John Austin Survey

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To become an owner of land in 1824 under Mexican law one had to do certain things­pay a fee, take possession of the land, perform certain rites, and reside on and cultivate the land for a minimum of two years (this also meant defending one’s life and properties against any war parties of American Indians that happened to ride your way).

John Austin came to Texas as a member of the "Old 300", the first group of American settlers brought to Texas by Stephen F. Austin under an agreement with the Superior Government of the Mexican Nation. He may or may not have been a cousin of Stephen’s, but we do know that they were, at the very least, good friends. John Austin petitioned the Commissioner to the Government, Philip Hendrick Nering Bogel (also known as the Baron de Bastrop), to be allowed to settle approximately 8,880 acres of land "situated on the creek called Buffalo Bayou".

John’s petition was granted and Mr. Austin took possession of the land on July 21, 1824, and a patent was issued from Mexico to Mr. Austin. Unfortunately, John lived only eight years after gaining title to his land. He died in August of 1832 and his widow eventually sold most of the patent to two brothers named Allen, who, in turn, had the land surveyed by two brothers named Gail and T. H. Borden and subdivided the land into a town named for a Texas hero–Sam Houston (Figure 1).

If you are a resident of Houston, you probably know the rest of the story. Mr. Austin’s two leagues of land are now at the center of this great city. But where, really, are the corners of this old patent?

I have had the privilege of performing surveys in the downtown area on occasion. While performing research for one such project, I came across some notes in a City of Houston Survey Field Book dated February 13, 1914 (Figure 2). These notes depict a concrete monument being set in the same location as an old "bois d’arc stake" which was one of the original stakes set in July of 1824, marking the southeast corner of the John Austin Survey, the first Abstract in Harris County, Texas. To a surveyor, this is akin to finding a map of buried treasure, and I, for one, could not resist the lure of recovering this historical monument.

In surveying, the doctrine of "following in the footsteps of the original surveyor" is paramount. To recover an original property corner, probably one of the first pieces of property ever surveyed in Harris County, is very rare. Most of Harris County has been surveyed and resurveyed so many times, with resultant construction, that almost all of the original patent corners have been destroyed. When I approached two old friends, Mike Hoover and Bill Merten, about relocating the original corner of the John Austin Survey Abstract, they were skeptical at first. However, after I sent them copies of the field notes, they too, became excited.

On Saturday, February 9, 2008, I set out with Mike, Bill, and three other comrades set out to find and perpetuate this concrete monument. The site is just easterly of the Central Business District of Houston, an area populated with warehouses and railroads tracks. When we arrived at the site, we were able to locate the control points which were used by the earlier City of Houston employees to reference the monument. These centerline control monuments were set in 1868 as part of a then-citywide control survey and are stories in themselves. We then occupied these control points, turned angles and measured distances and marked an "X" on the ground.

With no monument visible, we used a magnetic field detector to ascertain whether or not there was metal underground. The detector indicated the presence of metal right where the monument was supposed to be. Now, everyone wanted to dig. We had gotten but a few inches deep when we hit pay dirt. A square concrete monument approximately 8 inches by 8 inches with old square iron rebar was right where it was supposed to be (Figures 4 & 5).

We then made ties to nearby planimetric features, using a compass and tape (as a ceremonial gesture to history) so that anyone possessing a copy of my notes would be able to again locate this historical surveying landmark.

While the surveyors of 1824 had compasses and maybe a Gunter’s chain, maybe a rope with knots tied to indicate feet or varas, we had decided to perpetuate the position of the monument by establishing geographic coordinates for the monument. We set up a GPS receiver and let it gather data for an hour. I processed the resultant data using City of Houston CORS monuments as base control and I now have a position for the concrete monument and the nearby street centerline monuments. These positions are expressed as coordinates (Northing and Easting) using the Texas Coordinate System of 1983. These coordinates and the Project map have been delivered to the City of Houston Survey Department and the City of Houston File Room, thereby making this data available to the public.

When one finds a treasure map and then the treasure to boot, he has to gain an even higher appreciation of his chosen profession. Not too many careers offer a combination of archaeology, field research, quasi-legal determinations, the use of mathematics and space technology simultaneously.

Author’s Note: The author thanks Mike Hoover, RPLS, and Bill Merten, RPLS, LSLS, for their surveying knowledge, equipment and encouragement.

Jack Chiles began surveying as a green rodman in January of 1976, although there have been surveyors in his family since the early 1700s. He is a Registered Professional Land Surveyor in Texas and currently resides with his family in Houston. 

A 1.722Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE