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Iron Surveyor's Chain, ca. mid-19th century, Acc. #1965-263,3

Surveyor's Chain

Basic surveying devices and methods, including rope, poles, grape vines, and pacing, have existed for many years, but most of the tools commonly associated with surveying were developed during the 1600s. Three types of instruments were used in North America: the compass, the transit (used for measuring straight lines), and the chain. The Gunter's Chain was used in America for nearly three hundred years and left a permanent mark on the profession.

The job of a surveyor in the eighteenth century was to measure land to be transferred from the crown to private ownership. When a warrant was issued from the secretary of state's office in Williamsburg, the county surveyor would survey the designated tract, draw a plat (a map showing the features of the land), and write a description of the land. Most surveyors learnd their trade through an apprenticeship. County surveyors were appointed. Both surveyors and chainmen (those who held the measuring chain) had to take an oath that they would be faithful, accurate, and would record their results without favor.

During the 1700s and 1800s, Gunter's Chain was the standard for measuring distances and played a primary role in mapping out America. The chain consisted of 100 links and its total length was 4 poles (66 feet). Each link was connected to the next by a round ring. Eighty chains equaled one mile. Because the chains were hand-made, their measurements were rarely exact. Although the Gunter's Chain was the primary tool of surveyors to measure distance in North America from the 1600s to the end of the 1800s, it was eventally replaced by a more sophisticated and accurate instrument, the surveyor's tape. Surveyors today use electronic equipment.

The surveyor's chain pictured here was used by Peter McGee, Surveyor of Albemarle County, Virginia.

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The following links include pictures and brief facts about the various instruments used to survey North America:

This article was written by Lori Clock, elementary school teacher, La Mirada, CA.