Settlement of the Western Reserve
Many of our presentday land-use problems are the result of regarding land simply as a commodity, not as a living resource linked by wind and water to the landscape around it. The following essay explores the roots of our "commodification" of the Western Reserve, the area of Northeast Ohio surveyed and sold by the Connecticut Land Company after the Revolutionary War.
Turning wilderness into real estate:
The original land survey of the Western Reserve
By Benjamin Hitchings
To an adventurous young man named Amzi Atwater, Canaan, Connecticut, bore little resemblance to the Promised Land. So, in the spring of his twentieth year, Atwater left this aging settlement on the eastern seaboard and headed for the frontier. Two months later in upstate New York, he found a job with the Connecticut Land Company. His assignment was to mark off imaginary townships for Moses Cleaveland in the primeval forests of the Connecticut Western Reserve.
After assembling in Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie, Cleaveland and his party of surveyors set out for New Connecticut by boat. They arrived on the Fourth of July near Conneaut Creek and drank a toast to the community they were about to create. Then, with a chessboard design in their heads, they measured off the wilderness into squares. The year was 1796, and the area was about to receive its most dramatic face-lift since the retreat of the glaciers.
Laying down the grid
"Today I assisted in traversing the Conneaut Creek. This found to be not very agreeable work. The nettles and thorns made it very difficult [to] carry the chain." Over the next four months, Amzi Atwater filled his journal with images like this one as he and the 45 other members of the survey painstakingly crisscrossed the Western Reserve, dividing up the land.
The impetus for their work was money. In 1795, the Connecticut Land Company had purchased the Western Reserve from the State of Connecticut for $1.2 million. Now the stockholders wanted to cash in on their investment. But first they had to survey their land, because they could not sell a product that they could not define.
The first task for the surveyors was to locate the Pennsylvania border, which formed the eastern boundary of the Reserve. Then they ran a second baseline along the 41st degree North Latitude to establish the southern boundary (what today is the southern border of Portage County) and began marking off townships.
While early surveyors in North America used a system of metes and bounds that divided the land along its natural contours, Cleaveland's party laid down an artificial grid that divided the land into 5 mile by 5 mile squares. Each square was identified as a numbered "township" in a numbered "range." Initially, this work was carried out only on land east of the Cuyahoga River, since at this time the river marked the western boundary of the United States.
Cleaveland's party chose the grid system for several reasons. The first was to divide the land equitably amongst the stockholders of the Connecticut Land Company. In addition, the grid would facilitate the sale of the land to the general public and provide longterm security of title for each parcel.
The resulting checkerboard bore no relationship whatsoever to the natural features of the land. In some places, the rigid survey lines took the surveyors through dense swamps. Atwater writes: "On the 56th mile is a Cranberry swamp…so miry that it is dangerous to attempt and difficult to perform a passage through either by man or beast." At other times, heavy underbrush obstructed their efforts. "The bushes are Thorns, Plums, Crabapples, Hazelnut ... all united in their branches which very much hindered our progress." Only where the grid intersected Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River did it yield to the natural contours of the landscape.
Thus, while the grid system of surveying sped the transfer of land, it was divorced from the features of the land. By imposing a new logic on the natural landscape in the Cuyahoga Bioregion, the surveyors launched a process that would increasingly distance human inhabitants from the natural world around them. Responsibility for this separation lay not with the surveyors themselves, but rather with the mind set of their culture as a whole, which maintained a view of land ownership that contrasted sharply with that of the indigenous inhabitants.
Possessing the land
"This country appears to have formerly been Hunting ground, in the neighborhood of a large Indian town but not at present."
Due to a series of trade wars amongst rival tribes over control of commerce with Europeans, the Cuyahoga Bioregion was largely vacant by the time the surveyors landed. The arrival of Cleaveland's party launched the final stage in the displacement of the indigenous inhabitants. At the same time, it brought a shift in attitudes toward the land. At the root of this change were differing notions of land ownership.
For the Native Americans, ownership took place at the community level and was restricted to using the land. If a village established itself in a specific locale, it enjoyed "usufruct rights," or the privilege of utilizing the various natural resources that the area had to offer. In contrast, EuroAmericans viewed land as a commodity. The owner possessed not only the right to use a given parcel of land, but also to prevent others from using it. More importantly, the owner could lease or sell the land and convey these rights to others. In this world view, land was a possession that could be traded by individuals on the open market.
Chaining the land
"We found it bad chaining through this beautiful spot of land. I carried the fore end of the chain, and it was with difficulty that I got one foot before the other, some times my foot would catch in the vines and pitch me my whole length."
To divide the land east of the Cuyahoga River into townships, the surveying party broke into smaller groups of about half a dozen men each. Amzi Atwater was assigned to work for Moses Warren. This team consisted of an axe man, a flagman, two chainmen, and a pack horseman, in addition to Warren, the surveyor. The principal tools at the party's disposal were the surveying compass, mounted on a staff that had crude crosshairs for sighting along a line, and a metal chain 66 feet long. This length was the industry standard and had been selected so that 10 square chains would constitute an acre of land and 6,400 square chains would make up a square mile.
Warren's party then proceeded through the woods "running a line" from a fixed endpoint. The axe man would clear a path through the trees and the underbrush; the flagman would serve as a human sighting target for the surveyor; the two chainmen would measure off the distance; and the surveyor would bring up the rear sighting along his compass to make sure the crew stayed on course. The pack horseman followed along behind carrying the supplies. All told, the party could survey about 12 miles a day. Then they would camp for the night and resume their task the next morning.
While seemingly mundane, the surveyors' work was by no means simple. The chief difficulties came in running a line that was truly straight and in locating the lines laid down by the other members of the party. Like children playing with a handheld EtchaSketch, the surveyors' lines often did not match up. On one occasion, a township line laid down by John Milton Holley missed its continuation in the adjacent township by a quarter of a mile. To make matters worse, the surveyors also had to confront a variety of occupational hazards that came with life in the wilderness.
Life in the woods
"We had lived upon a pretty short allowance for several days, but the last we had but little either breakfast or dinner… [F]or supper we had each a piece of bread not larger than I could put into my mouth at once."
In many ways, surveying was miserable work. In addition to supply shortages and exhausting labor, the party also had to deal with bad weather, snakes, and mosquitoes. Historian Charles Whittlesey wrote that "Every day was one of toil, and frequently discomfort. The woods, and particularly the swamps, were filled with ravenous mosquitoes…In rainy weather the bushes were wet, and in clear weather the heat was oppressive." On one occasion Atwater wrote, "This part of the country we called Mosquito Swamp, on account of the Mosquitoes being so thick." Another time along Conneaut Creek, the party stopped to build a "bark hut to shelter us from a shower that was attended with heavy thunder and sharp lightening."
In September, conditions became so intolerable that the surveyors went on strike. Moses Cleaveland settled the dispute by granting them land in one township, which they named Euclid in honor of the Greek mathematician who inspired their craft.
The rigors of life on the survey were further evidenced by the scant number of employees who returned the following year to continue the work. Less than a third of the original party signed on for another season, and they were probably sorry they did. In 1797, three people died of malaria and two others drowned.
A forest of giants
For those who remained on the survey, there was considerable work to be done. One of the more important tasks was to make notes on the features of the landscape. This was required by the Connecticut Land Company to provide the company stockholders and prospective buyers with information on where the best land was located.
Thus, as the surveyors laid out the township lines, they kept written descriptions of the soil, timber, topography, watercourses, and other features of the landscape along each mile. In the process, they generated the most comprehensive written record of features on the native landscape in the Cuyahoga Bioregion, at the same time that they prepared it for conversion to other uses.
A review of John Milton Holley's survey notes demonstrates his concern with the availability of water, drainage, and the relative fertility of the soil. He consistently noted watercourses, remarked upon swamplands, identified predominant tree species, and made a general assessment of the land's suitability for agriculture. Land was described as "poor & broken," "poor & swampy," "stoney," "tolerably good," "pretty good," and even "good for grain."
The old-growth forest that the surveyors encountered consisted primarily of hardwoods such as beech, maple, oak, hickory, elm, sycamore, and whitewood [tulip]. Hemlocks flourished in the cool ravines. One of the major differences with the forest today was the presence of fullgrown chestnut trees, which were killed off following the arrival of the chestnut blight in Northeast Ohio in the late 1920s. In addition, because the native forest had never been logged, many of the trees grew to a considerable size. Along the Chagrin River, the party discovered some particularly large specimens. "One White Oak we measured was 34 links [22 feet] around the body," according to Atwater.
But the landscape was by no means entirely covered with timber. At one point, Atwater's party came upon a swath cleared by a tornado. Here, "the trees were all swept down, and the bushes have grown very thick."
All of Atwater's descriptions are referenced in terms of their place on the surveyors' grid. In one spot, he wrote, "From 14 to 39 chains on this mile the line runs through a grove of white pine timber."
Like his contemporaries, Atwater viewed the land in terms of how it could be used. At one point, he noted that "The flat or swamp on this creek is very rich, and pretty large; some of it is dry enough for the plough, and the whole, I think might be drained for cultivation." In another location "were to be seen the marks of an old Indian sugarworks, and I think it is now a very good place for that kind of manufacture."
Rattlesnakes and bears
Atwater also remarked upon the various animals he encountered in the Reserve. Most notable were the abundant rattlesnakes and bears, now quite rare. At one point, in a feat of backwoods heroism, the flagman of his party "stopped four rattlesnakes at one stroke with his flagstaff." In another spot, "bears had pulled down the Elder bushes, to get the plum that grow on them. These creatures seem to be very plenty in this [part] of the country."
Other species long since extirpated from the region such as mountain lions, wolves, and passenger pigeons also inhabited the woods. Creatures such as rabbits that thrive in edge habitat found the oldgrowth forest less hospitable, however, and were largely absent.
In places, elk and deer abounded. In one spot, "by the side of this creek at 55 chains is an Elk and Deer lick. This is the most extraordinary lick I ever saw. The tracks of the Elk were very thick about here, and appear like those of young cattle," remarked Atwater. Also of interest was the impact wolves had on the deer population. "Deer are plenty toward the south side of the country, but they are a great part of them destroyed by the wolves." Atwater's description suggests that deer populations existed in a healthier relationship to their habitat when their numbers were controlled by natural predators.
Land for sale
Atwater kept descriptions of the Reserve for his own amusement. The stockholders of the Connecticut Land Company, however, were interested in cataloguing the resources of the land to help them sell it. Soon after the survey was completed, advertisements like the following one began to appear in newspapers back in New England:
"FOR SALE, In New Connecticut, Eightyseven Thousand Acres of Land…The soil, water, and situation is such, that the subscriber [advertiser] has no doubt but the land will please the enterprizing farmer." This was clearly an understatement. Farmers would have to be "enterprizing" indeed to remove the giant trees that covered the bioregion.
In the end, early settlers were mainly concerned with improving their chances of survival. Contemporary historian, Gladys Haddad, writes that "each family or party fought its way through the wilderness along township lines until it came to its assigned spot. There, in the vast loneliness, a hole was chopped out of the forest, a cabin was erected, a few acres of corn or wheat were planted and the struggle for survival began."
Changing the ground rules
By the simple but arduous task of tracing lines on the land, the surveying party had turned a dense virgin forest into a commodity for sale. After two seasons of work, all the land east of the Cuyahoga River had been converted into paper townships. In the process, the surveyors imposed a new logic on the landscape that contrasted sharply with the natural communities that had evolved in the wake of the retreating Wisconsin glacier.
Herein lies the longterm significance of their work. The survey did not simply prepare the land for settlement by European-Americans, it changed the very ground rules for human interaction with the bioregion.
As a participant in the original survey, Amzi Atwater was one of the last people to see the Western Reserve in its presettlement condition. In the ensuing decades, as settlers moved in and cleared the forest, the grid he helped lay out became branded into the landscape. More and more, when inhabitants of the bioregion looked upon the land they saw the work of their predecessors, not the landscape as time and nature had sculpted it. The shape of the land was increasingly a human phenomenon.
A copy of Amzi Atwater's journal is housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society, along with numerous other documents on the early history of the Western Reserve. This essay appeared in The Greater Cleveland Environment Book published by EcoCity Cleveland in 1998. It was adapted from A Land Use History of Penitentiary Glen Reservation written for Lake Metroparks.
The dream of dominating the wilderness, making it safe and pliant and profitable, has haunted our continent since the first colonists made landfall on the Atlantic shore; but not until the rise of industrial technology in the nineteenth century, during the heyday of Midwestern settlement, was there any real prospect of achieving that dream. The same qualities that made the Heartland ideal for farming and the founding of towns—rich soils, broad rivers, ample rainfall, level terrain—also made it fertile ground for illusions of mastery. Sane people do not think of conquering a mountain range or a desert; but generations of quite sane people could imagine conquering the grasslands and hardwood forests, clearing the trees and breaking the sod, draining the swamps, damming the rivers, reducing the land to obedience.
— Scott Russell Sanders, Writing from the Center
The best bike trails >
Find out where are the most interesting bike rides in Northeast Ohio
Ten water saving tips >
We're at the shore of Lake Erie, but we still have good reasons to conserve
Eco-friendly landscapes >
We look inside two local guides to native landscaping and their benefits.