Primary Sources


General Instructions

General Instructions to His Deputies; By the Surveyor General of the United States, for the States of Ohio and Indiana, and the Territory of Michigan (1833)

General Instructions








1. The public Lands of the United States are surveyed in a uniform mode, established by law, by lines run by the cardinal points of the compass; the north and south lines coinciding with the true meridian, and the east and west lines intersecting them at right angles, giving to the tracts thus surveyed, the rectangular form.
2. The public lands are laid off and surveyed, primarily, into tracts of six miles square, called Townships, containing, each, 23,040 acres. The townships are subdivided into thirty-six tracts, called Sections, each of which are one mile square, and contains 640 acres. Any number, or series, of contiguous townships, situated north or south of each other, constitute a Range.
3. To obtain and preserve a convenient and uniform mode of numbering the ranges and townships, it is usual, in commencing the survey of an insulated body of public lands, to run, or assume, two Standard Lines, as the basis of the surveys to be made therein. One of these standard lines is run due north and south, and is called the Principal Meridian, to which the ranges are parallel [sic], and from which they are numbered eastward and westward. The other standard line is run due east and west, and is called the Base Line, and from which the townships are numbered northward and southward.
4. To distinguish from each other, the systems or series of surveys thus formed, the several Principal Meridians are designated by progressive numbers. Thus, the Meridian running north from the mouth of the Great Miami river, is called the First Principal Meridian; the Meridian running north through the centre of the State if Indiana, is called the Second Principal Meridian; that running north from the mouth of the Ohio river through the state of Illinois, is called the third Principal Meridian; and that running North from the mouth of the Illinois river, through the State of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, is called the Fourth Principal Meridian.
5. This mode of executing the public surveys, conduces more, perhaps, than any other which could be devised, to the simplicity, regularity, and symmetry of the work; and to the ease and certainty with which any tract may be identified.
6. The public lands are surveyed under the direction of the Surveyor General, by Deputies appointed by himself. He selects for his deputies none other than skilful and experienced practical surveyors, men of good moral character, in whose integrity and fidelity the fullest confidence can be reposed. — Their duties are prescribed in the following code of General Instructions, a copy of which is furnished to every deputy, for his government.
7. Each deputy surveyor is required, before he enters upon the duties of his appointment, to take and subscribe an oath or affirmation for the faithful performance thereof: which oath or affirmation is to filed in the office of the Surveyor General. The following form of this oath or affirmation (or the substance thereof) will be used:
   "I, A_________ B_______________ do solemnly swear (or affirm,) that I will well and faithfully perform the duties of a deputy surveyor of United States Lands, to the best of my skill and ability, and according to the laws of the United States, and the Instructions of the Surveyor General, as I shall answer to God at the Great Day.

A_________ B___________ Sworn and subscribed before me, this _____ day of 183

J ___________ K ___________

Justice of Peace.

8. Each deputy Surveyor appoints his own chain carriers, markers, and flag bearers, who must severally take and subscribe an oath, or affirmation, for the faithful performance of the trust reposed in them; which oath, or affirmation, may be administered by the deputy Surveyor himself, or by a Justice of the Peace, and must be filed in the Surveyor General.s Office. The following is the oath to be taken by the chairmen.
   "I, C________ D _________ do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will well and faithfully perform the duties of chain-carrier in all surveys of United States Lands in which I shall be employed as such; and that I will strictly attend to leveling the chain, and plumbing the tally pins, in measuring over hills or side-lying ground — to the best of my skill and ability, as I shall answer to God.

C_________ D__________ Sworn and subscribed before me, this ____ day of ______183

A________ B________


Surveyor. 9. The oaths of the markers and flag-bearers may be varied to apply to their duties respectively.

1. Before entering upon the execution of any surveys which may be allotted to a deputy Surveyor, he enters into a written contract with the Surveyor General, in which the surveys to be performed are described, and the period for their completion, and the compensation per mile, fixed; and wherein the deputy binds himself to a faithful performance of the work, according to the terms of the contract, and pursuant to the laws of the United States and the instructions of the Surveyor General. To the contract is annexed a bond, executed by the deputy with approved security, conditioned for the faithful performance of the work, in the penalty of double the estimated amount or value of the contract.
2. The surveys must be executed, in all cases, by the deputy contracting for the same, in his own person, or under his immediate personal superintendence and direction. All sub-contracts are illegal.
3. In case of failure to comply with the terms of a contract, unless such failure arise from causes satisfactorily proven to be beyond the controul [sic] of the contractor, immediate measures are to be taken to recover the penalty of the bond, agreeably to law. And no deputy surveyor who shall improperly fail to fulfill his engagements, will afterwards be employed in the public surveys; and of every such failure, the Surveyor General is required to give immediate notice to the Commissioner of the General Land Office.
4. And where any portion of a survey is found or suspected to be erroneous, payment therefor [sic] will be suspended until the error is corrected, or the cause of suspicion done away to the full satisfaction of the Surveyor General.

1. You will provide yourself with a good Compass, having a nonius and movable sights, which is to be compared with and regulated by the Standard Compass in the Surveyor General's Office.
2. You will likewise procure a Surveying Chain, two poles, or thirty-three feet, in length, and containing fifty-links; which is to be compared with and adjusted by the Standard Chain in the Surveyor General's Office. It should be made of good iron wire, of such size as to prevent the chain from stretching by use, and yet light enough to be readily straightened in measuring. The handles should be made of iron or brass, at least a fourth of an inch in diameter.
3. You must be provided likewise with the measure of the standard chain, which may be made similar to your surveying chain, of smaller wire. And by this your surveying chain must be compared and adjusted, at least every other day, or oftener.
4. Tally-Rods, are usually made of iron, about twelve inches in length, having a ring at the top, in which is fixed a piece of red cloth, or something else of a conspicuous colour [sic], that they may be more readily seen when stuck in the ground. Eleven tally-rods is the number required to be used. They should be counted by both of the chain-men at the end of every "out," to see that none have been lost.
5. Your compass and chain must be frequently examined in the field, in order to discover and rectify any error or irregularity which may arise in the use of them.
6. The aberrations of the needle, are a fruitful source of error in surveying. These may arise from a variety of causes. "Local attraction," owing to the presence of iron mineral, is generally assigned by surveyors as the principal cause of the disturbance of the needle. But it is believed that in many instances, the true source of the errors complained of, is to be found in the carelessness or inattention of the surveyor, in the use and management of his compass, or the erroneous measurement of his lines. All these must be constantly and vigilantly guarded against, by every means in your power.


There is a certain irregular curve line which passes around the earth towards the north and south poles, called the "line of no variation." On every part of this line the magnetic needle co-incides sic] with the true meridian. But on each side of it, the needle declines from the true meridian towards it. This declination is usually called the "variation of the compass;" and increases gradually, but irregularly, in receding either eastward or westward from the line of no variation, until it reaches its maximum, beyond which it gradually decreases again to the line of no variation. This line is not stationary; but moves to the eastward for a series of years, and then to the westward through another series of years, but without any regular period, or any known proportion between the time of this movement and the amount thereof. Hence the variation

[sequence of pages ends here.]

[start of new series of pages] cases, thus: — suppose yourself standing at the head of the river looking down stream; then that bank of the stream on your right hand is to be called and referred to in your Field Notes as the "Right bank," and that on your left hand as the "Left bank." —And these terms, thus applied to navigable rivers, are to be used in all cases, whether in running lines or taking meanders.
6. Great care must be taken to describe clearly the post at which any meanders of a river, bayou, lake, or island commence; and also all the posts, on township or section lines which may be intersected in the progress of the meanders.
7. The Field Notes of meanders are to be written at the end of the subdivisions. The courses are to be inserted in a column on the left of the page; the distances, in chains and links, in a column next to this, and the notes or remarks on the right, opposite the proper course and distance. The column of .distances. must be added up at the foot thereof on each page.
8. Errors in meandering are of very frequent occurrence, arising principally, it is believed, from bad chaining. Your special attention is called to the manner in which this part of the work is executed; and all possible accuracy is enjoined both in the courses and measurement, and the entry thereof in your field book.


1. In surveying Private Claims, Indian Reservations, on other tracts not conforming to section lines, the location thereof must be particularly described, and the place of beginning clearly stated in your Field Notes; also the name of the claimant in whose right the survey is made, with the number by which it is known; and if a reservation, the quantity contained in it, and the name of the reserve. The Field Notes of all the lines of each tract must be complete, and are to be entered in the Field Book separately from the notes on other tracts. The Field Notes of Private Claims and Indian Reservations, must be entered in separate books.
2. Wherever a section or township line intersects a line on a private claim, or Indian reservation, there a corner must be established. The particular line intersected, with its course and the name of the claimant or reservee, with the number or other designation by which it is known, must be noted. And from such intersection, the private claim or reserve line must be carefully measured, each way along said line, to the end thereof, unless it should be intersected by another section or township line before the end be reached.
3. The course of every line of the survey of a private claim or Indian reservation, with the length thereof, and the variation of the compass, and date of the survey, are to be inserted in the Field Notes, which are to be certified and signed by you.


1. The field books are all to be made of one uniform size, viz: foolscap octavo; or a sheet of common sized cap paper, folded into sixteen pages. The paper must be of good quality, and the books covered with morocco or other leather, and neatly stitched and trimmed, and containing space enough for all the field notes of a township. The pages are to be ruled with red ink, and feint lined.
2. On the first page of your field book of each township, insert in a plain and neat manner, by way of title, the number of the township and range, with the state or territory in which it lies, and by whom surveyed, with the date of the commencement, and the date of completing the subdivision of the same.
3. On the fourth page, draw a plan or diagram of the township, on a scale of two miles to an inch. [On the page, "two" is crossed, "miles" has its "s" crossed out, and the word "one" is written in the margin.] On this diagram you will accurately delineate, as near as may be practicable by ocular observation on the spot, as you progress with the work, the crossing and courses of all streams of water, the intersection, situation, and boundaries of all prairies, marshes, swamps, lakes, and all other things mentioned in your field notes, the situation of which can be conveniently shewn [sic] on the diagram. You will also insert thereon, in small figures, the length of the section lines closing out to the north and west boundaries of the townships.
4. At the head of each subsequent page, on which the field notes are written, you will insert a running title, designating the number of the township and range, which is to be separated from the field notes by a double red line.
5. The Field Notes of the surveys furnish primarily, the materials from which the plats and calculations of the public lands are made; and the source from whence the description and evidence of the location and boundaries of those surveys are drawn and perpetuated. It is evidently, then, of the utmost importance that the Field Notes should be, at once, an accurate, clear and minute record of every thing that is done by the Surveyor and his assistants, (in accordance with these [excerpt ends here]

[Journal excerpt]

In establishing Corners in prairie, or other places, where there are no trees to make bearings of, the mounds are the only marks or monuments by which to find the corners, after the post are gone. These mounds are to be made large and well covered with sod. And the more readily to distinguish them from anthills, etc.; you will make the mounds at the section corners of earth taken from one pit, and directly south of the mound. And those at the quarter section post of earth taken from a pit directly east thereof; noting in each case the distance of the pit from the post. And when the situation of the ground will not admit of taking the earth for the mound from the South or East sides thereof; as directed, note in your field book the course and distance of such pits from the posts.


From the collections of the American Antiquarian Society



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Last updated June 13, 2005