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Today's property lines are based on the 200-year-old "Michigan meridian"

The Michigan meridian is clearly visible in the map of Native American land cessions in Michigan.
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The Michigan meridian is clearly visible in the map of Native American land cessions in Michigan.

This month marks the 200th birthday of something that helped make Michigan the state we know today.

It's the bicentennial of the Michigan meridian.

That north-south line was the reference point for the Michigan Survey. Every single piece of property in Michigan is defined by that meridian and two east-west baselines.

Ron Lester spent decades as a professional surveyor.

Lester says these lines were the easiest way to get land organized after the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The government needed cash and wanted a means to determine homesteads and land titles.

Lester said government surveyors back then had to endure a lot of hardship when surveying land in Michigan.

"The terrain was the most forbidding thing, because of the fact that so much of the state was swamp, particularly in the Thumb area," said Lester.

"They went out in teams of four to six. They would get compensated about $1 or $2 a mile. They lived in the woods for months at a time. They would be given an assignment, then they would go to the field and then with rudimentary measuring devices and old transits, they would perform this work."

Lester said surveyors today have great respect for the work their predecesors did.

"The conditions were terrible. They were far from base camps or places they could obtain supplies. So it was a very telling time, very trying, and they did a great job."

Lester said Indian treaties had to be resolved before the surveyors could start their work. Lester says the Treaty of Detroit in 1807, the Treaty of Saginaw was in 1819, and the Treaty of Washington D.C. in 1836 were among the treaties that needed to be worked out.

Most of the survey lines don't follow roads today. Surveyors were doing their work before roads and most of the travel was done through waterways.

Lester says the work was started in the southern part of the state and moved up to the Soo. After that, in about 1837, surveyors started work in the Upper Peninsula.


Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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