Fabric of Surveying: Surveying Texas

A 2.546Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Background Note: While a small band of heavily-outnumbered patriots fought courageously to defend the Alamo from the unrelenting attacks of General Santa Anna and his well-equipped army, less than 200 miles to the northeast, delegates of the Texas settlements were meeting at Washington-on-the-Brazos to declare their independence from Mexico. A committee of five men was elected to quickly hammer out a Declaration of Independence. The document was literally produced overnight and adopted by the delegates the following day, March 2, 1836, giving birth to the Republic of Texas. Four days later, after a fierce and bloody 13-day siege, the Alamo and its many heroes–among them David Crockett, James Bowie, and William B. Travis–fell to Santa Anna. On March 27 more than 300 unarmed prisoners were massacred at Goliad. The tide changed on the afternoon of April 21, when General Sam Houston and his revolutionary army routed the napping army of Santa Anna at San Jacinto. The battle lasted less than 20 minutes. The next day Santa Anna was found hiding in the grass–dressed as a common soldier–taken captive, and sent to Washington, D.C. (He was later returned to Mexico, elected president again 18 41, and renewed his hostilities with the "Texians".) In spite of many hardships involved in getting the new Republic up and running, efforts continued to woo settlers to its vast lands. Finally, in 1845, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. the Republic was annexed to the United States.

The Republic of Texas, at the time of its turbulent birth in 1836, sprawled across more than 350,000 square miles of land, comprising all of its present territory, parts of eastern New Mexico, and  smaller portions of Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming (Figure 1). All vacant lands within these borders became the property of the new Texas government.

At that point, titles emanating from Spanish and Mexican authorities had been issued to private owners for only 26,280,000 acres. These vested rights of property remained unaffected by any of the governmental changes, and so the Congress of Texas, with its new constitution, undertook the responsibility for administering and alienating (conveying) the vast public territory.

By a particularly fair and judicious stroke, the Congress brought to a close the empresario period. The Judiciary Committee suggested that the colonization acts be repealed insofar as their future operations were concerned, but that land titles be given to citizens resident in the country before the Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. This repeal of the Mexican colonization laws was the initial effort to establish a new land system for the Republic.

The Republic was intended only to be a brief transition from Spanish colony to American statehood; yet the transition lasted nearly ten years. Texans had voted overwhelmingly for union with the United States on the same ballot with which they chose the first government of the Republic. When annexation did not come immediately, the Republic had to find ways to deal with its problems, both financial and political. There were no operating funds. There was a pressing shortage of people to give stability to the civil functions of the Republic and develop its commercial resources. The obvious solution to these problems, individually and collectively, was land. Texas would use its lands–its public domain–to acquire for the people necessities they might not otherwise obtain. In the early days of the Republic, the biggest need was for military protection. Later there would be other needs–additional settlers, internal improvements, even cash–and the public lands would be there to supply them. At the time of the Declaration of Independence the unappropriated land in Texas amounted to some 216,314,560 acres.

To encourage immigration, the Republic used land grants and a return to the old empresario system–employing agents and companies–to bring in American and European settlers. In spite of all these efforts, Texas was in financial trouble throughout its decade as a Republic. When the long-negotiated annexation to the United States finally came in 1845, the debt of the Texas republic exceeded 10 million dollars. Texas offered the U.S. Congress 175 million acres of the public domain in exchange for the federal assumption of the $10 million debt. But opponents to statehood in the U.S. Congress felt that Texas’ lands were not worth the assumption of the debt and refused to make the trade. In the final resolution for annexation, Texas was to keep its public domain and the U.S. would disclaim any responsibility for Texas’ debt. Texas officially came into the union December 29, 1845, with both its debt and its public lands.

Just five years later the U. S. Congress settled the dispute over what constituted Texas territory, (and solved Texas’ financial problems as well). Under the Compromise of 1850, 67,000,000 acres outside the present Texas boundaries were ceded to the United States for $10 million in federal bonds. The debt was gone at last!

One of the first acts of the Republic of Texas Congress was to establish the General Land Office (GLO) whose "mission" was to assemble all available records of Spanish and Mexican grants previously awarded by those governments and to administer surveys and provide maps of newly patented lands. Thirty-eight land districts were established based on original counties created after formation of the Republic, each with its own surveyor. While many of the empresarios who had come to Texas seeking their fortune were familiar with the U.S. Public Land Survey System (PLSS) of townships and 640 acre sections, the funds were not available for a full-scale subdivision of the state. The next best thing that could be done was to try and develop a systematic method of dividing the land adopting those features of the PLSS that would accomplish this in a rapid, orderly and inexpensive way. The inexpensive part was easy. District surveyors were only paid $2.00 per mile of survey, (PLSS surveyors were being paid from $4 to $8 per mile), guaranteeing that speed, not accuracy, would be the order of the day. Not surprisingly, this resulted in fraudulent surveys, deceptive field notes and incorrect maps. Railroads were granted 32,153,878 acres, the number of acres granted depending on the miles of track built and put in operation. They were required, as a condition of their grant, to survey 640 acre sections "in a square" with the railroad retaining the odd-numbered sections and the State retaining the even-numbered sections. The railroad usually met this requirement by establishing large "blocks" known as the "railroad blocks". The number of sections in each block varied and was determined by the acreage due the railroad under the terms of the grant. (Figure 2 and Figure 3)

One survey involving railroad blocks demands special attention. The Texas & Pacific Reserve, west of the Pecos River in West Texas, is 80 miles wide and contains approximately 2.3 million acres (Figure 4). The surveys were performed between 1878 and 1879 under appalling conditions. Bearings were determined using magnetic compasses. Only a skeleton framework was established by survey, with none of the interior section corners being monumented. At the time the map of the Reserve was drawn, the surveyor solved the problem of the earth’s curvature by ignoring it. The original plat shows the entire reserve as blocks of 640 acre sections, all lines running in cardinal directions, and all distances 1900 varas (5280 feet). One of the major problems with the Reserve, as far as
surveyors and landowners are concerned, is that oil wells, easements for pipelines, and fences are one place one year and another place in later years, depending on who did the most recent survey. The improvements haven’t moved of course, but the boundaries have. While no standard has been established for surveying in the Reserve, the availability of GPS may provide a solution in the future.

Land rights may have been granted by any of four different governments: Spain, Mexico, Republic of Texas and State of Texas. The early Spanish influence on the land system still prevails, with the result that Texas has a metes and bounds system instead of the more common U.S. Public Land System. And it was under Spanish law that the sovereign retained ownership of stream beds. In Texas, the ownership of beds of navigable streams is retained by the state. And Texas has solved the problem of defining "navigable" by legislative act. A river in Texas does not need to meet the "navigable in fact" test to be "legally navigable". A stream that retains "an average width of thirty feet from the mouth up" is considered navigable as a matter of law. For surveyors, the first question concerns the definition of "from the mouth up"; the second question is, where is the measurement made? (See Figure 5 for an example of a navigable waterway.)

"From the mouth up" generally means across the tract being surveyed. The measurement is made between the "gradient boundary" on each bank. The gradient boundary is the line separating private ownership and State (public) land and determined by using what has come to be known as the "Stiles method." Colonel Arthur A. Stiles was one of the commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court. The gradient method is referred to in a series of cases titled Oklahoma v. Texas, 260 U.S. 606 (19 2 3), 261 U.S. 340 (1923), and 265 U.S. 500 (1924). The method is described in detail in The Gradient Boundary–The Line Between Texas and Oklahoma Along the Red River, 30 Texas L. Rev. 305 (1952), by Colonel Arthur A. Stiles. However, it cannot be learned by a reading of the court’s definition; it must be "experienced" from on-the-ground (or in-the-water) instruction. It’s my understanding that in order to testify in court as to gradient boundary determination, a witness will have to prove a chain of instruction traceable directly to Col. Stiles to be qualified as an expert.

Whereas in most places the term "vacancy" usually means that someone has a room to rent, in Texas, it means that a surveyor made a mistake. In states using the public land system, this condition is not supposed to exist. But it does, (usually along the township lines). The statutory definition is "an area of unsurveyed public school land that is not in conflict on the ground with land previously titled, awarded, or sold" and is further defined as "a narrow strip of land surrounded by oil wells." The latter definition relates to the fact that many vacancies are discovered during petroleum exploration and leasing of mineral rights. Since vacancies are still state-owned land, oil companies do not want to go to the expense of drilling wells until any title related problems are resolved. Texas has a dual-licensing system. Registered Professional Land Surveyors are allowed to survey privately-held land, but for State-owned land, a Licensed State Land Surveyor must be used.

No matter what part of Texas you’re surveying, there is always a challenge. Whether it’s the mountains of West Texas or the Big Bend area, the Gulf coast, the Piney Woods or Big Thicket area of East Texas, or the plains of North Texas, each area has its own special conditions to be met and overcome. If anyone tells you that surveying in Texas is dull, they haven’t been here.

Stan Coalter is a Licensed State Land Surveyor and Registered Professional Land Surveyor in the State of Texas. He began surveying in 1948, has been registered in Texas since 1964, and is currently registered in eight other states. Stan has been presenting continuing education programs since 1998 and operates his own surveying company in Round Rock, Texas.

A 2.546Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE