Survey Lines and County Roads

A look at a county maps of Indiana, especially central and northern parts of the state, reveals something very, I don’t know, interesting about most county roads. They are, relatively, straight in most places. There are exceptions, of course. But the vast majority of roads in this state are very, very, straight line affairs.

But why is this?

Well, the answer predates the very roads in question. Heck, in the case of Indiana, it predates the state, even predates the Indiana territory. The reason that roads tend to be due north/south and east/west was actually stated in the ordinance creating the Northwest Territory – the original designation of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota.

When the law was enacted creating the Northwest Territory, one of the stipulations was that the entire territory would be divided into townships and ranges, with townships being six miles north to south and ranges being six miles east to west. However, the law did realize that the planet wasn’t flat, so these were “roughly” six miles each. At the east and north lines of the township/range, there would be a “correction” of the survey. Each township and range was divided into sections, each roughly one mile square.

A close examination of a map of Marion County shows this very plainly, especially in Perry Township. Looking at Shelby Street, one will notice that every street that comes from the west does a slight northern jog at Shelby Street. With the busiest streets, the two sections are connected by a curve in the road.

Another prime example, in Marion County, of a correction line is Franklin Road north of Troy Avenue. The distance between Franklin Road (the range line) and Post Road, the next section line, is less than one mile. True, it’s barely less than a mile. But it is not quite a mile.

So, you ask, why did this happen? The truth is that it comes down to property ownership and rights. And to avoid what happened in the eastern states, Kentucky and parts of eastern Ohio. Property lines were drawn in those areas by measurements from a landmark, or a tree, or even a rock. With these types of non-exact measurements, there arose many property disputes. Some people lost everything because they found that the property they thought they bought ended up being someone else’s. Quite a few families ended up without anything at all when the property rights were settled.

The idea was that with the survey system put into place, the exact piece of land on the deed couldn’t be argued.

When the land in the new Northwest Territory was sold, it was divided into quarter sections, half sections, and complete sections (usually, there are places that were even divided into eighth sections). Since the sections were so regularly laid out, it ended up a logical extension to make these section division lines into access roads. This, too, can be spotted almost immediately in quite a few counties in Indiana. For instance, if you see a CR 900N, CR 925N, CR 950N, CR 975N and a CR 1000N, those are usually 1/4 mile apart, and are along the section division lines.

Again, there are exceptions to this straight survey rule. Two examples are Clarksville and Vincennes, which were survey in relation to the Ohio River and Wabash River, respectively. The Clarksville surveys stem from the fact that the area was given by the Commonwealth of Virginia (from the belief that the entire area belonged to Virginia as Illinois County) to Revolutionary War veterans.

Another major example is the Michigan Road surveys from north of Logansport to South Bend. A quick glance at a survey map of the old road will show that the sections are numbered sequentially by the mile, while the surrounding area is survey in relation to the “Second Prime Meridian,” a line designated to separate ranges east and west in Indiana.

The other exception that I will mention here is the “Gore” of Indiana. In the early history of the territory (1795), a boundary line between the United States and the Natives of the area was drawn from the Indian-Kentuck Creek on the Ohio River (on the Kentucky side) to Fort Recovery in what is now Ohio. (The line can be spotted most easily by the fact that it forms the western line of Dearborn County, Indiana.) While both sides of the line are surveyed in the standard mile sections and six mile townships and ranges, the area east of the line is surveyed as Ohio, while west of the line is surveyed as Indiana. As such, the lines (as well as the range and township numbers) don’t line up across the boundary line.

3 thoughts on “Survey Lines and County Roads

  1. Putnam County is a real outlier. Its county roads go every which way.

    I didn’t learn of the CR numbering scheme until I moved downstate. In my home county of St. Joseph the county roads have names. Notably, the north-south roads are named for trees.

    Liked by 1 person

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