the houses of monks, friars and nuns?" Palmer retorted. "Therefore now is the time come that we gentlemen will pull down the houses of such poor knaves as ye be."

As enclosures and rising rents forced thousands of villeins and farm laborers away from the manors that once supported them, resentment against the new owners grew rapidly. Sir Thomas More launched a particularly bitter attack on pastoralists like Southwell: "Your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now as I hear say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves." There were popular uprisings in many parts of England, forcing Henry VIII and his successors to introduce bills in Parliament to prevent enclosure. It was a pointer to the growing influence of the landowners that few were passed.

The hidden hand in this gigantic upheaval was provided by the survey and plat that recorded the new owner's estate as his property. The emphasis in Benese's book on exact measurement reflected the change in outlook. Once land was exchanged for cash, its ability to support people became less important than how much rent it could produce. And to compare the value of rent produced by different estates, it was essential to know their exact size. The units could no longer vary; the method of surveying had to be reliable. The surveyor ceased to be a servant and became an agent of change from a system grounded in medieval practice to one that generated money.

Some at least became uneasily aware of what they were doing. In the Surveior's Dialogue, Norden specifically blamed the act of measuring itself for helping to destroy the old ways and held surveyors responsible as "the cause that men [lose] their Land: and sometimes they are abridged of such liberties as they have long used in Mannors: and customes are altered, broken, and sometimes perverted or taken away by your means."

What the new class of landowners required of their suveyors above all was exactness, and the sudden increase in the number of manuals in the last quarter of the century testified to the urgency of their need. In 1551 Robert Recorde wrote a book titled Pathway to Knowledge in praise of the accuracy that geometry offered surveyors, but warning of its potential for destruction:

Survayers have cause to make touche of me.
And so have all Lordes that landes do possesse:
But Tennauntes I feare will like me the lesse.
Yet do I not wrong, but measure all truely,
And yelde the full right to everye man justely.


Excerpted from Measuring America by Andro Linklater Copyright © 2002 by Andro Linklater
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Andro Linklater studied history at Oxford University and is a full-time writer and journalist, and author of several books.

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Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy [With Headphones] 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
DavidMcK More than 1 year ago
This book talks about a little known, but exceedingly important part of American history, the surveying of the frontier, namely most of the country. It is very well written and at times reads like a novel. Any student of American history who has not read this book is missing a vital part of their knowledge of our country's history.
SassyLassie2 More than 1 year ago
Very good and gives alot of info on the ways people survey and how it all feeds together. I thought the writer could have spent a little more time on a few areas, but I would recommend it to high school history classes as a study or any one that likes US history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What struck me most about this book was how it induced me to consider the details of just how we came to measure America and establish boundaries. In History classes, we often focus on westward expansion and vast land purchases, and scarcely consider how this great land was measured and subdivided into saleable plots. This could have been a rather dry book, but the author brings the topic alive by introducing us to the movers and shakers of the surveying world in the 19th century. A delightful read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This fun book is both intellectually interesting yet easy to read. Chapters about the origin of the Gunter's chain, provide a background the the problem of settling the west and overall, measuring townships and states. The book continues with a historical review of the birth of the Nation, and the shape of towns, states and cities in this country. Mapping, surveying and measurement issues (including weights) are explained. Overall: fun reading.