While Surveyor General William Pelham tended his duties in Santa Fe, the initial fieldwork in the establishment of the rectangular survey system in New Mexico was executed under contract by Deputy Surveyor John W. Garretson. I knew very little about him when in a previous article (BENCHMARKS, April 1985) I quoted many of the interesting comments he had put in his field notes. This short biography attempts to fill that gap and will examine the man who set our first thousand section corners, and then some.
John Wesley Garretson was born on May 19, 1812 in Sumner County, Tennessee, a short distance northeast of Nashville. His father, who had served in the Revolutionary War, died while John was still a boy. In 1836 John served for six months with the Tennessee Mounted Militia in the Seminole War in Florida. His surveying career began on the U.S. General Land Office surveys in eastern Arkansas and he was well acquainted with William Pelham by the time the latter was appointed Surveyor General of Arkansas in 1841.
The two men became friends. In September 1846 Garretson married in Little Rock Sarah Sheppard (Conway), older sister of Pelham’s wife Mary, and widow of U.S. Deputy Surveyor Joseph Sheppard. Garretson continued to survey in Arkansas until Pelham became Surveyor General of New Mexico in 1854 and invited him to come to Santa Fe, where on March 9, 1855 he received his first contract for the establishment of the initial point, central meridian and base line. Because for about three years Pelham contracted with no one else, a Santa Fe newspaper accused him of nepotism and called for an investigation, but by then Garretson’s marriage was already on the rocks and ended in divorce in January 1858.
Until 1858 Garretson’s contracts were mostly for the survey of standard parallels and guide meridians, with only a few townships surveyed and subdivided in the Jornada. These lines paid a higher price per mile than did ordinary section lines and therefore were choice work. In the spring of 1858 Garretson returned to Arkansas where he was married in August to Annie Wilson of near Fayetteville. He also visited Texas to prepare for his future residence near San Antonio. Returning to Santa Fe in June 1859 he accepted one final contract for the survey of the boundaries of thirteen of the Indian pueblos, which he completed in October with the survey of Isleta.
Garretson’s neatly kept field notes and his habit to reflect on his work and record his thoughts give us a rare glimpse into the daily life of a frontier surveyor and call to mind the hardships associated with surveying in a remote desert. He accepted these privations as a matter of course, and observed: "… to encounter thirst and hunger [is] sometimes necessarily incidental to surveying in New Mexico."
Right at the start he had to run 108 miles of central meridian twice because he was not provided with the proper calibration data for his standard chain. Often it was lack of water for men and mules, at other times the difficulty of crossing rugged mountains and an untamed Rio Grande that hampered and even put a halt to his surveys. In September 1859 William Drew, his compassman, drowned while attempting to cross the river near Cochiti. And like later surveyors he often wondered why he was surveying land where: "…there are not any settlements nor will there ever be [any]," and where "there is not an acre of land…that can ever be cultivated."
When Garretson left the Territory he had walked over more of New Mexico than any man before him and most who came after. Because he had employed many native New Mexicans he became so fluent in Spanish that he kept portions of his diary in that language. Returning to Texas he bought 4,605 acres (a league and a labor) in the brush country south of San Antonio.
Had it not been for the Civil War he might have retired to the life of a country gentleman. But on his seventh wedding anniversary (8-31-1865) he had to lament in his diary: "When married our prospects were bright for an easy living, having some $26,000 in gold to commence life on, now by the recent war and its consequences we are…reduced to toil and poverty by the accursed Yankees."
This was overly bitter and pessimistic. Although most of the money was lost he still owned his land, but now had to cultivate it to support his young wife and their growing family, which by 1872 included four sons and a daughter. "I am sore and worn from work," he wrote on his fifty-third birthday, continuing in Spanish: "Who knows how many more years I have left, I hope I live until my children are established in life. Oh God have mercy on us."
God did and gave him another thirty years. To supplement his income he taught school for a while and again took up chain and compass, surveying for the New York and Texas Land Co., owner of three million acres of Texas railroad grants.
He died in San Antonio on May 7, 1895.
Special thanks are due Mr. John F. Nixon of Tolland, Connecticut, who provided me with letters and diaries out of Garretson’s estate.