In the rich history of the state of Georgia, land surveying has played a large role since before its inception. From weathering the shifts in power and policy regarding land distribution to rebuilding the devastating destruction across the entire state in the wake of the Civil War, Georgia’s land surveyors have been instrumental in literally shaping the state into the Georgia we know today.
The first land surveyors to chart Georgia were actually Spanish seafaring explorers. The first surveys completed on the land that is present-day Georgia were geodetic surveys which charted the coast. French Jesuits would later move farther inland, charting the geography they came across as they went. Dr. Henry Woodard would later be credited with exploring and mapping much of Georgia as the first British settler, but in reality, there were not many places he went that the Spanish and French hadn’t already been.
Before Georgia adopted their historical Land Lottery system, they used a headright system, which was commonplace during the settling of the Thirteen Colonies. Headrights were plots of land varying in size, given out to encourage people to cross the Atlantic Ocean and help populate the colonies. In Georgia, the headright system was instituted in 1777, although no land would be granted under the program until 1780. Families were offered 200 acres, plus an additional 50 acres per person to settle in Georgia. Surveyors were employed to parcel the land intended for grants. Some land was so highly prized that in 1784 a brawl broke out over the headright distribution for Franklin and Washington Counties.
The Yazoo Land Fraud was the greatest example of abuse of the headright system, as it not only involved corrupt business men, but also elected officials. In 1789 three companies, were formed in order to buy land from the Georgia legislature. The governor at the time, Telfair signed a deal to sell 20,000,000 acres of land to the Yazoo companies for $207,000, or about 1 cent per acre. Not only was this well below current market standards, but the members of the company attempted to pay with worthless old currency. This caused the deal to fall through. In 1794, four new companies managed to convince the legislature to sell them 40,000,000 acres of land (including the land included in the previous deal) for $500,000. The reason why the deal passed became apparent when it was learned that many Georgia official and legislators were stockholders in the four companies. When these associations were made public, outrage spread through the people of Georgia, and demands to rescind the deal were heard all the way to the capital. One of the leaders of the reform effort, Jared Irwin, was elected Governor. Less than two months after taking office, he signed a bill nullifying the Yazoo deal. They burned all copies of the bill, except for one which had been sent to George Washington. But some people who had been sold land by the four companies refused the refunds offered to them, insisting that they stay on the land. The matter was not resolved until 1803, when Georgia ceded all claims to any lands west of its present-day border.
Georgia’s most well-known example of land surveying began with the Georgia Land Lottery of 1805. Again, land surveyors were called in to measure and regulate the parcels of land that were to be sold off by lottery. This job was a bit more hazardous than for a land surveyor today, as much of the land that was to be sold off had been “ceded” by the Native Creek and Cherokee tribes. The tribes fought the seizure of their lands, and in fact won a decision from the Supreme Court, which both the local state government and President Andrew Jackson ignored. The Cherokee, in particular, had to be forcibly removed, and President Jackson sent national troops in to assist Georgia in this process. In all, eight Land Lotteries were held; the last, held in 1832, would divide Old Cherokee County into the existing North Georgia Counties.
With agriculture, most especially the cotton industry, growing in northern and central Georgia post-Revolution, the government realized that they needed a more stable and speedy means of delivering product than rivers and roads. Surveyors began to map out what would become an extensive railroad system. This involved not only the route surveys to prepare for the railroad ties to be laid, but also site plan and construction surveys for the towns that would develop along the rail lines. This led to the first city of a significant size to be located inland in the United States. Atlanta would become a city of roads located in the center of the state, rather than a port. This also led to a shift in power from the coastal city of Savannah to land-locked Atlanta.
After the Civil War, Georgia would again need to call on land surveyors to assist in rebuilding the state. While marching south, General Sherman had destroyed most of the Georgia rail lines, which had been the best in the Deep South. Atlanta had been nearly destroyed, and all of Georgia was in a state of upheaval, both from the destruction as well as the social changes occurring, including the abolishment of slavery. Because of the poor economic situation Georgia was in, the rebuilding of the infrastructure took much longer than the initial surveying and building had.
In an attempt to put to work thousands of unemployed land surveyors during the Great Depression, Georgia commissioned a survey which would lead to Georgia the being the first state in the Union to have complete horizontal and vertical control nets. This was the first time in its history that all of Georgia’s land and boundaries were measured, monumented and clearly delineated.
Since 1937, Georgia land surveyors have been mandated by the Georgia State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, who has the power to adopt rules, set standards for licensure, adopt mandatory standards of professional conduct and ethics, and investigate and discipline unauthorized, negligent, unethical or incompetent practice. They also review applications, administer examinations, license qualified applicants, and regulate the professional practice of licensees throughout the state.