Surveyor of the Public Domain – A Portrait of William Pelham

William Pelham held office as the first Surveyor General of New Mexico from 1854 until 1860. His tenure has been examined by Victor Westphall in Mercedes Reales  and by others,1  and need not be repeated here, yet in the many books about Federal land policy in New Mexico that mention him, almost nothing is said about the man himself. When he arrived in Santa Fe he was fifty-one years of age and had been a surveyor most of his life. For better or for worse, his judgement and his decisions have left indelible marks on our boundaries and he well deserves to be remembered. He was one of those: "Who often preceded the boldest of pioneers." (Westphall)

Thomas Jefferson was President and James Monroe was on his way to Paris to buy Louisiana when William Pelham was born on April 10, 1803 near Maysville, Kentucky, on a farm alongside the banks of the Ohio River, the eights of the eleven children of Charles and Isabella Pelham.2  He came from English stock. His great-grandfather was the London limner and engraver Peter Pelham who emigrated (some say he was forced) to New England around 1728 and settled in Boston. His son Peter Jr. was an accomplished musician who had moved to Virginia about 1747, where he was for more than forty years organist of Bruton Church in Williamsburg. He fathered fourteen children, one of them William’s father Charles, who was born in 1748.3

The blood that was shed at Bunker Hill still stirred patriotic emotions when Charles Pelham enlisted in February 1776 as a First Lieutenant in Patrick Henry’s First Virginia Regiment. He fought in the battles of White Plains, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, rising to the rank of Major before becoming a prisoner of war on May 12, 1780, when General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston to the British.4 His captors paroled him to the end of the war, after which he received a land warrant for 6,888 acres.5  In September 1784 he married in North Carolina the nineteen-year-old Isabella Atkinson.6 The couple moved to Virginia’s western frontier, an area that was soon to become Mason County, Kentucky, where in January 1786 the Commonwealth of Virginia granted him 4,468 acres of land along the North Fork of the Licking River. Here Major Pelham had a gristmill and raised his large family.7

The Pelham children grew up amongst first generation settlers in the fertile woodlands between the Ohio and North Fork rivers, about fifty miles southeast of Cincinnati. The hardwood forests were slowly yielding to small farms, where settlers grew hemp, corn, wheat, and tobacco, much of which was floated on flatboats down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to markets in New Orleans. The boat crews returned overland, bringing supplies of molasses, sugar, coffee, and other commodities, which could not be produced at home. The population increased rapidly as newcomers from the east cleared land and started farms, in the process elevating the land surveyor into a prominent figure in the community.8 Three of the six Pelham boys took note and became surveyors.9

Charles Jr., an older brother of William, had fought with the Kentucky Militia in the War of 1812 and by 1820 had moved to the newly organized (1819) Territory of Arkansas where he settled in Batesville. Somehow he had acquired surveying skills because by 1821 he was a Deputy Surveyor for the U. S. General Land Office, where he employed young William as a chain carrier at least since May 1826.10

William Pelham’s experience extended "from the lowest to the highest grades of his profession." But while he was a competent surveyor his career was greatly furthered by nepotism and political favoritism. It was mostly the latter which in June 1830 caused President Andrew Jackson: "Reposing special Trust and Confidence in the Ability and Skill of WILLIAM PELHAM of Arkansas" (sic), to appoint him to survey the boundary between Arkansas Territory and Louisiana. His action came on the heels of an appointment of James Conway as Boundary Commissioner.11

A year later, in December 1831, Pelham married Mary Ann Conway who was two weeks short of her sixteenth birthday. The youngest of the ten children of Thomas and Nancy Ann (Rector) Conway of Fayette, Missouri, she was a sister of surveyor and Commissioner James Conway who in 1836 became the first Governor of the State of Arkansas.12 With his marriage Pelham became a member of the extended family of the principal figures of the Conway-Johnson-Rector machine, a dynasty that controlled the Democratic Party and the main political offices in Arkansas from its territorial days until the Civil War. James Conway and three of his brothers were heavily involved in the U.S. General Land Office surveys and would soon fill powerful political offices. They were nephews of William Rector who since 1816 was Surveyor General of Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.13

It was Rector who had brought the Conways to Arkansas in 1820 where he awarded them immense survey contracts that soon sparked public criticism and charges that: "[The Conways] never surveyed a single Township of their contracts themselves – But had the work done by other persons for very small prices…" (sic).14  As an example: In 1821 Rector awarded Henry Conway a contract that required him to survey more than 4,900 miles of line involving 113 townships, sixty of which he had to subdivide. Conway had twelve month to do it, including making plats in triplicate, a job that he could not possibly accomplish without extensive and unethical if not illegal sub-contracting.15

In June 1832 James Conway became Surveyor General of Arkansas and moved his office from St. Louis to Little Rock. The General Land Office paid $4 per mile of line of survey and Pelham was awarded contracts first in partnership with the Conways and later on his own. With his rising career Pelham moved from Batesville to Little Rock. A boy was born to him in 1832 but died two years later. In 1837 he had another son, Charles, and in 1839 a daughter, Isabella.

As taught him by the Conways and by his brother he was always on the lookout for an opportunity to get on the government payroll. In November 1833 he was elected Territorial Auditor where he served until July 1835. Yet despite his political activities and surveying career Pelham was a farmer at heart. In 1838 he settled on eighty acres near Bentonville, at which time he owned at least eight Negro slaves.16

On April 7, 1841, a day after President John Tyler was sworn into office, Pelham was appointed Surveyor General of Arkansas. Like Tyler he had been a Whig, but four years later when the Democrat James K. Polk defeated the Whig candidate Henry Clay, Pelham had turned Democrat and fired every clerk in his office who had voted for Clay. This "undoubted evidence for his attachment to democracy" earned him four more years as Surveyor General until 1849 when the Whigs under Taylor got back into office and evened the score.17
With this temporary setback to his political fortune Pelham went to the Texas Gulf coast near Port Lavaca where he bought a 4,420-acre farm.18 By the summer of 1850 we find him in Travis County where he had acquired "that charming and valuable place known as Manchaca Springs".19 Here in the Texas hill country a dozen miles south of Austin his family was to reside for the next thirty years. When in 1851 a nearby post office known as Manchac House was opened, William Pelham became its first postmaster.20 In a curious misunderstanding of his recent Land Office title, his contemporaries referred to him as a General. Apparently he did nothing to dispel the notion and remained ‘General Pelham’ to the end of his life.21

By Act of July 22, 1854 Congress created the office of Surveyor General for the Territory of New Mexico and ten days later President Pierce appointed William Pelham to fill that position. His annual salary was set at $3,000. The trip to Santa Fe took sev
eral month and it was not until December 28 that Pelham arrived to open his office a couple of blocks northwest of the plaza. Coming from El Paso he had already picked a site for the initial point of the New Mexico Public Land surveys on a low hill near the west bank of the Rio Grande a few miles north of Socorro.22

Almost three decades of experience as a federal surveyor made Pelham seem a good choice for his office. Although he spoke no Spanish and was not an attorney he had a basic understanding of Spanish and Mexican land laws. He soon realized that with the resources that were made available to him he could not properly do both, sift his way through the 168,000 documents he found "jumbled together with wanton carelessness" in the archives to adjudicate private land claims, and at the same time survey the public lands.23 The failure of his superiors in the General Land Office to adequately staff and finance his office and to act on his recommendations not only turned his job into a frustrating battle with Washington, but also set the stage for that unhappy chain of events those plagues New Mexico land titles to this very day. On August 29, 1860 he resigned. William Pelham had, in the words of Victor Westphall: "…not taken kindly to the bungling of his Washington superiors. The optimism and good humor with which he had approached his duties [had] turned to bitterness."24

Not everyone saw it that way. In an October 1857 article in El Democrata, the bilingual Santa Fe paper lamented that he ran the most expensive Surveyor-General’s office in the country without having put a single acre of land up for sale (the Land Office in Santa Fe was not opened until November 24, 1858). The paper went on to accuse him of charging the government exorbitant office rent and in an apparent mockery of a favorable assessment of Pelham in the Santa Fe Gazette said that he was "employing his great energy in playing billiards and electioneering". Indeed he had used the power of his office in the hard fought election of 1857 to campaign for incumbent territorial delegate Miguel Otero. El Democrata also decried his nepotism: "giving every contract for surveying to his brother-in-law J. [John] W. Garretson."25 That also was true. Born in 1812 in Tennessee, John W. Garretson had surveyed under Pelham in Arkansas since at least 1838. In 1846 he married a widowed sister of Pelham’s wife, Sarah (Conway) Sheppard. He was the sole U S. Deputy Surveyor in New Mexico until 1858 when Alexander Wilbar, one of his employees started his own career, which would propel him into office as Pelham’s successor.26

Immediately after Pelham’s resignation Wilbar awarded him a large contract in the Las Vegas area, which kept him busy until April 1861, the month that the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter.
Early in June Colonel Canby of the Union Army took command at Fort Marcy, and one of his first actions was to arrest Pelham, "a rank secessionist", and to throw him into the guardhouse. Pelham worked hard to sway public opinion in support of the Confederacy, and Canby held him as a hostage for the safety of W. W. Mills, a "hard-nosed Yankee" and Union informer who had been arrested by the Confederates in El Paso and sat in irons in Ft. Bliss.27

In March of 1862 an invading Texas Volunteer army under General H. H. Sibley occupied Santa Fe, which had already been abandoned by Governor Connelly and his administration, who had sought refuge behind the walls of Ft. Union. South of the 34th parallel a Confederate ‘Territory of Arizona’ had been proclaimed a year earlier in Mesilla, and now Major Charles Pyron of Sibley’s forces filled the empty Governor’s office by naming Pelham, whom they had freed from incarceration, Governor of what was intended to be a Confederate New Mexico. However no report to Richmond was made and no record of an installation into office has ever been found. Pelham may have awaited the direction of the fortunes of war before attempting to act in an official capacity. Rumors had it that he planned to make Albuquerque the territorial capital and that he had issued a proclamation that required New Mexicans to swear allegiance to the Confederacy or have their property confiscated.28

Be that as it may, Pelham had boarded a sinking ship. The Union army retook Santa Fe in early April and put an end to his political career. Pelham left town with the departing Texans. Later, with about thirty Confederate soldiers, he surrendered to a detachment of Union troops near Polvadera, as he made his way "with arms in his hand" down the dusty trail along the Rio Grande towards El Paso.29 His thoughts can only be imagined as he passed within a stone’s throw of the hill near San Acacia where he had located the initial point for New Mexico’s Public Land surveys in the fall of 1854.

Since he was not a soldier he was held as a political prisoner and apparently not released until some time in 1863, when he returned to his property near Austin where his wife and son-in-law were still farming with six Negro slaves.30 The Confederacy exacted from him yet another painful tribute, for in May 1864 he had to mourn the death of his only son, who died wearing the Gray in the fighting near Dalton, Georgia.31

Did Pelham plan to settle and spend his final years in New Mexico? His family had remained on his farm in Travis County where his daughter had married in 1857. In Santa Fe, in February 1855, he had bought a lot and house adjoining the historic Tully House on Grant Avenue in which he kept his office.32 In June 1859 he acquired the eight-year-old Tully House for $1,500. It had not yet its distinctive fake brick facade and bay window (the first such window in Santa Fe), but with its nine rooms it was one of the grander buildings in town.33

Pelham’s support of the Lost Cause had slammed the door to any future employment of him by the General Land Office. I have found no record that he ever surveyed in Texas. In 1874 with the help of a Texas Congressman he was able to collect a final $463.35 from the U. S. Government for unpaid expenses dating to his tenure at Santa Fe, no doubt a bittersweet reminder of the many years he spent on the American frontier as a Surveyor of the Public Domain.34 He devoted the remainder of his life to farming and stock raising. His many friends knew him as: "A good and noble man", and only a year prior to his death and in failing health he was still chosen Representative to the Democratic State Convention.35 The opinions of his former slaves nobody bothered to record.

William Pelham died at his home near Manchaca Springs on June 8, 1879. Just hours before his death he confided to his daughter: "I am not tired of life, but if it is my Maker’s will I am ready to go."36

He lies buried beneath a weathered sandstone obelisk in historic Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.37

In announcing his death the Mesilla Valley Independent, with only slight exaggeration, wrote: "His duties as Surveyor General of New Mexico were difficult… [but] he was regarded as a man of integrity and upright-dealing and ever will be remembered as such. His services to New Mexico were great and in his official position his actions were never questioned, but always carried with them duty and justice to all."38


1. Victor Westphall, Mercedes Reales  (Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1983), chapter five: Impossible Task of the Surveyor General, pp. 85-105. See also: Emlen G. Hall, Four Leagues of Pecos (Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1984) pp. 79-85.

2. Glenn G. Clift, History of Maysville and Mason County Vol. 1 (Lexington, KY: Transylvania Printing Co., Inc., 1936) pp. 294-296. The exact number is not entirely clear. In May 1823 the elder Pelham listed eight children, but the family bible gives the names and birth dates of three other children. William Pelham’s birth date is from his tombsto

3. Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1931), Peter Pelham. For a biography of Peter Jr. and Charles H. Pelham see: Nancy Britton: Colonel Charles H. Pelham, in: Independence County, Arkansas, Chronicle, Vol. 27, No. 1-2, pp. 28-36.

4. Clift, History of Maysville, p. 295.

5. John W. Gwathmey, Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution, (Baltimore: Genealog. Publ. Co. Inc., 1979) p. 614.

6. Clift, History of Maysville, p. 294.

7. Willard Rouse Jillson, The Kentucky Land Grants, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publ. Co., Inc., 1986.) Pelham’s mill is mentioned by Karen Mauer Green, The Kentucky Gazette 1787-1800, (Galveston: The Frontier Press, 1986) p. 167. Charles Pelham’s fortunes had its ups and downs. In 1813 he received $150.00 aid from the Society of the Cincinnati to relief "his distressing situation." (Kentucky State Historical Society Register, July 1934) p. 215.)

8. Clift, History of Maysville, pp. 1-3.

9. Richard H. Pelham, born ca. 1812, died 1834 in Batesville. He had been surveying with Charles Pelham: James Logan Morgan, Arkansas Newspaper Abstracts 1819-1845 (Conway, Ark.: Arkansas Research, 1992).

10. Charles Pelham served in Pogues Regiment of the Kentucky Militia. Except as otherwise noted all references to Pelham’s Arkansas survey activities are from records of the Arkansas Land Survey Division in Little Rock, AR.

11. Edwin Clarence Carter, Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. XXI. pp. 232-233, (USGPO Washington, D.C.).

12. Morgan, Arkansas Newspaper Abstracts. Mary Ann Conway was born on 21 Dec. 1815 (date from her tomb stone). Her genealogy is from: The Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Central Arkansas (The Goodspeed Publishing Co., Chicago, 1889) pp. 809-811.

13. Ferguson & Atkinson, Historic Arkansas (Little Rock: Arkansas Historical Commission, 1966) pp. 67-68. See also: Dictionary of American Biography entry for James Sevier Conway.

14. Carter, Territorial Papers Vol. XIX, pp. 658-660.

15. Ibid. pp. 268-270. For a general discussion of the U.S. General Land Office surveys of the period see:  Albert C. White, A History of the Rectangular Survey System, (USDI Bureau of Land Management, Washington, D.C).

16. Genealogical records of Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock, AR.; 1840 U. S. Census of Benton County, Arkansas; Benton County deed records.

17. Arkansas Gazette of Jan. 6, 1845                              

18. 1850 U. S. Census of Calhoun County, Texas, pp. 111-112.

19. Texas State Gazette, Austin, Aug. 3, 1850, quoted in: Frank Brown, Annals of Travis County, typescript in Texas State Archives, Austin.
20. Texas State Historical Association, The New Handbook of Texas Vol. 4, (Austin, 1996), p. 482.

21. This includes Confederate General H. H. Sibley who should have known better, who mentioned ‘General William Pelham’ in a May 4, 1862 letter to his superior in Richmond in: Confederate Victories in the Southwest, (Albuquerque: Horn & Wallace, 1961) p. 154.
22. Westphall, The Public Domain in New Mexico, pp. 1-6.

23. David Lavender, The Southwest,  (Harper & Row, 1980) p. 244

24. Westphall, Mercedes Reales, pp. 88-93. See also: Hall, Four Leagues of Pecos, pp. 79-85.

25. El Democrata, Oct. 1, 1857: N.M. State Library Archives, Santa Fe. For the election of 1857 see: New Mexico Historical Review XLIV: 3 (July 1969), p. 219.

26. Garretson genealogy from various records of the Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock.

27. Ralph Emerson Twitchell, Old Santa Fe, (Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1963 reprint of 1925 edition) p. 371.  Frank Moore ed. Rebellion Record, 1860-1861, (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1862) p. 10.
C. L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North, (Texas Western Press, El Paso, 1968) p. 156. Max L. Heyman, Jr. Prudent Soldier, (The Arthur H. Clark Co., Glendale, Calif. 1959).

28. Martin Hardwick Hall, Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign ,(Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1960) p. 168, note 12. Also: R.L. Kerby, The Confederate Invasion of New Mexico 1861-1862, (Tucson: Westernlore Press, 1981), p. 88, and Stanley, The Civil War in New Mexico, p. 218.

29. See letter of C. W. Burnley, Speaker of the [Texas?] House of Representatives, to General J. B. Magruder in: Records of the Union & Confederate Armies, Series II, Vol. 5, (U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1889), pp. 827-828. His surrender mentioned by Ovando J. Hollister, Colorado Volunteers in New Mexico 1862, (Chigaco: The Lakeside Press, 1962) p. 166.

30. Hollister states that the prisoners were released after taking an oath of allegiance, but the letter to Gen. Magruder dated February 8, 1863 implies that Pelham was still imprisoned.

31. For Pelham’s slave ownership see 1860 U.S. Census of Travis County. The death of Charles Pelham was mentioned in Pelham’s obituary in Daily Democratic Statesman, Vol VIII, No. 295, Austin, Texas, June 18, 1879. The date and place are from Charles’ memorial in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.
32. After a 1827 fire had destroyed all records in the Surveyor General’s office in Florence, Alabama, the Land Office decreed that no one was to live in the same building in which the office was located. White, History, p. 118. 

33. There is evidence that he had a mistress who bore him a daughter. The birth records of Saint Francis Cathedral show that on July 20, 1859 Cesaria Tapia baptized an illegitimate girl in the name of Maria Isabela Sinforosa, which she listed a year later in the U. S. Census as ‘Isabel Pelham, age 11 month’.

34. Westphall, The Public Domain in New Mexico, p. 14.
 35. Daily Democratic Statesman Vol. VII, No. 252, June 2, 1878; (Microfilm in Austin History Center, Austin, Texas).

36. Daily Democratic Statesman, Vol. VIII, Nos. 288 and 295.

37. The Pelham gravesite is in Block 4, Lot 171. The obelisk bears the names and dates of William Pelham, that of his wife Mary A. [Ann], and of his son Charles T. [Thomas].
38. The Mesilla Valley Independent, July 5, 1879: Microfilm in Thomas Branigan Library, Las Cruces, New Mexico.