Studying Former Surveyors

Retracement surveyors have a valid claim to being the only profession continually analyzing its former work. In other words, in no other profession does the past take as central a role as it does with us. Few other professions can rattle off the names of five local practitioners of 100 years ago, but for surveyors this poses no problem.

Surveyors who practice primarily in one geographic area, and that probably includes most of us, begin to think of past surveyors in the region as, if not old friends, at least colleagues. Inevitably, after some experiences in retracing their work, mention of their names instantly brings to mind, er, thoughts (sometimes happy thoughts). Accurate retracement depends on an understanding of the methods and precision of the surveyor being retraced; this is fundamental to the practice. If one knows little about that surveyor, any retracement will be significantly hampered. This is the largest stumbling block for surveyors relocating or merely practicing in another region. Although the law of retracement might be the same (for instance, if the new region is in the same state), the evidence being evaluated will vary because the people who created it varied.

Hasn’t Been Done

Oddly, however, despite the admitted importance of having concrete information about the methods and reliability of former surveyors, there seems to have been (as far as I know) no organized attempt anywhere in the country to study former surveyors in a particular area and then publish the findings. Our "elder statesmen" have an acute understanding of these characteristics—the result of many years of retracement experience. Their mentors had a similar understanding. But must we perpetually reinvent the wheel? Can’t we organize that knowledge and make its dissemination easier?

The information could consist of known traits, such as phrases often used in metes and bounds descriptions, whether they used unusual or distinctive monuments and so on; comparisons between original work and modern measurements (taken from recent retracements, if they exist); known major surveys and clients; location and condition of records; area and timeframe of practice; and so forth.

The utility of being able to point to published evaluations and analyses supporting one’s opinion of the former work would be obvious on the witness stand.

Counsel: Mr. Leininger, can you explain to the court why you believe Mr. Disney’s work routinely reported distances longer than the actual ground distance?

Leininger: Well, I have run behind him many times before and have found that to be the case.

Counsel: Many times. Like 400?

Leininger: Well . . . no, not quite that many.

Counsel: What then, 100? 10?

Leininger: I guess maybe 10.

Counsel: And these 10 surveys have led you to believe that Mr. Disney got inflated results. By a constant factor, or was he just sloppy?

Leininger: It’s hard to make a generalization about that.

Counsel: Can you put specifics on your allegation, or are you merely asking the court to rely on some gut instinct you have?

Leininger: Well . . . .

Counsel: No further questions.

Not very impressive. But how about this:

Counsel: Mr. Leininger, can you explain to the court why you believe Mr. Disney’s work routinely reported distances longer than the actual ground distance?

Leininger: A study by the local surveyors’ chapter was made several years ago of Mr. Disney’s work, and it found that there was an average overstatement of 0.5 percent in overall length. My work on this project seems to bear that out.

Counsel: Did the study concern this property?

Leininger: No, it was an evaluation of the man’s work overall. In most cases, a surveyor’s work is consistent throughout his or her career, and thus generalizations drawn from a representative sample can be appropriate. I found that to be the case here. I have the study with me if you’d like to see it.

Counsel: Actually, I don’t think that will be necessary. . .

The Court: On the contrary, I’d like to see it. . .

Better. It does not take much imagination to see that independent studies can be persuasive allies on the stand.

Of course, most surveys do not end up in court; yet, having such a study at one’s fingertips can be of immense use in every retracement. Rare are the surveys where all lines are without doubt. Having an organized body of knowledge can provide clues otherwise overlooked or provide direction on new avenues to pursue. For instance, information that a particular surveyor always monumented every corner may argue in favor of another trip to the site to search for that last monument.

Chapter Project

So, who would undertake such a task? It seems to me to be a perfect project for a society chapter. Think of it: some members could devote themselves to identifying all past surveyors in the area while others could concentrate on collecting and organizing samples of the former surveyors’ work. Still others could make comparisons between the original surveys and modern measurements of the same lines while a fourth set focused on organizing and presenting the findings. This is probably not as big a task as one would think. Most locales had fewer than five surveyors operating at any given time (some considerably fewer), and each of those five likely practiced 30 years or more.

Such a study as this could be used as a means to cast aspersions on each other. We surveyors are very opinionated when it comes to work quality—have you noticed? Obviously counterproductive, this is easily avoided by creating a cut-off date (such as 50 years ago) after which surveyors would be excluded from the study. The remaining timeframe would still be of immense benefit.

Beyond that, the actual gathering of the information will add considerably to the shared body of knowledge that forms the essence of a local surveying community. In terms of timeless contributions, we could do far worse.

Copyright © 1999 By Joel M. Leininger, LS