How was land sectionally decided in the early days?

I will elaborate on my long question(s).

Last night I was watching Legends of The Fall (Great movie) and Hopkins’ character had a large “ranch” in the Upper Northwest Territory of the US in 1913. Now, back then I know people claimed large amounts of land for themselves, since there was plenty of it.

But once things began to get modernized and more and more people started to move into these areas, what would stop another family from moving to …say…the valley a thousand yards away from your house ON YOUR spread? I mean, back then, it was a free for all. Did these people who own large spreads hire surveyors to come out and “legalize” their acreage? Did people go to “war” over land.

Like for instance

Original Land Owner: “hey, I own this part of land, you can’t move your family here unless you pay me.”

Person moving into area: “Oh yeah, well I don’t see any property stakes or a deed showing you own this land legally, so piss off.”

How did they decide when enough land was enough land? Who decided where the property lines stopped once people started moving to the area? Who decided that?

Did ranches just get smaller when another cattle broker moved close to another man’s ranch? Who decided who owned which pieces of land and how did that work out.
I know it’s a long question(s) and I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. Thanks. I mean, what’s to stop someone back then from saying “I own a million acres in this area.”

I don’t know what you consider early, but consider that George Washington was a surveyor as a young man, so the science did exist in the early part of the eighteenth century. And from reading the Wikipedia entry, people have been surveying land for thousand of years, using various methods. Presumably, earlier people might have only marked property by natural features such as rivers and trees.

Oh I know that. Surveyors existed in Roman era as well. My question isn’t so much about surveying as it is about the rights to the land.

Like, how they morally and legally decided who own what.

Read Measuring America for a good overview of how the surveying was done.

IIRC, you basically were granted rights to land either through a land grant by the government or by homesteading it, if you didn’t have the cash to purchase it outright. But legally, you couldn’t just move into an area and claim a huge tract of land. It wasn’t yours to claim. The land belond to the government, and they gave you certain avenues to obtaining clear title to some of it. Most of the huge ranches were either land grants, or outright purchases by people who had wads of cash to begin with.

Sorry, I edited that while you were replying. I would assume that people settled land disputes the same way they did other disputes; via a formal judicial system or perhaps by appealing to the monarch.

Oh, it’s cool, Dewey. You did give some good points. I didn’t even think about them using markers either.

silenus, awesome, I had no idea a book like that existed. thanks

have you noticed which offices are chosen by local elections all over America:
the sheriff, the treasurer, and the county surveyor. The surveyor was an important man back in the days of the cowboys, because he was the official voice of government and he set the boundaries of your property.Like the sheriff, he was the guy you turned to and trusted to keep the town honest.

The process of dividing up the land has been a job done by the government, ever since Colonial days.
In general, before opening up land for settlement, the government sent surveyors out to , well,… survey the land. They set out on expeditions of several months, living off the land, fighting Indians, and getting paid by the mile.
They marked the land in one-mile sections, numbered according to a standard system that is still in use today.(36 sections in each 6-by6 mile square).
Then the 1-sq. mile squares were sub-divided into half-section, quarter section and “quarter-quarter” sections(one sixteenth) lots–of 40 acres. and were sold off (or given away as homesteads, with ownership given to the settler after he lived on the land for a year, built a house, and raised an agricultural crop.

Those early surveys can be hopelessly inaccurate, but they set the boundaries which are still legally binding today. They originally marked the property corners by cutting marks on tree trunks, then later by burying large rocks. Today, those rocks are still legally binding and moving them is a criminal act.
If you ever fly over the flat mid-west, look out the window of the plane. You’ll notice that all the roads run in parallel lines, in one-mile squares—connecting the dots between those rocks that were set 150 years ago.

The Code of Hammurabi mentions property deeds several times, mostly in regard to inheritances; this is about 1750 BC.

That’s what governments are for.

Squatting has existed at various times and places in American history, and courts have sometimes recognized “squatters rights”. But in general, you don’t come to own land by “claiming it for yourself”, you come to own it via grant from, or purchase from, or homesteading under the authority of, a government. Or, you buy it from somebody (perhaps via a long chain of purchasers or inheritors) who originally established title via one of those methods.

The history of land ownership in the area which became the United States is way too complicated to be covered in a single post. At various times land was within the gift of the British sovereigns, or state governments, or the federal government. All of the above had wildly varying policies concerning how and to whom to grant it or to sell it. There were complications involving American Indian land claims, claims established under French, Spanish, Mexican, Russian, and Hawaiian rule in regions into which the United States expanded, and contention between states and the federal government. It was a lot more complicated than just saying, “These million acres are mine”.

The following two links don’t deal with how things worked legally, but are interesting nonetheless. I came across them from SDMB members back when I was trying to learn about townships. In lots of states they’re meaningless, but not in my state. The following two links kind of tie things up nicely:

Hey, and they’re good reasons not to go metric!

Here is the Wiki article on the Public Lands Survey System which is used in most (area-wise if not population-wise) of the US. If you read the history in the link, note that the system started in Ohio and worked its way westward as the population did. I don’t know what happened if someone tried to claim land before the surveyors got there.

Here in the Phoenix area the result is pretty evident. The land is flat enough the main roads run straight and follow the original section lines, including some S-curves on the township boundaries where the sections did not line up.

Thanks all. Great answers !

We use the same system down here in SW FLA since it is also a bit flat and was settled about the same time as the west. I thought learning about this “stupid old land system” was so pointless when I was an undergrad. Now I’m a planner and I deal with it routinely. I tell students about it when I hear them complaining about useless lessons. It can be annoying to try to mark down legal descriptions like, “The south half of the northwest one-quarter of the western half of the southern half of Section X, Township Y, Range Z.” But it works. There are problems in my county where early surveyors screwed up and longstanding disputes still exist or boundaries had to be adjusted by court order.