May 2, 2022
Photo by Arthur Melville Pearson.

More Than a Map: The Legacy of Illinois’ First Public Land Surveys

By Carla Rich Montez
On top of a flat surface rests a compass attached to a shiny brass bar with two bracket's on either side.
Surveyor’s compass in an exhibit in the National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, USA. Photo by Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

When a deputy surveyor named Daniel Miller drove a wooden stake in the ground on a summer day in 1821, he looked for a nearby landmark he could reference as a “witness” to the post. Seeing a hardy oak, he directed one of his crew to chop out a large chunk of the bark so the coordinates could be carved on the trunk—township, range and section. Then Miller took out his notebook and described the tree, its relative position, or bearing, to the survey post and the condition of the nearby landscape.

“…set a post at the corner from which a white oak 20 inches diameter bears…The land is rolling and second rate.”

This wasn’t the first tree that was blazed by a survey crew of the U.S. General Land Office. Nor would it be the last. Before the first official maps of Illinois would be complete in 1856, men like Daniel Miller would inscribe thousands of witness trees as they measured and mapped the state. Their work would help future settlers find their land claims. But it would do so much more.

Why Surveys Were Needed

 A sepia toned drawing depicting the historical surveying of Illinois. Two surveyors survey in a prairie with a large oak tree in the background.
Illustration by Sarah Marjanovic.

With the Revolutionary War concluded and territorial expansion well underway, it was essential that the new government develop a mechanism for generating revenue. A ready option was to sell land to settlers. However, this could only be accomplished if surveys were conducted, and maps were drawn. 

The first surveyors entered the Illinois Territory in 1804. Their task was to use a new rectangular grid system to measure and map one-mile-square sections and six-mile-square townships. At the corners and at half mile intervals, they designated natural features, typically sturdy and long-lived trees like oaks and hickories, that could be easily located in the future. Where the grasslands supported few trees, the surveyors constructed boundary markers out of prairie sod into which they drove a post for later authentication.

In their field notebooks, the surveyors made remarks about their surroundings including details about vegetation type, agricultural suitability and the presence of natural features like timber, grasslands, waterways and wetlands. Where the crews encountered Native American camps and trails, these were also noted. 

Thanks to these surveys, the founding fathers now had a uniform system for dividing and selling land, that is, a structure, backed by the government, that specified the boundaries on a parcel of land. Not only did the surveys allow the new administration to generate revenue through land sales, they opened the door to orderly westward development. 

But the land would soon change. Trees were removed for logging and homesteading; wetlands were drained; prairies succumbed to the plow. By the early 1900s, most of the lands of Illinois had been altered or destroyed. 

The Significance of the Surveyors’ Notes

A section of surveyor's notes in cursive hand writing on a piece of paper.
Miller field notes of Midewin Witness Tree. Photo courtesy of Joseph Wheeler.

While they could not have known it at the time, the surveyors were creating a remarkable historical record; more than a map. 

Their field notes teach us about the difficult conditions the first surveyors encountered: weather extremes, biting insects, dangerous wildlife, rough terrain and prairie grasses more than twice their height. Occasionally their work also involved interactions with unwelcoming natives.

Along with these hardships, the surveyors lived in tents, carried their own provisions and wrestled with the heavy and cumbersome tools they carried. The crews also spent months away from home while performing their duties. Yet the surveyors managed to map and measure nearly 58 thousand square miles that ultimately became Illinois. In fact, their surveys are still referenced when land is transferred today. 

The surveyors’ field notes also contain a remarkable ecological record of the original landforms and vegetation that once dominated the state, including the number and types of trees that were present more than 200 years ago. Guided by such details, we now have a better understanding of the impacts that humans have had on the ecosystem, and how we can restore the natural landscape particularly in important areas like prairies and wetlands.

Finally, the surveyors’ notes provide us a living record: the witness trees, the sturdy specimens that were first blazed as boundary markers. While most have long disappeared, a few witness trees are under the protection of public and private landholders. Those witness trees not yet found live anonymously in forests and fields where they are regarded simply as big old trees. Still, they continue to offer us important lessons.

A graphic with a photo of green oak leaves and brown acorns on a tree branch above a section of text.
Find the surveyors’ original field notes here. A map of the witness trees is available here, and find more at Witness Trees of Illinois.

Witness trees have taught us much about early fires: how they occurred and their impact on the forest. With such knowledge, we have a better understanding of fire tolerance in trees and the ways that fire was used as a tool by indigenous people. In turn, these details guide our use of prescribed burning. 

Witness trees have provided centuries of ecosystem services: they have sequestered carbon and reduced soil compaction and erosion; they have provided food and habitat for wildlife; and their canopy has had a cooling effect on the climate. They have done more than their part to sustain a healthy environment. 

During their long lives, witness trees have stood watch over the many peoples who have inhabited Illinois: indigenous tribes, explorers, settlers, farmers, industrialists and modern-day citizens. Not only are they living sentinels, the witness trees are a bridge between civilizations and cultures. 

Beyond their value to scientists, witness trees offer us something less tangible: an invitation to sit in the company of an old friend – someone who may not be here much longer. If you know of such a tree, take time to appreciate its rank as one of the ancient remnants of unsettled Illinois.

As for Daniel Miller’s witness tree, it is still alive. Today it is 66 inches in diameter, stands over 125 feet tall and enjoys the protection of the staff at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, near Wilmington, Illinois. It is about 330 years old. 

Carla Rich Montez is an Illinois Master Naturalist volunteering as a writer for Outdoor Illinois Journal.