Survey System of the Old Colony
by Morse Payne
From the date of the settlement of Plymouth in 1620 to the establishment
of the first towns on Cape Cod, nearly twenty years had elapsed. During
this early period all settlements occurred north of Plymouth- Scituate was
established in 1633, Duxbury in 1637, and Marshfield in 1640. In addition,
the Massachusetts Bay Colony had been established to the north in 1630.
Between 1630 and 1639 there occurred a major influx of settlers from overseas
into both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. Both grew rapidly and
numerous land disputes arose in the areas abutting the unmarked line between
the two colonies.
The difficult land disputes resulted in the creation of a commission for
each colony. These two groups worked together to establish a clear line
between the two.
Out of this investigation grew a total concept for a surveying system
for the northern border and, simultaneously and by coincidence, the survey
system for the Cape fell within the same total system.
At this period of colonial settlement the art of surveying was limited
to ancient instruments and somewhat limited understanding of our spherical
world. A rather primitive understanding of latitude lines existed while
longitudinal surveying accuracy was very inaccurate and doubtful. The
navigational compass on board ships was the most dependable device, and
from this was established the first land survey system for the Cape.
most important point was north, known as Magnetic North directed to a
major iron deposit in the earth in Northern Canada. (Existing contemporary
gyro compass corrects this error to true north.) 'this was known as the
angle of declination - 13° in 1638 (See Map A 1639-1685)
The first and most important line (Line A-A) of the system was this north
line to magnetic north, while the most important point (Point No. 1) of
the system was Race Point at Provincetown; this, the tip of Cape Cod,
could be seen by telescope from land and sea for something over twenty
miles in all directions.
Based on this point and line, a north-south line (Line A-A) was established
.KTOSS the- land of Cape Cod running from Cape Cod Bay to the south shore
on Nantucket Sound, running north-to Race Point.
This first line (Line A-A) was the farthest point east which established
the eastern boundary of Yarmouth . . . (Dennis, Brewster and Harwich of
today), while beyond this point from Chatham to Provincetown was an Indian
reserve including Nauset (Eastham and Orleans) and Pamet (Truro).
This line was established in 1639, while in the same year the northern
line known as the "Old Colony Line" was established by the two
committees' survey teams (date fixed and recorded in 1644).
The "Old Colony Line" (Line B-B) extended from a point (Point
No. 3) a mile or so from the eastern line of the existing Rhode Island
border to a well-marked point known as the "Angle Tree" where
an ancient tree once stood at an angle of 62° located at Plainville
and northern Altleboro. The spot is now marked with a monument. (See Map
A 1639- 1685.)
From this point the line extended north eastward to Accord Pond on the
border of Hingham and Rockland, and from this point (Map A Point No. 4)
it traveled another angle slightly northward through Cohasset to protect
the land holdings of the original Scituate settlers.
This line (Line B-B) is the same existing town border of all the various
towns that abut to this ancient line of today. From the point (Point No.
4) in Accord Pond the line was extended straight into Massachusetts Bay
at 62° to cross the original magnetic north line (Line A-A), north
of Race Point (Point No. 2) at a point of intersection with latitude 42°
22' 30". These two lines (Lines A-A and B-B) including the Rhode
Island border, formed the enclosed bounds of the original Plymouth Colony
This system provided an overall land survey for Plymouth Colony from which
all (the principal towns of Cape Cod were created.
process of surveying was innovative. South of Race Point on the line (Line
A-A) of magnetic north, a ship was positioned at a most likely position,
directly opposite the highest land area in Cape Cod Bay south of Plymouth
where the land rises dramatically to a prominent point known us Indian
Cliff at Manomet. From this point (Point No. 5) at a right angle, a 90°
intersection was created on the original magnetic north line (Line A-A)
(See Map B 1639-1646) opposite the Truro-Wellfleet border.
The ship was anchored by two ships' lines off the bow and two lines off
the stern; from this fixed position in Cape Cod Bay the first town lines
were established in 1639. (Latitude 41° 56' 35") (Point No. 6)
The compass of colonial times was based on "Points" not "degrees."
Thirty-two points comprised [lie compass and in this case they utilized
every second point around the west side of the line to magnetic north
The first 2 points west of magnetic north (the original Yarmouth, east
line) (Line A-A) gave the town line of Yarmouth and Barnstable, and 2
points west of this line gave the town line of Barnstable and Sandwich,
while the last 2 points west was the western point and terminus of the
town of Sandwich, thus forming a pie-shaped configuration of equal angles.
These important lines were established at night with visual communication
from the ships' highest part on the mast, to a rider on horse back stationed
on shore who rode back and forth with a torch until the ships' compass
confirmed that he was right on the predetermined position and a wooden
stake was driven in the correct location, in the same position as our
concrete town markers on the beaches of today.
People of Plymouth complained of lack of land. The Plymouth church pleaded
with the court for more area, and in 1646 the court authorized the establishment
of Nauset (Eastham), the fourth town on Cape Cod. Again, its town bounds
were placed by utilizing the established line of magnetic north (Line
The Plymouth group of seven families (Snow, Prence, Bangs, Doane, Higgins,
Smalley, and Cook) settled on the land of existing Eastham from "Sea
to Sea," Cape Cod Bay to the Atlantic Shore. This time they utilized
the compass second point system with the lost Island of Billingsgate on
(lie northern border (the same as the existing town line of Eastham and
Wellfleet of today), also the southern location at Namskaket (near Rock
Harbor) (See Map B 1639-1646).
The same system was employed as previously with one exception. The fact
that the Cape is exceptionally narrow in this area did not lend itself
to the pie-shaped subdivision. Instead, they set all the lines of Billings-gate
and Namskaket, including the future town lines of Wellfleet and Truro,
at a right angle (90°) to the original control line of magnetic north
(Line A-A, parallel to Line E-E).
This system provided the basic survey structure for all the original towns
of Cape Cod to 1709. After this, more and more towns complained of the
great distance to travel to church and public meetings, and they put forth
recommendations for still more towns. These new towns were created by
subdividing the original "Mother" towns from the original seven
whole towns of 1709. Thus were created the final five towns to the total
count of eleven Cape Cod towns by 1763, and the last Cape towns of today,
It is interesting to notice that upon the creation of our Barnstable County
the same system was employed in 1685 for the boundary line between Plymouth
County and Barnstable County. (See Map A 1639-1685)
The county line (Line C-C) begins at the western point of the town of
Bourne (Buzzards Bay) at a point (Point No. 7) at Buttermilk Bay. The
first leg of this line travels north and east from this point and eventually
as a straight line to Sagamore Beach passing on out into Cape Cod Bay
to the original control point (Point No. 6) where the ship had been anchored
for the original survey. A line parallel to the original "Old Colony"
line "Angle Tree" of 62°.
Thus we see the entire survey system employed in the creation of the towns
of Cape Cod fell under a total survey system of all of Plymouth Colony
in 1639 and the same system was utilized again for the creation of Barnstable
County in 1685.