History You Should Know

Updated: May 11, 2016

History You Should Know

John B. Preston Esq., was appointed by President Millard Fillmore as the first Surveyor General of the Oregon Territory. At the time of his appointment, Mr. Preston was the City Surveyor for St. Louis. One of the first tasks assigned to Mr. Preston was to create a system for surveying the land within the New Oregon Territory. He was appointed in December 1850, and lost his position in 1853. He then “drifted into obscurity.”

On June 4, 1851, John B. Preston set a ?ed Cedar Stake?to indicate the starting point of all public land surveys in what was then called the Oregon Territory. This is the same boundary that later makes up the states of Oregon and Washington. Later, on July 25, 1885, the Red Cedar Post was replaced with a carved stone.

Mr. Preston set the point deep in the hills west of Portland, where he believed there would be little chance of the stone being disturbed. Another reason Mr. Preston selected this location was so the base line would not cross the Columbia River and the meridian would lie west of Vancouver Lake.

The stone’s original location is now indicated by a stainless steel marker in The Willamette Stone State Heritage Site, an Oregon State park approximately four miles west of downtown Portland. The Stake and later The Stone established the base point or the start point for the Willamette Meridian.

From this starting point, using a solar compass, Deputy Surveyors James E. Freeman and William Ives then ran the line south and north from the initial stone. The north-south lines, or Principal Meridian, were completed with astronomically procedures using a solar compass. The solar compass, invented by William A. Burt, U.S. Deputy Surveyor of Michigan, soon became the standard compass for use in the U.S. Public Land Surveys. It functions astronomically, and except when the sun is not out it does not depend upon the magnetic needle in any way. The lines run with it are true courses, and when used by a skilled surveyor, the results can be accurate to within 1 to 2 minutes. The solar compass enabled the surveyor to run true lines. In general, the meridian lines established the starting point of all additional lines.

Starting at the same point as the north-south Principal Meridian the east-west, the Base Line was set. This line must be set on a true east-west line. As with the Principal Meridian, the Base Line is set using a solar compass. While setting the base line the surveyor would set quarter-sections and section corners at intervals of 40 chains (2640 feet). Standard township corners were set at 480 chains (31,680 feet or 6 miles). (1 chain = 66 feet).

Using the Principal Meridian as a starting point Standard Parallels, also known as correction lines, were established every 24 miles, north and south of the Base line. They were run east and west of the Principal Meridian. The Standard Parallels were designed to counteract the error that otherwise would result from the convergence of meridians; and, because the public surveys have to be governed by the true meridian. These lines also served to reduce errors arising from inaccuracies in measurements. The first Standard Parallel line north of the Base line was labeled ?irst Standard Parallel North.?The first Standard Parallel line south of the Base line was labeled ?irst Standard Parallel South.?Each standard parallel line is labeled consecutively, i.e. Second, Third, Fourth . . . Standard Parallel.


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Originally published on May 11, 2016

About the Author

Wendell T. Harness

I’ve been building online properties since the late 1980’s and transitioned to web design in 1999. I formed Harness Media in 2005 to help businesses grow through online marketing. I also talk to cats in a silly voice.

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