copyright Alan A. Lew, 2004, all rights reserved
Chapter 3 - INTRODUCTION TO THE HUMAN GEOGRAPHY OF THE US
Note: Links marked with an asterisk (*) are optional.
Some Positive Characteristics
The US is distinct among the countries of the world. It is the fourth largest in both territorial size and population (approximately 290 million in 2003). The history of European settlement in the US is relatively short, as is the history of the country itself. It has a rich natural resource base and is well integrated physically and economically, which has contributed to making it a leading agricultural and industrial nation. It is one of the more urban countries and has among the highest living standards in the world. Americans also have very high rates of mass consumption and mobility.
How America Has Changed Over Last 100 Years*
Current Demographic Snapshot of the US*
Current International Trade Statistics of the US*
Some Negative Characteristics
Despite its rich natural resource base, the US is becoming increasingly more dependent on other countries for fossil fuels and minerals. Americans consume about 28% of the world's energy production and import just over half of the oil they use. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. This is a much higher rate than exists in other developed countries and reflects an unbalanced distribution of wealth. Wealth is also distributed unevenly among different regions of the country, with the coastal areas generally doing much better than the interior.
Current Crime Statistics for the US*
Current Employment and Earnings Snapshot of the US*
The Scrooge Syndrome - the US Is both the richest and stingiest developed country in the world today (commentary from the NY Times)
also: Ranking The Rich (from the Center for Global Development and Foreign Policy magazine)
Workweek Woes (commentary from the NY Times) - Americans on average work more hours a year than anyone in the world
US Population Explosion
- The United States' population has increased 85 percent from 1950 to 2001, growing from 151 million to 283 million in just fifty years.
- If present trends continue, our population will reach 400 million by the year 2050.
- The United States has one of the highest natural growth rates (0.7%) of any industrialized country in the world.
- The US population is growing by about 2.5 million people each year.
- Of that, immigration contributes over one million people to the US Population annually.
- The US average fertility rate is currently 2.1 births per woman, an increase from 1.8 in 1988. (For comparison, the United Kingdom's natural increase is one quarter the rate of the US at 0.2%, while Germany's natural increase is 0.)
- Using the Census Bureau's medium projections, US Population is expected to grow to 400 million by the year 2050.
- Eight states have population growth rates over 2.0%, which means their population will double in less than 35 years.
- Florida's population has grown from 1.9 million in 1940 to 15 million today. That is over a 600% increase in just 50 years.
- Along our ecologically fragile coasts, where nearly half the population lives, the US is among the most densely populated countries in the world.
- The US Northeast (including New York, New Jersey, Boston, etc.) averages 767 people per square mile, while Haiti, for comparison, has 580.
- By 2010, when California's population reaches 50 million, population densities in coastal California will reach 1,050 people per square mile.
- Since 1980, the US has converted more than 10 million acres of forest to suburb -- an area twice as large as Yellowstone, Everglades, Shenandoah, and Yosemite National Parks combined.
- Source, Negative Population Growth (NPG), email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit their website at http://www.npg.org/popfacts.htm*
We're Number One
- No 1 in Billionaires (and No 1 in Children Living in Poverty)
- No 1 in Health Care Absolute and Per Capita Expenditures (and No. 15 in Life Expectancy)
- No 1 in Total Health Spending (and No. 13 in Public Health Spending)
- No 1 in Wealth and Income Inequality and No 16 in Percentage of Total Income Held by Poorest 40% of the Population
- No 1 in Percentage of Population without Health Care Coverage
- No 1 in NOT Providing Paid Maternity Leave (or No. 19 in providing paid maternity leave as 0 weeks are provided)
- No 1 in Abortion and No. 11 in use of Contraceptives
- No 1 in Percentage of Pregnancies Ending in Abortion and no. 1 in Abortions Obtained by Women Who have had an Abortion Before
- No 1 in Teenage Pregnancy and No 1 in Teenage Mothers under 14 Years Old
- No 1 in Infant Mortality and No. 1 in Percentage of Infants Born at Low Birth Weight, No 1 in Preschoolers NOT Fully Immunized and No. 1 in Death of children Under 5 years-old;
- No 1 in AIDS, No 1 in Incidence of Cancer Among Men, No 1 in Incidence of Breast Cancer and No 13 in Death Due to Breast Cancer;
- No 1 in Beef Consumption Per Capita, No 1 in Coronary Bypass Operations Per Capita, No 1 in Snack Food Consumption
- No 1 in Divorce Rate
- No 1 in Single-Parent Families;
- No 2 in Cigarette Consumption and No 4 in Alcohol Consumption per Capita
- No 1 in Highest-paid Athletes and No 19 in Teacher' Salaries
- No 1 in Private Spending on Education and No 1 in Higher Education Enrollment and No 17 in Public Spending on Education, No 11 in Years of Free Full-time Compulsory Education, No 9 in Early Childhood Education, 15 in Scientists and Technicians per Capita, and No 19 in Math Proficiency Scores on Internationally Standardized Tests
- No 1 in Big Homes and No 1 in Homelessness
- No 1 in Defense Spending and No 19 in Spending on the Poor, the Aged, and the Disabled
- No 1 in % of Research and Development Spending on Defense, No 1 in Military Aid to Developing Countries and No 19 in Humanitarian Aid to Developing countries
- No 1 in Net Indebtedness, No 19 in National Saving and Investment Rates (as % of GDP)
- No 1 in Bank Failures and Bank Bailouts (the US was in a major recession at the time of this list)
- No 1 in Managers, No 1 in Executive Salaries, No 1 in Ratio of Average Executive Salary to average worker (pay inequality), No 15 in average female wage as % of average male wage
- No 1 in UN Dues Owed/Not Paid and No 1 in UN Security Council Vetoes since 1980
- No 1 in Percentage of Population who have been a victim of a crime, No 1 in Murder Rate, No 1 in Murder of Children and No 1 in Reported Rapes
- No 1 in Deaths by Gun, No 1 in Deaths by Capital Punishment, No 1 in percentage of murders still at large, and No 14 in percentage of murders solved
- No 1 in Number of people killed in car accidents due to drunk driving
- Number 1 in Lawyers and No 1 in Litigation and No 1 in Rates of Incarceration
- No 1 in emissions of air pollutants per capita and No 1 in contribution to acid rain, No 1 in garbage per capita, No 1 in paper use per capita, No 1 in Junk Mail, No 1 in Hazardous Waste and No 14 in recycling paper and No 16 in recycling glass
- No 1 in gasoline consumption per capita and No 1 in rate of increase in oil imports, No 1 in Major Oil Spills Affecting Coastal Areas, No 1 in Autos Per Capita and No 1 in use of Autos in Lieu of Available Public Transport
- No 1 in TVs and Radios per capita, No 1 in time spent watching TV, No 1 in percentage of homes with VCRs and No 18 in daily newspaper circulation per capita and No 19 in Book Titles published per capita
- No 20 in average height (an indicator of health; the Dutch were the tallest in the world in 2007)
METROPOLITAN STATISTICAL AREAS
Populations for US cities in this text are for 1990 (although a few 1986 numbers may still be lurking about) and use the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and Consolidated MSA (CMSA) designations defined by the Office of Management and Budget in 1992. A county or counties qualifies as an MSA if it has at least one city that has 50,000 or more people within its political boundaries, or has several contiguous cities which total 50,000 or more and has a total population of 100,000. MSAs range in size from 63,000 (Enid, Oklahoma) to 3.5 million (Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virgina). Some smaller counties are grandfathered in due to their designation as metropolitan areas under earlier guidelines. MSA designation and populations are vital in determining the federal allocation of revenues for urban programs.
CMSA exist where more than
one distinct MSA is situated contiguous to one another, such as the Los Angeles-Anaheim-Riverside
CMSA. Each of the MSAs within the CMSA are referred to as Primary Metropolitan
Statistical Areas (PMSAs). New England County Metropolitan Areas (NECMAs) are
used in New England to make county data there comparable to other parts of the
Maps of 1990 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the Eastern US (186k)* and Western US (93k)* - Coconino County in Arizona, among others, was added as a new MSA after a special mid-decennial population count in 1995.
Here is a summary of CMSA/MSAs for April 1, 2000 (with percent change since 1990)
CLICK HERE to go to the full ranking of CMSA/MSAs in the US in 2000*
1 New York--Northern New Jersey--Long Island, NY--NJ--CT--PA CMSA 21,199,865 8.4%
2 Los Angeles--Riverside--Orange County, CA CMSA 16,373,645 12.7%
3 Chicago--Gary--Kenosha, IL--IN--WI CMSA 9,157,540 11.1%
4 Washington--Baltimore, DC--MD--VA--WV CMSA 7,608,070 13.1%
5 San Francisco--Oakland--San Jose, CA CMSA 7,039,362 12.6%
6 Philadelphia--Wilmington--Atlantic City, PA--NJ--DE--MD CMSA 6,188,463 5.0%
7 Boston--Worcester--Lawrence, MA--NH--ME--CT CMSA 5,819,100 6.7%
8 Detroit--Ann Arbor--Flint, MI CMSA 5,456,428 5.2%
9 Dallas--Fort Worth, TX CMSA 5,221,801 29.3%
10 Houston--Galveston--Brazoria, TX CMSA 4,669,571 25.2%
11 Atlanta, GA MSA 4,112,198 38.9%
12 Miami--Fort Lauderdale, FL CMSA 3,876,380 21.4%
13 Seattle--Tacoma--Bremerton, WA CMSA 3,554,760 19.7%
14 Phoenix--Mesa, AZ MSA 3,251,876 45.3%
15 Minneapolis--St. Paul, MN--WI MSA 2,968,806 16.9%
32 Las Vegas, NV--AZ MSA 1,563,282 83.3% = highest growth rate
223 Steubenville--Weirton, OH--WV MSA 132,008 -7.4% = greatest loss
237 Flagstaff, AZ--UT MSA 122,366 20.2%
280 Enid, OK MSA 57,813 1.9% = smallest MSA
If we are just looking
at the population that resides within the political boundaries of a city, the
10 largest cities in the US in 2000 were (with percent change since 1990):
CLICK HERE to go to the full ranking of cities in the US in 2000*
1 New York city NY 8,008,278 9.4 The five boroughs of New York city are coextensive with the five counties that constitute New York city: Bronx borough (Bronx County), Brooklyn borough (Kings County), Manhattan borough (New York County), Queens borough (Queens County), and Staten Island borough (Richmond County).
2 Los Angeles city CA 3,694,820 6.0
3 Chicago city IL 2,896,016 4.0
4 Houston city TX 1,953,631 19.8
5 Philadelphia city PA 1,517,550 -4.3 Philadelphia city is coextensive with Philadelphia County.
6 Phoenix city AZ 1,321,045 983,403 34.3
7 San Diego city CA 1,223,400 10.2
8 Dallas city TX 1,188,580 18.0
9 San Antonio city TX 1,144,646 22.3
10 Detroit city MI 951,270 -7.5
11 San Jose city CA 894,943 14.4
12 Indianapolis city IN 791,926 6.7
13 San Francisco city CA 776,733 7.3 San Francisco city is coextensive with San Francisco County.
14 Jacksonville city FL 735,617 15.8
15 Columbus city OH 711,470 12.4
(Note that the population of Phoenix in this list does not include that of the neighboring cities of Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, and others. This is also true for the other cities listed above that have large populations outside their city boundaries.)
For a global perspective, visit these sites at About.com:
- Largest cities in the world throughout history*
- Largest metropolitan areas in the world today*
- Other largest cities sources from About.com*
Here is not merely
a nation, but a teeming nation of nations. - Walt
Migrants from Asia are generally believed to have arrived in the New World at least 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. (Older sites are known to exist, with recent archeological finds possibly pushing this date back to 45,000 years ago.) At the time that the Europeans arrived, the area that today constitutes the US contained perhaps 5 million Native Americans (with an additional 2 million in Canada, including Eskimos). They were sparsely scattered throughout the area, with major concentration in the Central Valley of California, the Southwest, and portions of the South. Most of their societies were technologically primitive, though some developed highly organized societies. However, their population densities were never large enough to allow for sustained, long-lasting civilizations.
Native American Tribes
A "tribe" is any group of people who share the same distinct customs and language and who believe that they have descended from a common ancestor, whether real or mythological. The tribe was the basic unit of social organization for Native Americans in North America. At the time that the Europeans arrived, the tribes of North America spoke several hundred languages and led a variety of lifestyles, from settled agriculturalists, such as the Hopi, to nomadic hunters and herders. Some of these groups got along very well; others did not.
Territories of Eastern Tribes before European Contact is available at Historical Maps of the US*
European Impact on Native Americans
Common European diseases, such as small pox and measles, killed large numbers of Native Americans, who had no resistance to them. In the early years, Europeans hotly debated whether or not Native Americans were humans or animals. Even when they were finally declared to be human, they were often treated inhumanely. Large numbers were killed trying to protect their homelands in the Indian Wars. Many more were forced to relocate as Europeans came to dominate the continent.
Concept of Private Land
One of the major differences between the European colonialists and the Native Americans was how each group viewed ownership of land. In Native American societies, land was owned communally by the tribe. An individual had the right to a particular parcel of land only as long as he or she worked that parcel. As soon as he or she stopped working it, it went back to communal ownership. The concept of land as a private commodity which could be bought or sold did not exist in any of the civilizations of the New World. European settlers brought with them the concepts of freehold tenure, fee simple land ownership, and property deeds. Private land ownership (freehold tenure) and the right to do whatever one wishes with one's land (fee simple) were, and still are, fundamental to the founding values of the US.
For the most part, the northern European settlers in the New World preferred to ignore Native Americans as much as possible. The cultural gap between the two groups was considered too large to bridge, and the preferred means of dealing with the situation was to remove Native Americans to isolated and undesirable lands. Today, many Indian Reservations have been found to contain valuable mineral deposits and have demonstrated considerable development potential. Native Americans constitute less than 1% of the population of the US. Their numbers are only slightly larger than when the Europeans first arrived. They are found throughout the western US, with especially large concentrations in Arizona, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.
European Colonial Settlement
Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492. In the 1500s, colonial settlement in the New World was primarily from Spain (to Mexico) and France (to Canada). In the seventeenth century, increasingly larger numbers of settlers were starting to arrive from the British Isles and Germanic Europe. Soon after the American Revolution (1776-1778), 60% of the Americans in the 13 colonies were from the British Isles, 20% were from Germany and The Netherlands, and 20% were from Africa. (Today, approximately 40% of Americans are descendants from German immigrants, more than any other national origin.)
The European Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution spread out from England into northern Europe in the early 1800s. In each area where it took hold, a similar pattern of development occurred. Death rates declined, populations exploded, massive migration from rural areas to industrial cities took place, and poverty increased dramatically. The Irish and British were the first to come to the US to escape the squalor of England's industrial cities. They were followed by the Germans and the Dutch when industrialization began in northern Europe. Southern and Eastern Europe experienced the industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, leading to the migration of large numbers of people from these areas to the US. It was not until the late 1920s that the US passed the first laws restricting European immigration to the US. The US population was 14 times larger in 1900 than in 1800 (growing from 5.3 million to 76.2 million). At the peak of immigration, the US received 20 million European immigrants between the 1880 and 1920 censuses. Massive European migration to the US ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and has been very low since then.
Table 3.2 Foreign-born immigrants to the US, 1981-1990 and 1992
|China (PRC and Taiwan)||388,800||38,900|
|Australia, NZ, and Unknown||41,900||2,200|
*Includes Caribbean, 892,700.
Source: Statistical Abstract of the US, 1994
Since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, an estimated 60 million people have migrated from Europe to settle in what is today the US. Non-Hispanic Caucasians today make up 78% of the US population. Many of these groups still maintain strong ethnic ties. People of German and Scandinavian decent are spread across rural areas from Pennsylvania to Minnesota. Italian, Irish, and Jewish communities maintain strong ethnic ties in the large urban centers of the Northeast. Although major exceptions exist, most of the non-Hispanic European settlers in the western US no longer have close ethnic identifications. According to the 1990 census, Americans of Russian ancestry tend to have the highest average levels of education and income, while those of French ancestry have the highest poverty level (9.2%).
Migration & the US Settlement Frontier
In the first century following the establishment of the US in 1776 the country's settlement frontier moved rapidly westward until the 13 original colonies became a nation that was continental in width. At the time of independence, the colonies, along with most of their people, straddled the Eastern seaboard and were largely focused on Europe. This was still true by 1775 when the western edge of settlement was the Appalachian Mountains. By 1823, however, most of the land as far as the Mississippi River had been settled and the US began to be focused increasingly inward as it sought to develop its vast interior. By 1890 the government officially declared the end of a Western settlement frontier, although there were still vast areas of arid land and mountains in the West that had not yet been settled.
Migration Direction and the American Industrial Revolution
Up to 1890, the predominant direction of migration within the US was westward, and the main form of migration was rural and agricultural. Once a firm settlement foothold was established in the far West, a new form of migration began -- from the countryside to the city. This was accompanied by the Industrial Revolution (see above) which brought new jobs to the rapidly growing cities that were becoming magnets for both excess rural populations, displaced by industrial farming, as well as immigrants from abroad. In the US, the end of the Civil War in 1865 is often used to mark the start of the American Industrial Revolution, though modern manufacturing actually occurred at least as early as the 1820s in New England.
Since about the 1950s and 1960s, the US has entered a postindustrial era in which tertiary (service-sector) employment has replaced secondary (manufacturing) employment as the leading source of jobs. This is not the case for many other countries in the world, where manufacturing continues to employ more people than any other sector. Europe and Japan have only recently begun to transform into postindustrial economies. In the postindustrial economy both industries and workers are highly mobile and less place bound. Because of this they have moved from the old industrial core near the Great Lakes to higher amenity "Sun Belt" states in the South and on the East and West Coasts. At the same time, the postindustrial economy is characterized by lower paying service jobs (compared to manufacturing), high rates of mass-consumerism, very low savings rates by employees, and higher job turnovers. All this makes for less security in employment and in life for the postindustrial US population.
US Population Distribution
Today, the overall US settlement distribution shows three distinct geographic patterns.
1. The Northeast Manufacturing & Financial Center is the most densely settled region of the country, with the largest concentration of major metropolitan areas, even after a couple of decades of migration that has favored the Sun Belt. This is still a highly productive manufacturing region and the center of the country's financial services.
2. The Agricultural Middle America, which includes the Midwest and much of the South is characterized by a very even distribution of population and cities over a largely flat terrain. This distribution models a classic pattern in human geography known as "Central Place Theory" in which the service area of different size cities distributes them in an even pattern across the landscape. (This is discussed in more detail the Midwest chapter.)
3. The Dispersed Western Settlements demonstrate a settlement pattern that is highly dependent on the location of natural resources, especially water, but also minerals. Water enabled agriculture, which became the basis for most of the largest cities in the West. Other cities, mostly smaller in size, were based on mining in the past and recreation today. And vast areas with low populations exist in between these settlements.
Almost any map of the US that shows more than the surface physiography will, in some way, reflect how the people who first settled the land divided it among themselves. Land division is so fundamental to the settlement of a place that we seldom recognize its significance in determining political boundaries, the location of roads and utility lines, and the location of different land uses in an urban or rural area.
Public Right of Ways
Land division refers to how lines are drawn on the surface of the earth to determine where property lines should be located. Public roads almost never pass through private property. Instead they follow along public "right of ways" that exist between properties. This also holds true for most utilities and political boundaries. A map of US counties is essentially a map showing the different forms of land division used in different parts of the US.
Communal Native American societies, prior to the arrival of European settlers, had no need for precise systems of land division because the concept of individual property ownership did not exist. The early European settlers, however, brought with them distinct ideas about the value of land ownership. The three European cultures that had the greatest early impact on the division of land in North America were the Spanish, French, and English.
Spanish Land Status
The Spanish were the earliest Europeans to have a significant impact on settlement in the US. They migrated from central Mexico and arrived in New Mexico in the sixteenth century. Land ownership was one of the most important measures of social status in sixteenth century Spain, and land became a major means of rewarding individuals who served the throne of Spain.
The Spanish Land Grants
The Spanish "Land Grant" system in Mexico involved the granting of extremely large (thousands of acres) tracts of land to single individuals who were then responsible for organizing the native population and encouraging Spanish settlement of the land. In New Spain (Mexico) this was known as the "encomienda" system. Throughout Latin America, this system has resulted in a very small group of individuals owning most of the more productive land, while large numbers of peasants are landless. The second Mexican revolution (1911) instituted a major land redistribution program, creating communal peasant "ejidos" out of former land grants. Other Middle American countries, however, have been less successful in redistributing large Spanish land-grant lands.
The Hacienda System
By the time the Spanish reached the Southwestern United States, the older encomienda system had been replaced by the "hacienda" system. The process was essentially the same under the new system, but size of the land grants were made smaller (a few hundred acres), because land was becoming less available. Within the hacienda, a village would be established, usually located where an adequate water source was available. The village would be set up based on the Spanish "Law of the Seas" guidelines established by King Philip II of Spain in the late 16th century. These guidelines called for a communal square at the center of the town, with the Catholic church facing it. A grid street pattern surrounded the square and church. Residents lived within the village and would work the surrounding lands. This street pattern can still be seen in many of the villages of New Mexico and in the border areas of California, Arizona, and Texas.
Modern Impacts of Spanish Land Grants
The large hacienda land grants can be found in California and New Mexico, where they form political boundaries and have enabled the development of large residential subdivisions in the twentieth century. It is much easier and cheaper to purchase a single large tract of land, such as a former hacienda, to build a subdivision than it is to purchase numerous small parcels and combine them together. The use of haciendas in this way has been particularly important in the Los Angeles basin area.
The French Signeural System
The French were also among the earliest European settlers in North America. Their initial area of settlement occurred along the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes area in the early sixteenth century. Later they would explore and lay claim to lands along the Mississippi River down to New Orleans. The French Signeural system was similar to the Spanish system in that it involved the granting of large tracts of land to a single individual who was then responsible for encouraging European settlement. In both instances, there was an effort to replicate the feudal system of nobles and peasants which had dominated Europe for the previous thousand years. The French, however, were less successful than the Spanish in doing this.
French Long Lots
Another name for the form of land division used by French is the "Long Lot" system. The early French settlers were as much fur trappers as they were agriculturalists. They placed great emphasis on water as a means of transportation and communication. The Signeural would be divided into individual lots for settlement base on the major waterways that passed through it. Land division lines were drawn at right angles to the course of the water. Each plot of land was between about 100 and 600 feet wide facing the river, and extended back about one mile. The settler's house would be near the river end of the land. This way the river could be used for easy access and communication. He would then gradually work the land extending back from the house. In areas of dense settlement, a road would be built at the back of the first row of properties, and a second series of longlots would then be extended for a mile back from the road.
French Long Lot agricultural fields in Louisiana
Advantages and Disadvantages of French Long Lots
The French long lot system was easy to survey and gave each individual settler an equal share of both the best and worst lands located in an area. This system, however, also has its problems. As long as a river is straight, right angle lines will remain parallel to one another even a mile away from the waters edge. When a river bends, as the Mississippi River frequently does, properties take the form of either thin triangles (inside the bend) or broad fans (on the outside of the bend). Furthermore, when a river floods and changes its course, some properties may completely lose access, while others become bisected by the new river channel. This is a common land division problem today in Louisiana.
Spanish, French and English approaches to Land Division (each black square is a home)
The English Metes and
English settlement of North America began in the early seventeenth century, some time after the arrival of the Spanish and French. They brought with them a form of land division which had gained wide use in the British isles. Their form of land division is known as the "metes and bounds" system. Metes and bounds means "measurements and boundaries." A typical metes and bounds land deed would define the property boundaries as:
Beginning with the Large White Oak 13 poles above the Sinking Spring, or Rock Spring, Running thence North 9 1/2 degrees East, 310 poles to a stake in John Taylor's field, thence South 89 1/2 degrees East, 310 poles to two Blackjacks, then North 89 1/2 degrees East, 155 poles to the beginning.
This example is from the property deed for land on which Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky. The boundaries of the property are irregular and based on natural features in the landscape. Most of the eastern portion of the US from the Appalachian plateaus to the coast was divided using this land survey system. Streets patterns and county lines throughout much of the Atlantic Coast reflect the irregularity of the metes and bounds system. The systems of land division was used in only rare circumstances in the Midwest and west of the Mississippi River.
Problems with the Metes and Bounds System
A major problem with this system is that trees, rivers, field stakes, and other markers are impermanent, thereby making later verification of boundary lines a problem. Similar problems occurred with poorly written Spanish land grants in the West. The resolution of land division disputes, caused by informal early land division systems, still often requires courtroom adjudication.
The Southern Circle System
A variation of the metes and bounds system occurred in some parts of the southern states. In the less populated South, individuals who acquired property were sometimes given an open deed which allowed them to locate the property they desired, find the central point of that property, and have claim to all of the land in an equal distance from that point. Thus, a persons property would be a perfect circle, the diameter of which depended upon the amount of property acquired. Although not a widely used system, its impact can be seen today in small southern towns with circular political boundaries.
Woodbury, Georgia - the dashed line indicates the city boundary - a remnant of the original land division
Organic and Grid Land Division Systems
Land division lines based on the Spanish land grant, French long lot, and English metes and bounds conformed in various ways to the natural lay of the land (and the water.) These systems are referred to as "organic" because they are based on the distinct, though changeable, environmental characteristics of a site. Grid systems draw property boundaries at right angles in a checkerboard-like pattern. Unlike organic systems of land division, they totally ignore the natural lay of the land. We have already seen this pattern in the Spanish Law of the Sea town plan, and similar grids date back to the Roman towns of Europe and ancient Chinese capitals.
The Philadelphia Plan
The archetypal urban grid street pattern for the US is William Penn's 1683 Philadelphia Plan. Penn planned the layout of Philadelphia in a rational grid pattern, based on a central public square (as in the Spanish tradition). Orderly numbered streets were either 50 feet or 100 feet wide and extended back from the Delaware River. Each lot in the city was exactly the same size as every other lot. This grid system is readily recognized in almost every American city today. In part, this reflects the great influence that Philadelphia had on the rest of the US as the largest city in colonial America, and the main entry point for millions of early European settlers.
Older City Core Grids
William Penn was primarily trying to sell property which had been granted to him by the King of England. The Philadelphia Plan provided a simple and verifiable system of dividing and selling land. For this reason, similar grid street patterns were adopted in most of the newly developing cities in the US. The grid was usually based on the main transportation route of the community: river fronts, harbors, railroads, or major roads. The old grid system stands out primarily because it is not aligned in a north-south and east-west direction. On most maps it is easy to identify where a city originated by locating a dense grid pattern based on a river or railroad.
Further out from the older portion of the city yet another form of land division becomes evident: a grid system based on north-south and east-west polar coordinates. This polar coordinate form of land division is also evident in the state and county boundaries for most of the central and western US. Kansas and its counties, for example, are all perfect rectangles. This grid system of land division was developed shortly after the American Revolution (1776-1778).
The Jeffersonian Ethic and the US Public Land Survey (USPLS)
Part of the requirement for a state to join the newly formed United States of America was to transfer all non-private land holding to the federal government. (Texas was the only state that did not do this when it joined the Union.) Thomas Jefferson chaired a commission responsible for the redistribution and settlement of Federal lands. Jefferson held distinct ideas regarding land and society. He believed that the ideal society was one of self-supporting farm families. This is known as the "Jeffersonian Ethic," and was a widely held attitude in the early colonies. In order to create such a society, he established the US Public Land Survey system (USPLS) in 1787. (USPLS is sometimes referred to as the Public Land Survey System, PLSS)
USPLS Townships and Sections
The USPLS required that all Federal lands be surveyed before they can be sold and settled. Survey lines must be in a north-south and east-west directions. A series of base points were established across the US from which survey lines were measured. This system is also known as the "township and range" survey system. A "township" line was located every six miles north and south from the base point, while a "range" line occurs every six miles east and west of the base point. Each six mile by six mile "township" square is further divided into 36 one mile by one mile "section" squares. (Townships were based on the early English townships, which were six mile by six mile areas controlled by a single settlement.)
Click Here* For an alternative, and more clear, image of the Township and Range system.
Sale of Federal Lands
Federal lands were sold at auction for a minimum $1.00 an acre in whole sections (640 acres), half-sections, quarter-sections (160 acres), half-quarter-sections, or quarter-quarter-section (40 acres). References in old movies to planting the "south 40" refers to a quarter-quarter-section of property.
Settlement Patterns of Central and Western US
The USPLS facilitated the settlement of the central and western US (an identical system was used for surveying Western Canada.) The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any head of a household who was 21 years old or older to have a quarter-section of land at a nominal fee (essentially for free), if it was settled and worked for 5 years. The USPLS only applied to unsettled lands and had little impact on the eastern states. The USPLS grid system is interrupted in areas where earlier, preexisting land division systems were present, such as in California and Louisiana. In addition, surveying errors in some locations have resulted in township and section lines that do not align with the cardinal directions.
USPLS Impacts on Modern Maps
On maps, grid pattern streets which are aligned north-south and east-west represent areas settled after the land was surveyed by the USPLS survey crews. Major roads are frequently exactly one mile apart from one another, indicating section boundaries, and generally ignore variations in surface topography. USPLS lines are perfectly straight, even through deep ravines and over mountain ridge lines
Post World War II Subdivision Meander
After World War II, the curvilinear subdivision street meander pattern was introduced in an effort to replicate the older organic land division patterns. These subdivisions, however, are still bounded by the section lines of the USPLS.
Denver, Colorado Topographic Map - (1) The old railroad town land division is seen in bottom left - (2) The USPLS road network covers the rest of the map, though is most easily seen at the bottom of the map, (3) Subdivision meander (within the USPLS) is at the top.
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