THE SYMMES PURCHASE
by C. Albert White
John Cleve Symmes, from New Jersey, contributed much of his private resources in support of the Continental Army during the Revolution. He held a large quantity of certificates of indebtedness and wanted to turn them into something of value, namely, real estate. Symmes proposed to purchase the lands between the Great and Little Miami Rivers in southwestern Ohio for about the same terms given the Ohio Company, except that only one township was reserved for an academy. Although Symmes jumped the gun and began settlement before a contract was concluded, which made Congress angry, he finally got a contract for one million acres on October 15, 1788. The east boundary of the tract was supposed to be parallel to the Great Miami, beginning at a point 20 miles up the Ohio from the mouth of that stream. It was impossible to determine a boundary of that description so Symmes began in late 1788 to survey all the lands between both Miami rivers. Symmes' principal surveyor, Israel Ludlow, ran an east-west base line between the Miamis through what is now Fractional Range 2, setting corners every mile. Symmes directed the assistant surveyors to run lines north and south on a magnetic meridian from each of Ludlow's mile posts, setting corners at one-mile intervals on the meridional lines but not to tie across with east-west lines. The purchasers would have to pay for surveying the east-west lines. By this scheme, Symmes would only pay the cost of surveying half the section lines but all four corners would have been established by him. The townships were not numbered in reference to Ludlow's base line, but it ran east-west and the ranges were thus numbered north from the Ohio River. The first townships on the Ohio are fractional and are called "Fractional Range 1". The second row is called "Fractional Range 2", with the third and first full townships called just "Range 1", followed by Range 2, Range 3, and so on. The townships are numbered east from the Great Miami River. the Between the Miamis surveys are the only place in the United States where ranges are numbered north-south and the townships are numbered in an east-west direction.
Gross distortions resulted when the purchases hired surveyors to run the east-west lines to form the north and south boundaries of the sections tying between the corners established on the meridional lines. The supposed northwest corner of a section might be 15 to 20 chains or more, north or south of the northeast corner of the same section. The longitudinal distances between corners were also grossly in error. A purchaser of a full section might have 100 acres more or less than he was to pay for. This type of distortion was clearly in violation of the Land Ordinance which said that the east-west lines should cross the north-south lines at "right angles as near may be". The numbering of the ranges north-south was also technically in violation of the Ordinance. Even though many purchasers already occupied their lands according the original corners. Symmes ordered his surveyors to carefully rerun the meridian line which intersected the Ohio opposite the mouth of the Licking River in Kentucky and set new corners every mile. He called this new line a "standard". The purchasers were to then run east-west lines from the new corners on the standard and set their section corners at intersections with the old meridional lines, which created even more conflicts and problems. Eventually the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the original corners controlled regardless of distortions.
Symmes began to run into financial difficulties and couldn't pay for the lands he contracted to purchase. He also had his surveyors at work north of the land he had paid for and was in effect selling land he did not own. Symmes eventually received a patent to the lands as far north as the north boundary of Range III. The government in later years honored the claims of purchasers north of that line and patented the lands to them under the Act of March 2, 1799, 1 Stat. 728, and supplemental acts.
The Symmes Purchase was so badly managed and the surveys so poor that it effectively killed any further large land sales by Congress. It brought out the need for proper surveys, executed by the government, and the fixing in position, by law, of survey corners and lines once claims were mad based on them. Though Symmes had used a base line to begin the surveys, it was not used to control township and range numbers. The use of natural boundaries such as the Ohio and Great Miami Rivers was obviously defective, but for the time being the surveys were locked into what already was the practice. But even as bad as the surveys in the Symmes Purchase were, they proved to be far superior to the metes and bounds system and indiscriminate locations. There are no known field notes and very few plats of the surveys within the Symmes Purchase, as most of the records were destroyed when Symmes' house burned at North Bend, Ohio in 1810. In later years, the Surveyor General was able to find some scattered records which were in the hands of local and county surveyors.
From A History of the Rectangular Survey System, by C. Albert White, U. S. Dept of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Washington D. C., 1982.