This is going to be huge…

As you may know, after its independence, everything outside of the original 13 colonies was systematically colonized, divided up, and sold in little pieces by the Federal Government. These original sales were called “land patents”, and they have all been digitized and transcribed, and all of that data is nicely and neatly available, in one place. And mapping it is easy - nearly the entire part of the US we call the “West” was divided into states that were divided into grids; all you need to do is find the grid for each state, and join it with the dates, and voila – you get a complete, totally precise mapstory of the settlement of the entire state.  Of course, dividing up vast amounts of land into a grid is utterly preposterous, with no regard to the local nuances of geography or politics – but despite how difficult it may have been for people who settled the land in squares, it was done because it was easy for the federal government, precisely the reason it will be so easy to map. I did this for Iowa, and next I will do this for every other 30 states where land was sold under land patents. I will be tweeting these as they become available.

peopleThe 30 States under the Public Land Survey System (PLSS)
that was originally sold as land patents.

Check out my results with Iowa, and a close up on Story County. I love the moment of truth when you finally animate the data – for the first time, you see how Iowa grew. This is probably the most accurate and precise map of the settlement of any place this size, ever. You can also see it on MapStory, where you can zoom in and out – keep in mind it plays very, very slowly. Though it was in a grid, on the scale of the state it seems more organic, growing in a direction and along rivers (see also a beautiful mapstory of the counties colored). It’s amazing how fast it gets filled (besides the animation being a bit too fast – I haven’t quite figured out how to make that go slower). I’ve once heard it said that Iowa is a part of the most rapidly altered land in human history at this scale. We settled the whole state rapidly, burning prairies and draining wetlands like a plague. As for the Story County closeup - don’t be fooled by how the animation pulsates – the dates are down to a day, but patents were often issued in batches. And remember – this is a grid, so that’s why it looks super 8-bit-like (see also a mapstory that shows the borders of patents). The missing holes were filled in much later, this is to show the 15-year period that 95% of land patents were sold.

Each state takes 3-5 hrs, which is not much considering I’m doing whole states… but it will take time, and I’m doing several other things with MapStory. It is fun though, and the work is significant – each time you do this, it might be the first time anyone has done it… and you will be generating each state like a puzzle piece. If you want to help, feel free to use the git repository I set up and contact me for help and collaboration: The hardest part is finding the grid for each state – oddly, I’m not finding that in one place. When this is all done, we will probably be the first to have all the entire Public Land Survey System (PLSS) in one place. And of course, there will be an amazing, precise mapstory of the settlement of the 30 states in the West.
However, I do have an interest in getting it done sooner than later, because I want to generate a mapstory of human influence on the land. I’m currently creating a map that shows what the land looked like before colonization by Europeans and the expansion of the United States, and how it was altered. With this, I can generate a more precise picture of how the old growth forests and grasslands were cut and burned. Here’s a sneak peak of what that might look like:

The above image is an interpolation of these images.