The Louisiana Purchase survey was ordered by President James Monroe to begin shortly after the War of 1812 ended. This timing was due in part to the federal government’s desire to pay war veterans with land. The land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase less than a decade before the war was seen as the nation’s greatest asset. War veterans were given land grants entitling them to a certain amount of land depending on their status. Before they could claim a particular parcel of land, however, it had to be surveyed. Settlers were already beginning to stream into the west; it was necessary to survey this land both so that it could be given to veterans and so that it could be sold to settlers and land speculators.
To survey the Louisiana Purchase, the Public Land Survey System was adopted. This rectangular system was previously used to survey the lands in the Ohio River Valley. The official survey began in 1815 by two land surveyors, Prospect Robbins and Joseph Brown. The Louisiana Purchase survey began in what is now Arkansas. Because these lands were surveyed first, they could be sold before other western lands, which contributed to Arkansas being the third state west of the Mississippi River to be admitted into the United States. They marked the starting point using two pairs of gum trees, based on the tradition of using identifiable physical geographic features to mark survey points. Their starting point, known as the Initial Point, was located in the middle of hardwood swamp. Today, it can be seen in the Louisiana Purchase State Park.
Working out from the Initial Point, teams of surveyors working for the United States Engineers began marking township sections throughout the region. The surveyors used only a compass and a chain, and the work was slow in the wilderness of this unsettled and unexplored territory. In fact, some areas were still not yet surveyed when Arkansas became a state in 1836. Eventually, the Louisiana Purchase survey covered most of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota. These surveys are continuous, and span thousands of acres of land. Many of today’s state and country boundaries in this area follow the original survey lines, part of the reason why many states in this region are nearly perfect rectangles.