Surveying the new county

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By Ned Lodwick

In 1786 it became evident that there was not enough land south of the Ohio for Virginia to give to her veterans of the Revolutionary War in lieu of cash for their service. The Commonwealth of Virginia opened up her lands north of the Ohio for settlement. Before settlers could claim their new homesteads in the Ohio territory the land needed to be surveyed so that there were not arguments over property lines. A private was to receive 200 acres; a non-commissioned officer, 400 acres; a Lieutenant, 2,000 acres; a Captain, 3,000 acres; a Colonel, 5,000 acres; a Brigadier General, 10,000 acres; and a Major General, 15,000 acres. By 1787 surveyors were busy on the lands that would be Adams, Clermont, and Brown Counties. The lands between the Little Miami and the Scioto Rivers would become the Virginia Military District. The surveyors in this area were John O’Bannon, Nathaniel Massie, William Lytle, Arthur Fox, John Beasley, and Joseph Kerr. Each had three assistant surveyors and six men with each surveyor. The work was done with a hand held compass and a sixty six foot chain. Eighty chains made a mile and ten square chains made an acre. A surveyor and his three assistants could survey several thousand acres in a good day. For each thousand acres surveyed the surveyor was to be paid in tobacco, 320 pounds. Boundaries of each tract were marked by ‘monuments’; a tree, pile of rocks, or possibly an iron spike. Often trees were blazed by scalping a section of bark off the ‘monument’ tree. A record of each surveyed tract was kept with pencil and paper in a ‘field journal’. The Ohio Territory was too dangerous to enter in any season except winter in the 1790’s. Only then were the Indians in winter camp and not roaming the Southern Ohio forests. It was safer in winter but the job was made even harder with long hours of darkness, cold, snow, wind, and ice. The surveyors party was made up of twenty eight men in total that was divided into four ‘messes’ of seven men. The entire party would cook and eat around a comforting fire then would break into ‘messes’ of seven and walk two or three hundred yards into the dark. There they would scrape away the snow, lay down one half of their blankets, lay down themselves with their loaded rifles, and cover up with blankets pinned together. They slept spoon style with heads and feet alternating so they could watch for Indians without getting out of the covers. Not until the sun was well up did the surveyors move back to the central fire and cook breakfast. Thus they stayed warm through the bitter night and relatively safe from Indian ambushes. After the Greenville Treaty of 1795 the threat of Indian attacks lessened but the weather did not improve. One excursion remembered as the ‘starving tour’ began as a routine trip but things changed quickly. The twenty eight men were suddenly struck by a severe storm that lasted four days. They were over a hundred miles into the wilderness with no huts or tents. The storm kept them in the wilderness longer than they had planned and they ran out of food. Still miles from home the weakened men luckily killed two turkeys. They divided the turkeys into twenty eight parts and the birds were completely devoured. That gave the men the strength to struggle through the trackless snow to safety. These early surveyors were amazing men. They were obviously brave. They were also leaders who would start villages. Several became Congressmen and Governors. They certainly left their mark on Brown County.

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