A point in time: Using General Land Office (GLO) Notes

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I couldn’t believe that I was holding in my hands the leather-bound book that helped to define a state. Even more, I couldn’t believe that it was kept in an unprotected cardboard box under the desk of a state employee’s office. These stained pages, with nearly illegible cursive writing in fading ink, were the original notes written by land surveyors in 1830s Mississippi as they established the township and range lines. My mind raced with the shattering impacts that this simple book had in the following years: the mapping of historical lands and subsequent removal of native American tribes, the locations of good arable farming lands, the areas and qualities of natural resources, determining navigable rivers and courses, facilitating the sale of public lands, and importantly—establishing the first maps and records of a young frontier state. These survey plats and field notes became known as the General Land Office notes (or cadastral surveys), which are publically available online for most lands west of the original American colonies (https://glorecords.blm.gov/default.aspx).

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These historical maps and records are used today by families researching homelands, by researchers tracing emigration and immigration patterns, and for my own professional interests– to determine the historical forest patterns that once existed. GLO maps have been used in land restoration projects for restoring river courses, delineating wetlands, and forest management. Hand drawn maps of the township and range lines shows the general land relief; river locations; existing roads, croplands, and homesites; and surface features. The survey lines offer a wealth of information that includes tree names, wetland areas, and distances. My personal favorites are the general notes written by the surveyor about particular townships which include such literary gems as, “this mile is hansom level open wood. Poor land. Pine & oak timber” or “The land of no value”. Check out the GLO notes for your neighborhood and you may be surprised what you may find.

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