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The Boundaries of South Hill

By Carl Vest

Creating a community boundary for South Hill is a challenging task.  Some say it’s just that hilly area to the south of Puyallup.  Others want to refer to it as that ‘significant part’ of eastern Pierce County.  The land use folks use a unique description.  Pierce County Public Works has its own boundaries.  Then there are the political borders that keep shifting every ten years.  But there is an underlying system in place that should be recognized.

As for history, it must be accepted that South Hill has not been a part of the United States for all that long.  Most historical events on the Hill are dated from about the early 1850s.  Before that South Hill was a part of the so-called Oregon Country, which was jointly governed by the United States and Great Britain.  The area was not considered a part of either country at that point -- both claiming it by right of exploration and settlement.
In 1848, when James Polk was President, the ownership question was settled.  By treaty a boundary line between the two countries was established at 49 degrees north latitude. The Oregon Territory, south of that line, was then established by the United States.  As one of the first steps in managing this new landmass the Federal Government created The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850.  Among other things, this law set up a universal grid system for defining boundaries.

The grid system specified that a reference point was to be located near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.  In compliance, a physical marker, known as the Willamette Stone, was placed on a hill just west of Portland, OR.  A theoretical north-south line was then created through this point, named the Willamette Meridian.  A second line was formed east-west from the same point and named Range.  Using these two lines as coordinates, the entire Oregon Territory could then be surveyed and identified.  This scheme is the same as the x-y coordinate system familiar to all high school geometry students.

Distance along the Range and Meridian lines was measured in six mile increments.  As an example, starting at the Willamette Stone and proceeding east six miles would create a reference point.  Then proceeding north along the Meridian for six miles would give rise to a second reference point.  Parallel lines encompassing these two points then created a geometric square of 36 square miles.  That area was given the name Township.  Using this idea, South Hill is located four Townships east of the reference point and 19 Townships north of the same location.
Surveying of the Territory started right away but South Hill was not mapped until 1872.  The surveyor’s name was William Ballard, the same person for whom the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard was named.

So the boundaries of South Hill are essentially those of Township 19.  It is thirty-six square miles in area.  It is the Historic Hill.  Any other borders are superimposed on this basic system.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.

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