Bouquet and Hutchins: The Origins of the Rectangular Land Survey System

Without the introduction of a rectangular surveying system, land surveying in the United States might have taken a completely different form. Before the Revolutionary War, surveys used physical features like streams, lakes or large trees to identify property. The problem with this “metes and bounds” system was that it was greatly affected by simple changes to the physical landscape, such as a tree being knocked over by wind. Also, it was not very useful for those who were not physically on the land that was surveyed and were trying to understand the survey results from a distant location. This all changed just before the Revolutionary War because of the actions of two British soldiers, Colonel Henry Bouquet and Ensign Thomas Hutchins. We have these two soldiers to thank for the system that became the Public Land Survey System, the rectangular system used to survey much of the United States.

Henry Bouquet was a British Army officer who fought in the French and Indian War. He is perhaps most widely known for his victory over Native Americans during Pontiac’s War, but his accomplishments in land surveying are perhaps even more important. Born in Switzerland, Bouquet entered the military at the age of 17 and soon found himself traveling the world. As the legend goes, while stationed in Greece, he learned about the rectangular survey system that he would later introduce to the New World.

Bouquet entered the British Amy in 1756 and became involved in the French and Indian War, followed by Pontiac’s War on the frontier. This second conflict grew after Pontiac, an Ottawa leader, urged Native American tribes who had lost the French and Indian War to fight together against the British, and subsequently they began overtaking western outposts. Bouquet became the commander of nearly 1500 men by the fall of 1764, marching them first to Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania, and then to the Ohio region. One of Bouquet’s 1500 men was Ensign Thomas Hutchins.

After Hutchins’ appointment as chief engineer of the expedition, he surveyed the route as the troops moved towards Ford Pitt and then to Ohio. In 1765, his accounts of the expedition were published; the most important section was the appendix, which provided a general outline for the government survey of lands. This is the first known description of the surveying system based on squares that would become known as the rectangular survey system or Public Land Survey System. Hutchins’ complete and detailed descriptions served as the basis for Bouquet’s expedition journal during his march to Ohio to confront the Indian forces. When taken together, the maps, descriptions, and journals allow one to trace the journey accurately. Hutchins’ notes included a plotted and drafted map to the scale of 1:62,500, the same scale used today in U.S. Geological Survey maps.
The Public Land Survey system, based on Hutchins’ surveying methods, separates lands into townships (six miles square), sections (640 acres), and quarter sections (160 acres). It completely replaced the old “metes and bounds” system as the dominant surveying system in the fledgling United States. Thomas Jefferson, who was interested in science and surveying, developed the PLSS based on Bouquet and Hutchins’ notes in the 1780s, and it was adopted by the United States Congress in 1785.

Later, as Surveyor General of the United States, Hutchins supervised the first surveys under the Public Land Survey System and personally applied this system in the surveying of the Seven Ranges townships in eastern Ohio.

Colonel Bouquet was promoted to Brigadier General in 1765, placing him in control of all British forces then located in the southern colonies. His sudden death came in September of that year, probably due to yellow fever. His military activities have earned him the reputation as “one of the most unappreciated British Army officers from the pre-Revolutionary War period in North America.” He was known for his highly trained military mind, military discipline, tactical skill and patience, all certainly qualities that influenced his willingness to use this new surveying system. The plan adopted by the Northwest Ordinance in 1785 and used for the Public Land Survey system is officially attributed to Hutchins.

Though certainly Hutchins and Bouquet did not realize it at the time, their surveying method would actually be used across nearly the whole continent. The Public Land Survey System was used to survey the Louisiana Purchase, which approximately doubled the size of the United States.