Gunter’s Chain | United States (1780s)


By Molly Russell


As historian Malcolm J. Rohrbough writes in The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837, “The process by which the public lands were brought to market through survey and public sale were known to every citizen in the western country; and a public land sale ranked with birth, marriage, and death among the most significant events in the life of any frontiersman.” This excerpt conveys how the acquisition, disposition, and use of land dominated the lives of Americans and the business of government during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Americans were encouraged to travel westward and, in turn, subjugate native populations. To ingrain this importance of land ownership and the concept of Manifest Destiny into all aspects of American life, standardized surveying practices had to be implemented by the early government of the United States. The rectangular survey system was soon presented in the Land Ordinance of 1785. To execute the standardized system, a surveying tool called “Gunter’s chain” was utilized. By providing the means to which European settlers realized Manifest Density, which was of course accompanied by extreme violence towards indigenous peoples and the commodification of land, a fictitious commodity, Gunter’s chain illustrates important aspects of the Anthropocene: a changing relationship towards the land and violent settler colonialism.

Following the American Revolution, the United States acquired vast amounts of land from other governments. The young country had also acquired a sizeable national debt while fighting for independence. With these two acquisitions at the forefront of the government’s agenda, Congress appointed a committee with Thomas Jefferson as chair in 1784 to “devise a plan for the orderly sale and distribution of public land,” which called for a standardized surveying practice. With colonies already having individual systems of land tenure, the committee reviewed them all and determined that New England’s rectangular survey system would provide the groundwork for the rest of the United States. This system was reported to Congress in 1784, and required that “all public lands be divided into squares or ‘hundreds’.” These practices derived out of European settlers viewing land as a commodity to be used for progress through production and the young United States government viewing their debt as something that needed paying off, resulting in sales of land for cash.

To accomplish the adaptation of the rectangular survey system across all new public lands in the United States, mostly west of the Ohio River, surveyors were needed, and those surveyors needed tools to ensure that the rectangular grid was uniform. The Land Ordinance of 1785 ordained that one surveyor from each state be appointed by Congress to divide territory for sale. To do this, the Ordinance prescribed using a chain to measure lines running North, South, East, and West in order to create plats and marking those plats into lots of one square mile, or 640 acres. The chain unit that was used was invented by Edmund Gunter, an English astronomer who lived during the seventeenth century. Gunter’s chain was incredibly useful for achieving Congress’s task, as one acre is equal to ten square chains, or 1,000 links, in Gunter’s invention.

This grid, or new map, represented a shift in society’s relationship to land as the United States government sought to commodify nature. Similar to the more ramshackle grid of England during the 15th to 18th centuries following the Enclosure Movement, the new plat of the United States was organized to allow the powerful to own land and the unpowerful to desire land, and thus, incentivize the commodification of land. However, as Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, “Labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them. In other words, according to the empirical definition of a commodity, they are not commodities.” Land, by being commodified, was of course not being intrinsically valued, and was thus a fictitious commodity. As successful agricultural yields ripened the United States’ economy, the biotic community was forgotten, and all land could have a price. The idea of land being worth more in production value than intrinsic value is echoed more recently in a 1940 United States Department of the Interior publication: “Out of the wilderness which constituted the public domain of 150 years ago has been developed one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. Today, the greater part of the agricultural wealth of the Nation lies within the public land States.”

In order to acquire more land to reap more economic benefits, westward expansion seemed necessary to many Americans. One of the most enduring legacies of American settler colonial thought, Manifest Destiny asserted that the United States, under divine providence, had an entitlement and a responsibility to expand throughout the North American continent. This belief that so many Americans held spoke to the concept of human exceptionalism, with humans acting as the masters and possessors of nature. Illustrative of Enlightenment thinking, American political thinker John O’Sullivan charted a unique destiny for the young United States in 1839: “The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles.” The dream of westward expansion equated to both dreams of increased profits and dreams of finding a better future for many settlers. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel expanded on the American dream of traversing westward, too, in his Philosophy of History: “America is, therefore, the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself… It is a land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical lumber-room of old Europe.” According to Hegel, the American West was something pristine and untouched; a symbol of hope for those weary from the wider world’s sins. The standardized surveying of all land advanced European settlers’ hope of moving West to a tangible reality.

Westward expansion in the United States was driven by many lofty ideals, such as economic promise, pristine land, and a divine ordeal. However, people already called the American West home. Those inhabitants, indigenous to North America, did not fit into the Eurocentric views that accompanied Enlightenment thinking. As if the definition of “settler colonialism” had guided westward expansion efforts, European settlers continuously used violent tactics to push indigenous peoples out of their home spaces as a means to “progress.” Genocidal approaches utilized by European settlers to remove those native to the Americas were premised on ideas of racial superiority. Pressure from settlers was largely aimed at removing indigenous peoples, which can be seen through the creation of increasingly small reservations.

Although obvious brutality was the norm, the situation was often described as amicable. The 1940 United States Department of the Interior publication describes western expansion and the implications on native peoples, writing, “As white settlements pushed westward, treaties were made with the Indians under the terms of which their lands were ceded to the Federal Government. These treaties frequently made provisions for the reservation of other areas for the use and benefit of the Indians and from time to time public lands were set apart by act of Congress of Executive order as Indian reservations. As the Indian population diminished, it became apparent that this area contained thousands of acres more than the Indians needed for their subsistence, and, beginning in 1889, portions of the Indian Territory were opened to white settlement.” The charting of land that was claimed by European countries and acquired by the United States at the close of the American Revolution opened a door, however illegitimate, to legally claim land, at least in the eyes of the United States, that had been lived on for centuries by generations of indigenous peoples.

Gunter’s chain, a mere surveying tool consisting of a chain that proved useful to implementing the Land Ordinance of 1785, is highly symbolic of the Anthropocene. As it is known that the acquisition, disposition, and use of land play a vital role in shaping the American identity, even today, it is reasonable that the standardized surveying of land changed the way Americans relate to nature. By dividing land up rectangularly, Gunter’s chain created smooth parcels of land to be put on the market and worked. This commodification of land, a fictitious commodity, strained the relationship between man and nature by invalidating the intrinsic value of land. Enlightenment thinking and human exceptionalism pushed man to seek land and the economic values that accompanied it by traveling West. The western United States proved to be a symbol of hope, purity, and an escape from the wider world for many people. And, with the Land Ordinance of 1785 being enacted, the West became easily accessible to the masses. While following what many believed to be their destiny as European colonists, Americans traveled across the continent in search of hope that ultimately spurred genocide. In search of their destiny, Americans inflicted incredible violence on indigenous people. Obviously, a lot can come from a chain. In conclusion, Gunter’s chain, a surveying tool, helped establish the changes ordered in the Land Ordinance of 1785 which resulted in the commodification of land, the realization of Manifest Destiny for many settlers, and violent settler colonialism and, as such, tells a fundamental story of a changing relationship to the land; an important aspect of the Anthropocene.

Work Cited

Bettag, Claire. Introduction to Public Land Surveys of the United States. California: Provincial Press, 2003

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of History. New York: Dover Publications, 1956

Hoag, John. Fundamentals of Land Measurement. Illinois: Chicago Title Insurance Company, 1971

Jefferson, Thomas. Public Land Surveys of the United States. New York: American Book Company, 1804

National Museum of American History. Gunter Chain. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.

O’Sullivan, John. “The Great Nation of Futurity.” United States Magazine and Democratic Review 6, no. 3 (November 1839)

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1944

Rohrbach, Malcolm. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968

United States Continental Congress. An ordinance for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the Western Territory: Be it ordained by the United States in Congress assembled, that the territory ceded by individual states to the United States, which has been purchased of the Indian inhabitants, shall be disposed of in the following manner. New York: s.n, 1785.

United States Department of the Interior. Land of the Free. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, General Land Office, 1940

United States Department of the Interior. Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States, 1930. Washington D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, General Land Office, 1931