Bicentennial: General Land Office Celebrates Pioneering Surveyors

by Ron Cassie

In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris following the American Revolution, Great Britain recognized their 13 former colonies as the sovereign United States. Also included in the document negotiated and signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay: the transfer of 270 million acres of lands east of the Mississippi River.

The newly acquired territory was to be used, among other purposes, as payment for soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War. Through land sales, the territory would also help settle our young country’s war debt.

Soon the first law mandating the survey of the United States—Land Ordinance of 1785—was passed (remember, the U.S. Constitution didn’t even go into effect until 1798). Congress created the General Land Office (GLO) on April 25, 1812 to respond to its growing land business that had begun with the Land Ordinance surveys.

GLO Bicentennial

This spring, the Bureau of Land Management, where the General Land Office now resides, celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of the GLO at a special event at the BLM Eastern States Office in Springfield, Virginia, where millions of land records are preserved and made accessible to the public on the internet.

“I think the bicentennial is a symbol, first and foremost, of how old the country is, but the bicentennial also puts into perspective how important the General Land Office is to the country’s history,” says Dominica VanKoten, cadastral chief of the Eastern States for the Bureau of Land Management. “It’s one of the first agencies created in the country. The first surveys started in 1787 even before the agency.”

The survey system prescribed by Congress—rectangular patterns of land subdivision based on initial points with six-mile square townships to be subdivided into one-mile square sections—has been evolving ever since it was enacted and remains known as the Public Land Survey System. Any person owning land in the vast area that began as Federal Public Domain land can still trace a title back to the original government land records. “It’s certainly a testament to the principle of our land tenure system,” VanKoten adds. “The bicentennial also gets to the issue of recognizing the incredible infrastructure that’s there.”

In fact, today more than four million historic documents are available online at, and the General Land Office records website is one of the most visited at the Department of Interior. The online documents include patents—the deeds the government issued between 1787 and 1960—as well as the original survey plats and field notes.

GLO’s Historical Significance

Early General Land Office surveyors were literally working pioneers, traveling in wagons and camping as they performed their duties. Some of their records reveal a great deal about our development as a nation beyond mere lines on a map.  Their notes often paint a picture of daily camp life as well as accounts of interactions with native tribes, wildlife, and landscapes in which they worked.

“The technical information is what they were required to provide,” says VanKoten. “But many times they also included reports about what happened in camp—especially any fights or battles with native tribes—or unique landscape. They’d also include things about a campsite if it was wet or the bugs were especially bad.”

Handwritten field notes on file include a description of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s battleground at Washita River two weeks after Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s southern Cheyenne camp in late November 1868, near present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma.

“Some evidence of this action still remains on the ground,” a U.S. surveyor writes on Dec. 12, 1868, referring to the battle, “such as the bones of mules and ponies and the skulls of men.” The surveyor further describes the land generally as “unfit for cultivation needs and only fit for grazing purposes.”
Another field note several years later reports in elegant handwriting the death of a fellow member of U.S. surveyor corps, Robert Martin, described as a “trustworthy and reliable man,” at the hands of the Cheyenne in March of 1872.

The work of surveyors and the General Land Office generated revenue for the federal government by facilitating the sale of public lands for private ownership.  In 1862, 50 years following the establishment of the GLO, the Homestead Act was passed, enabling millions of Americans to clear and settle land while converting it for agricultural use.

Responsible for managing and preserving the documents that enabled the settlement of the American frontier, the Bureau of Land Management-Eastern States maintains the original land records for most of the United States since 1788 in fire-proof vaults at the BLM-ES offices in Springfield, Virginia. The invaluable land title records serve as legal records and are used by natural resource agencies, historians, title companies, university researchers, and genealogists and are available for public view.  (The Eastern States Office, of course, also manages public lands and resources in 31 states stretching from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean.)

The Bureau of Land Management was created by the merger of the General Land Office with the Grazing Service in 1946. Considered the nation’s surveyors, the BLM cadastral survey program today is responsible for identifying the extent of federal interest lands and providing all federal land administration agencies with comprehensive boundary management services.

Ron Cassie is editor of this magazine.

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