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What Is the Point of Beginning?

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  • Written By: M.J. Casey
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 10 December 2016
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The point of beginning is the geographic location upon which the survey of most of the United States depends. The Land Ordinance of 1785 required a specific starting point, chosen in a specific way, be determined before western lands could be developed. This point was the beginning of what has been called "The Greatest Subdivision on Earth." It lies just east of East Liverpool, Ohio.

Following the American Revolution, the United States consisted of 13 states, with well-defined borders on all sides except their western boundaries. As the land to the west was unknown, many states claimed it to as far west as the Mississippi River. These claims were vague and often overlapped one another. Most of the involved states dropped the claims in favor of the federal government taking on the job of surveying the land, protecting settlers, and supporting them with services such as roads and postal delivery.

Thomas Jefferson headed the committee responsible for managing the settlement of western lands. The committee's report became the basis of the Land Ordinance. The point of beginning was to be placed due north of a line extended from the western end of the southern boundary of Pennsylvania. Although the southern boundary was complete, the western boundary, which was common with Virginia, had yet to be established. Nevertheless, the point of beginning is considered independent, even though it was based on other surveys.

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On August 20, 1785, a surveyor hammered a stake into the ground on the north riverbank of the Ohio River without fanfare or notice of the historic moment. The exact position was lost over time, as the wooden stake rotted. The surveyor's name is unknown.

In 1960, the East Liverpool Historical Society and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping set about finding the original location. The point of beginning turned out to be located in an active slag dump. The group decided to locate a memorial based off a modern survey of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border called the Southern Terminal Monument. In surveying, a monument refers to the marker and various artifacts left by the surveyor at each range corner.

The early surveyors were to leave a monument at each six-mile distance from the point of beginning. From each of these marks, they then ran lines six miles south, creating ranges of 36 square miles. Eventually, the system covered the entire United States, with the exception of the 13 original states, Texas, and Hawaii. The legacy of these surveyors is visible by a passenger flying over the Great Plains while marveling at the patchwork quilt of roads and farms below.

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