Early Surveys and Maps of Michigan

Federal policies and treaties pushed most Native Americans off their lands which opened the door for government land surveyors to more easily divide land into sections and townships for easy sale. Lewis Cass, Territorial Governor in 1813, negotiated treaties with Native Americans for the cessation of Indian land for white settler expansion. In the early 1800s, surveyors from the Federal Government Land Office headed into the territory of Michigan to draw the lines that would define the counties and townships within what would become the state of Michigan.

Before the early settlers could buy land in Oakland County, surveys needed to be completed not only to delineate parcels, but also to assess the quality of the land for farming. Surveyors needed to include enough information on the survey for settlers to make sight-unseen land purchase decisions and to also be able to find the land on their own when they arrived.

Creating a Township

The Land Ordinance of 1785 set up a standardization system for how land would be surveyed and sold in the undeveloped west. Prior to direct taxation, the selling of land provided a revenue stream to the government. Under this ordinance, a township was considered a surveying unit. A township is a six mile by six mile square divided into 36 one square mile sections. Each section could be subdivided for re-sale by settlers and land speculators.

Section 1 in each township is in the northeast corner and subsequent sections follow a back and forth order and terminate with section 36 being in the southwest corner. The centermost land of each township corresponds to section numbers 15, 16, 21 and 22. Section 16, located near the center of each township was reserved for public schools. Many of the school sections were not used, including in Rose Township, and were later sold to raise money for education. Because section 16 was never used for a school and was later sold, it subsequently was settled later than other sections in the township.

Typical Township Sections and Subdivisions (source), accessed 12/30/2020

Early surveyors braved wolves, traversed (and often tried to circumvent) swamps and marshes with swarms of mosquitoes and healthy populations of massasauga rattlesnakes. The majority of surveying took place while leaves were off of the trees. They often contended with cold weather in the winter.

USGS Mapping of America (source), accessed 12/22/20

The Michigan Territory ended up being surveyed several times. Edward Tiffin, Surveyor General of the United States, visited the Michigan Territory in 1815. He claimed to have encountered numerous lakes and vast interminable swamps with very little fertile soils. He determined the land was unsafe and unfit for farming and he reported this to Congress. His report slowed down and delayed the settlement of Michigan.

Edward Tiffin (source), accessed 3/5/2021

In order to try to counteract this bad publicity, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass said that Tiffin’s report “grossly misrepresented” the land of the Michigan Territory and arranged for a new survey of the Territory. Cass’s survey refuted Tiffin’s report and declared Michigan favorable and open for settlement. As a result of this and positive newspaper articles describing Michigan’s climate as “temperate and healthy” and the soils as “generally rich and fertile”, the effects of the bad publicity began to wear off. Land sales increased and more settlers came to Michigan.

Deputy surveyor Joseph Wampler was hired along with a crew of five or six men to measure and mark the boundaries of the townships in Oakland County. When they came through the county it was largely undeveloped. They found swampy wetland areas, but also forested land, fields and grassy prairies. As a part of the surveying process, Wampler made notes of the tree species and physical features of the land he was traversing. On his survey map of Rose Township he described Rose as rolling, hilly land with white and black oak. He also noted some hickory, maple, and tamarack trees.

Wampler’s Survey of Rose Township 1823 (front page) (source), accessed 12/18/20}

Early settlers needed surveys and maps to be able to get to and find the land they purchased on their own when they arrived in Rose Township. Surveyor Orange Risdon attempted to capitalize on this need by creating a linen map which could be conveniently folded and easily carried in a pocket without losing its detail. He drew the map himself and paid to have it published in order to be able to sell it to settlers. Risdon included the unnamed Native American trail (dotted line) on which the first settlers to Rose Township settled as well as the waterways which would become important to them.

Orange Risdon Map - Rose Township (1825)

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