Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 12, 2021


It's 6 P.M. here in Kansas

"Take a look and see what you think," husband Art said as he held the camera toward me.

I walked from my posing place at the end of the rutted country road, conscious of the beautiful March day we had been blessed with. The temperature was in the high sixties and the sky was the deep blue typical of winter and spring. A few white clouds here and there were pushed along by a steady 20 mph south-southwest wind that gusted to twice that at times. It was a perfect day in the heart of America's Great Plains.

Inspecting the image, I thought of how small and alone the settlers who arrived a century and a half ago must have felt. The leaning "Bridge Out" sign behind me in the photo seemed fitting.

But the manhole cover at the bottom of the photo seemed out of place, although it was the reason we were there. We didn't pry it up to take a look for ourselves, but had seen what was below in the photos of others. There are no pipes or wires as might be expected in a city. Instead, there is a rock - a rock placed in that very spot 165 years ago this coming June 11. It was a time when settlers were moving west to claim cheap land.

Congress knew there would be a need to document ownership. The land measurement system in the East and Texas were like those used in Europe and Britain, which used the metes and bounds system. It involves a set of straight lines where the first began at some reference location, such as the intersection of two roads or the bend of a stream. The other end of the line was defined by another such point or by stating the line's length and compass direction. The second line then began where the first one ended. This process was repeated as often as needed until the last line ended at the starting point of the first one, thereby describing an enclosed area.

But rivers sometimes change course and roads might be moved. For that matter, the Great Plains had few such distinguishing features. So Congress selected Thomas Jefferson's Public Land Survey System (PLSS) for the country's new territories.

Our story begins with surveyor Thomas J. Lee, using measurements of the stars made on a sandbar in the Missouri River. On Nov. 16, 1854, he marked the 40-degree north latitude point on the west bank - the latitude Congress set as the dividing line between Nebraska and Kansas territories. Later, surveyors Charles A. Manners and Joseph Ledlie started from Lee's point and worked westward. They reached a point 108 miles to the west on June 11, 1856 - the edge of hostile Native American territory. That location became the Initial Point or IP for all of the land in Kansas and Nebraska, and part of South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming.

The Base Line is an east-west line passing through an IP. Another passing through it and the earth’s poles is called a Meridian. Manners' and Ledlie's IP was the United States' 6th such "point of beginning." It would later coincide with the location where Kansas' Republic and Washington counties meet on the state's northern border. Meridian Street in Wichita also lies on the 6th Principal Meridian.


Left: The dot is the location of the 6th Principal IP in relation to the state of Kansas. Right: The red dot represents the IP. Each red square is a geographical Township - not to be confused with political townships. Each Township is identified by the number of Townships from the IP and by the direction from the IP. Each Township is divided into 36 Sections 1 mile on a side and numbered as shown. The Section just southwest of the IP would be identified as T1S R1E S6 (Township 1 South Range 1 East Section 6).


Then the real work began. Manners surveyed Nebraska and Ledlie surveyed Kansas. From the IP, they marked the land in squares measuring six miles by six miles. Each 36-square mile "chunk" is designated by how far it is from the IP. Manhattan, Kansas, is mainly located in Township 10 South and Range 8 East. That means it is in the square of land whose northwest corner is 60 miles south and 48 miles east of the IP.

Each square is then subdivided into 36 one-square-mile units called Sections. The tier of the six northernmost Sections are numbered from 1 in the northeast corner proceeding westward to number 6. The six immediately below are Sections 7 through 12, but are numbered from west to east. This zig-zag numbering scheme is repeated with the last, Section 36, being located in the southeast corner.

Each Section of 640 acres is then surveyed into quarters containing nominally 160 acres. Those are then further divided into quarters containing nominally 40 acres.

Because the earth isn't flat and because surveyors make mistakes, these Townships contains 36 square miles "more or less." If errors are later discovered, they are only noted for future reference. No one is asked to move their farm or home because of a surveying error.

These basic land units can be further divided or combined and then portioned into plats which can be divided in any fashion.

So how was the IP marked in 1856? With a rock - the rock that is now in the manhole. On the east side of the gravel road laid on the 6th Principal Meridian is a small modern memorial to its setting.

Later, when we were home, I dropped a line to Gloria Moore at the economic development agency of Washington County, asking how many visitors they have in a year. She replied:

Being a native of Washington County and growing up on a farm, I appreciate the scenery, farmland and valley that surrounds the 6th PM. ... An estimate would be between 250 and 350 visitors per year. The Surveyors from the States of Kansas and Nebraska hold meetings in the area due to the 6th PM and are very proud of the historical significance of the location.

Today, surveying relies on electronic devices, both on the earth and in space, and is unlikely to involve hostile natives. But in 1856, establishing the 6th IP was an arduous task. So while we enjoyed our visit to the small monument on the open plains, I believe the work of surveyors Lee, Manners, Ledlie and those who aided them is best recognized by the fact that the legal land descriptions in those five states, from that claimed by those early settlers on down to the present, still rest on their work.

Clockwise from the top left: (1) Manhole in the foreground with Gloria facing east at the end of the rutted country road. (2) Gloria facing west at the memorials for the 6th P.M. IP. (3) Art cleaning the manhole cover of the accumulated gravel. (4) The rock beneath the cover that was set to mark the IP. (5) Manhole cover. Note the Section, Town and Range designation for each of the first four Townships. (6) The yellow area in the five states was surveyed from the 6th IP. (7) Near the IP are several "witness" markers such as this one that can be used to relocated the IP if need be. Photo 4 and some of the information is from articles by Nebraska surveyor Jerry Penry. Photo 6 from Wikipedia.

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