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Perhaps no other occupation in history has required the worker to encompass so many different areas of expertise as the American surveyor. For the modern day surveyor, being a mathematician, geodesist, and draftsman go along with the job, but the surveyor is often called into other areas of expertise that go well beyond the normal realm of surveying. A surveyor must often play the role of civil engineer while planning new subdivisions, or archeologist and historian when retracing the lines and monuments of earlier surveyors. In the courtroom he is called to be an expert witness, and in today’s office a computer technician.
The early surveyors who laid out the public land system were faced with even more responsibilities. Knowledge of astronomy was crucial in establishing the important parallels and meridians. Other tasks required the skills of a woodsman to blaze trails, and agronomist or mineralogist to document the soil structure or important minerals that were hoped to exist in the previously unknown vastness of the United States. The surveyor needed at least some knowledge of botany to document the species of trees and determine the difference between plants that were edible and those that would kill them. Good marksmanship was necessary to obtain fresh meat for food and to defend against hostile Indian attacks. Being far removed from civilization also required knowledge of the use of medicine both for themselves and for the care of animals in their company.
Many of the United States deputy surveyors who went west to obtain summer contracts for survey work were not surveyors in their primary occupations, but most did have some formal college education. Those who they employed to work with them were often unschooled, but quickly learned what to do and became proficient through repetition.
Proficiency was the driving factor, which determined whether the crew made or lost money on the contract. There were no vacation days or sick leave. Rainy weather only meant the work that day would be miserable or the profit would be less if they didn’t try. Doing things exactly according to the Manual of Surveying Instructions could also result in less profit, so areas were shortcut — specifically in monumentation.
The Manual of Instructions of 1855 was in use during the time eastern Nebraska was surveyed. In regard to using stones as corner markers the Manual specified:
Where it is deemed best to use STONES for boundaries, in lieu of posts, you may, at any corner, insert endwise into the ground, to a depth of 7 or 8 inches, a stone, the number of cubic inches in which shall not be less than the number contained in a stone 14 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 3 inches thick — equal to 504 cubic inches — the edges of which must be set north and south, on north and south lines, and east and west on east and west lines; the dimensions of each stone to be given in the field notes at the time of establishing the corner. The kind of stone should also be stated.
Stones at township corners, common to four townships, must have six notches, cut with a pick or chisel on each edge or side towards the cardinal points; and where used as section corners on the range and township lines, or as section corners in the interior of a township, they will also be notched, to correspond with the directions given for notching posts similarly situated. Posts or stones at township corners on the base and standard lines, and which are common to two townships on the north side thereof, will have six notches on each of the west, north, and east sides or edges; and where such stones or posts are set for corners to two townships south of the base or standard, six notches will be cut on each of the west, south and east sides or edges.
Stones, when used for quarter section corners, will have 1/4 cut on them — on the west side of north and south lines, and on the north side on east and west lines.
Having to cut notches or mark numbers on stones was time consuming on softer limestone and sandstone, and next to impossible to accomplish on hard quartzite or granite stones. In many occasions this process was skipped by those entrusted to do this task in order to keep pace with the rest of the crew.
Those of us who retrace the original government surveyors need to readily recognize the atmosphere in which the early surveyors worked. We should not be quick to throw out a monument that does not exactly match what was stated in the original notes, or assume the work was done precisely according to the verbiage provided in the Manual of Instructions.
Nebraska State Surveyor Robert Harvey found himself having to not only defend the words used by a government surveyor, but also his own words, and therefore chose to correct the situation 52 years after an original monument had been placed.
The dispute arose on October 27, 1908, when the Boston Investment Company of Lincoln, Nebraska, filed for an application for a resurvey of the line between the SE 1/4 and the SW 1/4 of Section 32, T10N, R6E, in Lancaster County, Nebraska. They disputed the location of this line with the adjoining landowner J. R. Grant. Due to the winter weather and other surveying projects needing attention, the state surveyor’s office could not resolve the matter until April 2nd of the following year.
With the consent of the Boston Investment Company, J. R. Grant was given approval to act as a chainman on the survey even though he was at dispute with them over the position of the boundary line. Harvey operated the instrument, a Young & Son solar transit, while a regular member of his office assisted Grant in chaining. The work began at the south quarter corner of Section 32. In his notes, Harvey described the stone as being a sandstone measuring 23" x 9" x 7" with no visible marks. In November of 1857 deputy surveyor Jonathan P. Jones stated in his notes that he had set a red flint measuring 24" x 9" x 7". Harvey’s survey proceeded north to the center of Section 32 where he found the recorded sandstone set by Lancaster County deputy surveyor Adna Dobson in 1888. Dobson had subdivided the section correctly by intersecting the quarter section lines. The survey could have stopped there, but Harvey continued to survey to the north quarter corner of Section 32 to check Dobson’s work. The stone at the center of the section checked to be within 0.01′ of being on a straight line between the two quarter corners.
The outcome of the survey was not to the liking of the Boston Investment Company, so their local representative, Charles H. Morrill, looked for a way to challenge Harvey’s determination of the line. He noticed that Harvey had referred to the south quarter corner of Section 32 as being a sandstone instead of a red flint as the original surveyor had noted. Morrill attempted to dispute the validity of the survey based upon the different use of rock species to describe the corner.
Lancaster County, Nebraska has two species of rock that can be described as native. One is a poor grade of limestone and the other is a soft grade of reddish brown sandstone. The other stones that were used to mark corners in this area are field stones thought to have been carried by glaciers from areas much further north in Minnesota or Canada. These stones range from being hard sandstone or quartzite, granite, gneiss, or greenstone. The average GLO surveyor probably knew little about geology, but since the Manual of Instructions stated the species of rock used should be noted, they often guessed. Some merely played it safe and wrote the word “boulder” in their
notes. The hard sandstone or quartzite found in this area is actually closer to pink in color than red, but red seemed to have been a favorite color of choice of government surveyors to describe anything even close to that color. Hard sandstone or quartzite will spark when struck with a spade or other metal object. Someone long ago began calling these stones “red flints” and the name has stuck ever since. Surveyors know what they are, but the non-surveyor would probably be looking for the material from which Indian arrowheads and spears were commonly made.
When Robert Harvey called the “red flint” a “sandstone” he was merely trying to be more geologically correct and never anticipated the challenge from the Boston Improvement Company. He entered the following statement with his notes:
“The stone marking the sec. Corner on the south side of the section is locally known as flint. My opinion was that it is sandstone or more properly quartzite. I broke off a spall and handed same to Mr. C. H. Morrill that he might submit same to Prof. Barbour, professor of Geology in the State University.”
Morrill wasted no time in taking the sample to get it examined at the university hoping to have proof that Harvey’s survey was in error. The following reply was written to Morrill after Professor Barbour had examined the specimen.
My dear Mr. Morrill:
The specimen sent for determination is quartzite. Quartzite is sandstone closely cemented, generally by quartz cement. From this you will see that when the client calls it sandstone he does not go far wrong. In a certain sense he might be right in calling it flint, in at least flinty in its hardness. It is quartz, and so is flint, but they originated in different ways. Quartzite is a compact rock made of quartz grains more or less intimately cemented together by quartz. In other words it is pretty nearly solid quartz. Of course a sand pile is quartz, sandstone is quartz cemented more or less firmly, so you can see that between the sand pile the sand stone and the quartziter there will be every grade of compactness with no hard and fast line between any of them so if your client calls it very compact sandstone he will be all right. Does this brief answer satisfy your inquiries?
Very truly yours,
Edwin H. Barbour
April 7, 1909
Harvey, being a former U.S. deputy surveyor himself, knew the conditions in which many of the original crews had operated, and wasn’t surprised when the monument in question was not called by its correct geological name, or the fact that it wasn’t inscribed with the marks called for by the Manual of Instructions. Common sense had prevailed and preserved the location of the original government corner. Just to be sure the matter would not come up again at a later date, Harvey described on his plat this corner as being a “Sandstone, Quartzite, or Flint”.
Jerry Penry is employed by Lancaster County Engineering in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been a licensed
surveyor since 1994 specializing in section corner monumentation.
Government notes from U. S. Deputy Surveyor Jonathan P. Jones in November 1857, stating he “Set a red flint stone 24 in. long, 9 in. wide, and 7 in. thick, for quarter section corner…” (this was for the S 1/4 Corner of Section 32, T10N, R6E). The designation of “red flint” was a slang term used to identify stones that should have been more correctly called quartzite. Field notes courtesy Nebraska State Surveyor’s Office.
Author note: The lined out portion of the notes says: “land broken first rate soil”. I have seen this before in entire sets of notes where the soil reference is lined out. However, in many other notes in other notation it is left alone. I asked the deputy state surveyor this and he didn’t know why it was done. I suspect it might have had something to do with the GLO temporarily backtracking on the idea of having the deputy surveyors rating the soil. The GLO’s primary purpose of surveying the land was to get it sold. Perhaps they might have thought someone would challenge the surveyor’s interpretation of the land and soil if they bought it only based upon what he had said in his notes. I have seen notes from the 1870’s which have the soil rating left in the notes. If the reason is not in text somewhere, the reason can only be guessed. Perhaps there is a reader out there who may know more about this kind of history.
The GLO surveyors often guessed at the type of stone, called it by a different name, or even just said “boulder” in their notes. The four different stones shown above are (clockwise from upper left) soft red sandstone; hard red sandstone; red flint; and pink quartzite. The pink quartzite was often incorrectly called “red flint” by GLO surveyors because it sparked when struck with metal object. Only the soft red sandstone, which was actually brown in color, could be easily marked.
A 1.170Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE