Although by 1683 the French had published maps that outlined the Great Lakes, what lay in the interior of the peninsulas that would someday become Michigan was a matter of conjecture. Although the interior region of many maps were simply blank, some map makers responded to this lack of information with speculation. For example, John Senex, a leading British cartographer of his day, issued a map in 1719 that expanded upon the limited knowledge the British had regarding the Appalachian mountains to create a lovely, but mythical, chain of mountains running from northern Michigan down the continent to Florida.
Slowly, however, colorful speculation gave way to more detailed knowledge. Much of this knowledge was driven by the need to accurately record property ownership. The French began this process by creating maps documenting private land claims at various colonial outposts such as Sault Ste. Marie and Detroit. French land claims, however, tended to be few in number and generally located along waterways. Until the founding of the American Republic the interior of Michigan remained unmapped.
Unlike the French, who never anticipated the large scale settlement of North America by Europeans, the government of the newly formed United States of America foresaw a future in which the wilderness would be converted into privately owned farmland and fully settled by Americans of European ancestry. To facilitate this process the government undertook the creation of detailed survey maps, which would create a source of documentation for subsequent land claims made by settlers.
In 1815 the first federal land surveys began in Michigan Territory. In that year two fundamental lines, the original "base line" and the territory's "prime meridian" were established. The base, or east-west, line was established at 42 degrees, 26 minutes and 30 seconds north latitude, or what is today the northern boundary of the tier of counties between Wayne and Van Buren. The prime meridian, which ran north-south, was established at 84 degrees, 22 minutes, 24 seconds west longitude, which was a line drawn straight north from Defiance, Ohio. All subsequent land surveys in the state referred back to these principle coordinates.
Surveying with the aid of magnetic compasses and chains that measured sixty-six feet in length, land surveyors painstakingly measured out the state. Many preferred to work in winter when vegetation did not block their path and the bitter cold kept away the swarms of insects that beset survey crews in the summer. By 1840 virtually all of the lower peninsula had been surveyed, but preliminary survey work in the upper peninsula was not completed until 1851.
In 1826, when John Farmer published his first map of Michigan, only southeastern Michigan had been surveyed. But as settlers poured into the state the demand for maps made Farmer's publication a profitable one. Farmer's map was not the first of its type published of Michigan territory. A year earlier, in 1825, Orange Risdon had published a territorial map. Risdon, however, lived in New York and had employed Farmer to prepare the basic information. Farmer took what he learned from working with Risdon, improved upon Risdon's publication, and demonstrated himself more than a match to his former employer. Farmer and his son Silas would serve as the state's principal map makers for the rest of the nineteenth century. Generations of immigrants to Michigan plotted their course and staked their land claims based upon the Farmer map in their hand.
Many immigrants staked their claims by purchasing land directly from the federal government. Inevitably however, those with means saw land speculation as a profitable form of investment, and they would often buy up hundreds or even thousands of particularly desirable acres with the intention of subdividing the land and selling it at a profit. The most ambitious speculators created their own cities.
The first step for an ambitious land speculator was to draw up a plat map. On it the developer drew streets that usually did not exist, parks that consisted only of wilderness, and most importantly lots available for immediate sale. Invariably these plat maps included optimistic statements about the soon-to-be-established community. For example, the 1836 original plat map of the city of Allegan proudly states, "It is confidently believed from the great natural and acquired advantages of Allegan that it will ere long rank with the first cities of the west."
Land speculation, however, was inherently risky. In many cases the "community" failed to generate sales and the land remained wilderness. Other communities, like Allegan, did come into existence, but never prospered sufficiently to match the extravagant hopes of their founders. With a 1990 population of 4,576 Allegan remains a pleasant, rural community but even its most ardent boosters would unlikely rank it among "the first cities of the west."
As land purchases increased, publishers realized that there was a market for maps denoting property ownership. John Farmer was among the first in the state to see this market. In 1855 he published a Map of Wayne county...Exhibiting the names of the original purchasers and the number of Acres... By the 1870's county atlases were common, with several national firms specializing in their publication. A typical example of these firm's work, a page from the Allegan County Atlas of 1895, appears here. County atlases continue to this day to be a profitable form of specialty publication.
Business needs also led to a second form of local map denoting information about private property, the fire insurance map. In the 1850's fire insurance companies began to evolve from local institutions to national firms. As they expanded their area of coverage, fire insurance companies sought an accurate, reliable way to evaluate the risk of fire to the buildings they were asked to insure.
The need for fire-related information led map makers to begin printing highly specialized community maps. As exemplified by this map from Allegan created in 1918, these large scale, block-by-block maps noted the shape, type of construction, and other peculiar characteristics of each existing structure on the block. The maps made it possible for insurers to assess both the risk of fire in a particular building as well as the overall fire risk in a neighborhood. Of the many firms that originally printed fire insurance maps, the most successful was that founded in 1867 by D.A. Sanborn. Because of this firm's eventual dominance of the field, the phrase "Sanborn maps" has become synonymous with these types of records.
Maps of property ownership continue to serve an important purpose. County atlases are frequently published and regularly used. Virtually all records of property ownership existing today can, however, be traced back to the original land surveys conducted by the federal government between 1815 and 1851.