The Invisible Lines of the Early Surveys through the Wilderness

As mentioned in our previous blog post “History of Franklin Township”, the layout of Franklin township was almost predetermined by The Purchase of 1784. A huge tract of newly purchased land, originally named the County of Alleghany, was divided into two great sections by a due east-and-west line running from Mahoning Creek, near Kittanning on the Allegheny River, to the western border of the state. The land south of the line was appropriated to the redemption of depreciation certificates, and these allotments were called “Depreciation Lands.” The land north of this line was known as “Donation Lands” and was given to officers and soldiers according to their rank and service. However, before these lands could be distributed and settled; the remote, unbroken forest needed to be surveyed.

In 1781, Thomas Hutchins was named Geographer of the United States (the only person to hold this title). He had worked on the survey of the south boundary of Pennsylvania, along with Andrew Ellicott and David Rittenhouse, which was surveyed using a transit (tangent) line and offsets made to the parallel of latitude prior to the setting of boundary monuments. Now tasked with surveying the “Seven Ranges” as provided by the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, Hutchins needed a new way to survey the vast amount of wilderness now part of the United States.

Thirteen surveyors, one from each State, had been appointed to assist Hutchins in the survey of the first Seven Ranges. Only eight surveyors showed up in Pittsburgh in September 1785, all with varying experience and ability. The boundary commission, headed by Andrew Ellicott, had established a wood post at or near the high water line on the north bank of the Ohio River and on the west boundary of Pennsylvania on August 20, 1785. That boundary was run with a transit and on a true astronomic meridian. Hutchins and his group began the rectangular surveys at the aforementioned post on September 30, 1785. From that point the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) method of surveying commenced.

This survey system was used to survey and lay out individual tracts of the Alleghany County donation lands. The area was divided into ten east-west strips; No. One began at the line of the Depreciation Lands; the others follow numerically to the northern boundary of the State. The districts were assigned to the following deputy

  • William Alexander, for District 1
  • John Henderson, for District 2
  • Griffith Evans, for District 3
  • Andrew Henderson, for District 4
  • Benjamin Lodge, for District 5
  • James Christy, for District 6
  • William Power, for District 7
  • Alexander McDowell, for District 8
  • James Dickinson, for District 9
  • David Watts, for District 10
Pennsylvania’s Donation Lands. W. J. McKnight, A Pioneer Outline History
of Northwestern Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1905)

The first survey of Erie county was that of the Tenth Donation District, made by David Watts and Williams Miles in 1785. In the 1855 map of Franklin township and the aerial map of the area below, you can see the rectangular survey system of the land. As individual landowners typically did not want their property bisected by a road, almost all of the roads naturally began to lay out between the individual tracts of land.

However, there are a few instances where the rectangular gird was broken. Examples include:

  • Old State Road: This was the first road through the area, connecting Waterford to the east with Lexington to the west. While an exact date for its creation has not been found, it was created before 1818 and followed a route near to the Laurentian northern continental divide, so as to minimize any significant stream crossings.
Portion of the Erie and Crawford County, manuscript map by surveyor David Dougal copied from the original by Jno. E. Whiteside, January 2, 1818.
  • Shaddock Road: At the northeast corner of the township, Shaddock road takes a 45-degree shift to the grid and runs in the northeast/southwest direction toward Mckean.
  • Clair Wright Road: One of the first roads running to the southwest from Howard Falls and the Stone Quarry.  Its southwest direction took it away from Little Elk Creek, a major tributary of Elk Creek, and the formidable gorge of that water system.  Stone was hauled on it from the Howard Stone Quarry to the Erie Extension Canal as it was being built through Erie County and up over the Laurentian Divide.
  • Francis Road: As Little Elk Creek was finally bridged, Francis Road was created following the rectangular grid.  However as it neared Falls Run and the Falls Run Gorge, it needed to break from that pattern to skirt the Falls to the south.  In laying out the deviation from the grid, it is obvious today that the route chosen to the Falls followed the Summer Solstice, and the summer sun brilliantly sets exactly on Francis Road.
Francis Road on the Summer Solstice
Sunday, June 20. 2021

Our towns and farms are arranged as they are today because of those surveys made more than 200 years ago. The surveyors’ lines are there, invisible beneath our feet. Some of the original stones marking the sections can still be found.  A future blog will explore the first surveys of the Howard Falls area, and those who first came to this unbroken wilderness in the early 1830s.

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