The ELLICOTT LINE, the western border of Pennsylvania and its border with Ohio, is a famous demarcation between older colonial land grants and the newer land allotments following the Revolution. It is both the starting point for the federal Rectangular Survey Act (RSA) allotments, extending across the United States, and the baseline for laying out the townships of the Connecticut WESTERN RESERVE.

Its origins are tied to the famous Mason Dixon Line, best known as the watershed between southern slave states and northern free states, but formally the line between the colonial grants to the Penn family and Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, of Maryland. A difficult line to run, surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon finally ran it through the wilderness in 1768. But difficulties with the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 and Native American territorial claims, caused the survey to be stopped 30 miles short of its goal. That goal was the western boundary of Pennsylvania, meant to be five degrees of longitude from the Delaware River. 

In 1784, Andrew Ellicott led the survey crew which completed the southern line and established the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, thus clarifying that the Forks of the Ohio, and Pittsburgh, would be in Pennsylvania, not Virginia. 

Having reached the southwest corner, Ellicott returned in 1786 to run the meridian line, the western Pennsylvania border line (80°31'12" W) north. When they reached the Ohio River, two important events transpired. Hutchins, now the “Geographer of the United States,” branched off to run the 42-mile “Geographer’s Line” due west, becoming the base line for the nation’s first subdivision under the RSA, the “Seven Ranges,” while Ellicott continued the line north to Lake Erie, east of Conneaut Creek. The Seven Ranges were supposed to extend from the Ohio River to the lake, but the Connecticut Western Reserve retention of the Western Reserve blocked that and the Seven Ranges never went north of the Geographer’s Line.

The upper portion of the Ellicott Line, from 41 degrees North Latitude to the lake (42 degrees, 2’), became the baseline for the surveys of the Western Reserve, with all its townships numbered north and west from the southeast corner, with Poland Township becoming Township 1, Range 1 (Cleveland, for example is in Townships 7 and 8 of Range 12).  Those first two years of survey of the Western Reserve (1796/97), led initially by MOSES CLEAVELAND, stopped at the CUYAHOGA RIVER, but with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Industry (near Toledo) in 1805, the system was continued west to the Firelands, which employed a different layout.

The Ellicott line was checked, or “retraced” by a joint team of surveyors from Ohio and Pennsylvania in 1881 and again in 1995, continuing to refresh the line and remeasure it using the latest technology.

The Ellicott Line anchored the surveys of the Western Reserve, organizing for settlement the remnants of the state of Connecticut’s old royal charter, and the Geographer’s Line, beginning the hugely successful federal survey of all its western domain. This marked the evolution from colonial British America to the state and federal level of management of the United States surveys.

William C. Barrow

Last updated: 1/25/2023


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