It was in 1872 that South Hill was added to the official list of land descriptions in the United States.
That was the year South Hill was first officially surveyed. This action was the result of an effort, started in 1851, that all land in the future states of Oregon and Washington be classified as required by the Federal Donation Land Claim Act of 1850.
In most land records and many official documents, the land areas comprising South Hill is labeled as Township 19, Range 4, East, WM. These designators are not found on street signs or in road names but are used in the written descriptions in most land deeds and other certified land ownership documents.
The township method of specifying land locations has a long history. It was developed when the federal government began acquiring public lands as the nation expanded westward. It’s officially known as the Rectangular System of Surveys and was first used in Pennsylvania in 1785.
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In the Pacific Northwest all land surveys start at a point just west of downtown Portland. That position was selected as being a central point of the two territories and near the convergence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. There’s a marker in a small Oregon State Park that shows where the original wooden stake was set in 1851. In 1885 the original post was replaced with a more permanent engraved stone, now called the Willamette Stone.
From this location, surveyors created an imaginary north-south line and named it a Meridian. Since it was beside the Willamette River, the name chosen was Willamette Meridian. Also, a pretend east-west line was visualized. It was named Range — and is sometimes called a Baseline. What they created was a Cartesian coordinate system, the x-y system we all learned in high school geometry. These lines extended to the Canadian border in the north; and, south to the California line. East-west lines ran to the Pacific Ocean westward and to Boise in the east.
To create a Township, the surveyors physically measured along either the Meridian or Range lines. The end of each mile was marked. This continued for six miles. After reaching the six-mile point the survey shifted to the other line, Meridian or Range, for six miles in that direction. When the second six-mile point was reached, the surveyors had completed defining a rectangle with an area of 36 square miles. That enclosed area is called a Township.
So every six miles either north-south or east-west from the central point, a new township was created. As an example, the first township to the east was Township 1, Range 1, East, WM. South Hill can be easily located in this system. It is 19 townships north and four townships east of the central point.
The surveying of South Hill was completed in 1872, some 20 years after authorization. Records show that the work was supervised by a Mr. Ballard, the same person for whom the Ballard section of Seattle is named.
Carl Vest is the research director for the South Hill Historical Society. He is a founding member of the society and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.