Select Page

Chaining things together

It was spelled out in the law: “the territory ceded by individual States to the United States, which has been purchased of the Indian inhabitants,” was to be divided into “townships of six miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles…”1

And, the law said, “The lines shall be measured with a chain.”2


What exactly is a chain anyway?

ChainBlack’s Law Dictionary tells us it was a “measure used by engineers and surveyors, being twenty-two yards in length.”3

Called a Gunter’s chain, after its inventor, English mathematician Edmund Gunter, or a surveyor’s chain, because that’s what it was used for, or just a chain, as in the Public Land Survey Act of 1785, a chain was supposed to be “exactly 22 yards (about 20 m) long and divided into 100 links. In the device, each link is a solid bar. … An area of 10 square chains is equal to one acre.”4

Obviously these were not lightweight devices. And that’s why you see references, in deeds and even in the law, to chain carriers — people who were used to physically move the chain and place it where the surveyor said it should go. Whenever a survey record still exists, identifying the chain carriers can help link families together as well as the land: the chain carriers were often kin to the person for whom the land was being surveyed.5

“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.”6

Except for one little problem: “Because the chains were hand-made, their measurements were rarely exact.”7

Hey, close enough…


Image: User Roseohioresident via Wikimedia Commons

  1. “An Ordinance for ascertaining the mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory,” 20 May 1785, Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1933), 28: 375; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 12 Aug 2014).
  2. Ibid., at 376.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 190, “chain.”
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica ( : accessed 12 Aug 2014), “surveyor’s chain.”
  5. See generally “Surveying Units and Terms: Chain Bearer,” Speculation Land Collection, Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville ( : accessed 12 Aug 2014).
  6. Surveyor’s Chain,” Colonial Williamburg E-Newsletter ( : accessed 12 Aug 2014).
  7. Ibid.
Print Friendly