Grid lock: On a limestone hill southwest of Three Forks, the Initial Point divides, defines Montana
Willow Creek – It’s a good thing LeRoy Miller has good shocks.
Two recently retired surveyors and a couple of newspapermen took up the 74-year-old rancher on his generous offer to haul them up a historic hill in the back of his pickup in the middle of his busy work day last week.
They careened up a steep, boulder-infested pitch for the last quarter of a mile to the final destination: the Initial Point.
A faint X scribed in one of the flatter rocks on top, and a brass cap placed in later years, marked the spot where the rectangular surveying system in Montana began in 1867.
It was the pinnacle of a pilgrimage for Bill Weikel and Ron Milam, Missoula men who spent careers interpreting the mysteries of chains and sextants and sections that serpentine in systematic fashion through townships six miles square across Montana.
The two men comprise one-third of the Montana Surveying Reenactors Corps that sets up shop during Bannack Days each third week of July.
Weikel is immersed in a national society that preserves and researches surveying history, and both belong to the Montana Registered Land Surveyors Association. MRLSA encourages this kind of junket in conjunction with National Surveyors Week, a Congress-proclaimed commemoration that starts Sunday.
It was a picture-perfect spring day, with nary a hint of the wind that can make this ridge above the lower Jefferson River a good place to be elsewhere.
"It’ll blow the hay out of the horse," is how Miller described it.
Past fallow fields and pasture land, Montana’s distances shimmered – northeast to the towns of Willow Creek and Three Forks and to the wide Missouri River, east toward the vast Gallatin Valley, and south and west toward what in 1867 were still-burgeoning mining camps that birthed the territory.
Weikel assembled an antique transit, pre-1876, on a rock shelf. The solar attachment was mounted to the top.
"I don’t know how to use it yet," he allowed to Miller. "I missed that class."
The Initial Point was created with a solar compass, which predated the transit, explained Weikel, who keeps an extensive collection of equipment at home. He once bid $12,000 for a solar compass online – and didn’t get it.
Still, his transit lent a suitable air of antiquity, especially alongside the Global Positioning System device that Milam held in his palm. Milam had dialed in the coordinates earlier.
"Missed it by 10 feet," he said when he got to the top.
From here, it would have been fairly easy tromping in each cardinal direction for surveyors commissioned by the General Land Office in Washington, D.C., to map out Montana in identifiable, transferable, taxable grids.
Here too you could almost see Solomon Meredith, Montana Territory’s first surveyor general; Benjamin Marsh, chief engineer of several railroad constructions; and Walter W. deLacy, the man who knew both surveying and Montana.
They stood on this hill and took noon readings on an August day in 1867, after coming to the conclusion that the government’s preferred Initial Point, Beaverhead Rock 55 miles to the southeast, wouldn’t suffice. It was just too hemmed in by some of Montana’s most rugged mountain ranges.
The surveyors’ view to the north probably included the site where young Lemhi Shoshoni girls were captured in 1800 by a Hidatsa war party from far to the east. One of the captives would become known to history as Sacajawea. Somewhere, too, in these parts John Colter made his legendary run, bare naked, to escape Blackfeet warriors bent on mayhem in 1809.
When most people talk early Montana history, Weikel said, they talk about the miners, the cattlemen, the Indians and Indian fighters. Surveyors, who’ve been around since private property began, are the forgotten ones, tromping through these hills and dales in every kind of weather, among the outlaws, varmints and landowners who don’t cotton to the notion of government men coming in to divvy up their holdings.
They called Meredith "Long Sol" in the Union Army. He stood 6-foot-7, and his detractors said the Indiana man rose to brigadier general of the Iron Brigade with a good line of bull and a nodding acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln. A more forgiving biographer called Meredith "a commanding presence, and a ready speaker."
Long Sol lost two sons in the Civil War but survived himself. He was sidelined from battle during the opening salvos at Gettysburg in 1863. A fragment of shrapnel knocked him unconscious and his dead horse fell on top of him.
In March 1867, Congress created the Office of Surveyor General in three-year-old Montana Territory and President Andrew Johnson appointed Meredith the first. Long Sol probably didn’t know a whit about surveying, but he brought along Marsh, who did.
In his 1996 book, "Initial Points of the Rectangular Survey System," C. Albert White detailed the explicit instructions Joseph S. Wilson, commissioner of the General Land Office, gave Meredith. There were 29 bullet items.
No. 3 read: "Your first duty will be to determine the Initial Point of Surveys, or the point for the intersection of a Principal Base with the Principal Meridian line to govern all the public surveys in Montana."
Meredith, Marsh and Meredith’s son Henry arrived in Helena on a June day. They soon met deLacy, and Meredith, knowing a good thing when he found it, enlisted him to help establish the Initial Point.
The territory’s best-known civil engineer, deLacy arrived in Montana in 1859 with Lt. John Mullan’s Military Wagon Road expedition. Among other accomplishments, he laid out the townsites of Fort Benton and Deer Lodge. He possessed a thorough knowledge of Montana’s physical ups and downs.
DeLacy took a look in July and concurred with Meredith’s dismissal of Beaverhead Rock as a suitable Initial Point. Within weeks, the party had pinpointed the hill above Miller’s ranch on Willow Creek, across the Tobacco Root Range from the Beaverhead.
DeLacy proclaimed the rocky ridge "eminently satisfactory," and in a report to Meredith concluded, "I can conscientiously say that there is no other part of the Territory where the same uninterrupted length of the Meridian & Base Line could have been secured."
He then stepped away from the project. DeLacy died in Helena in 1892 after serving his last several years as chief clerk in another Surveyor General’s office. "Long Sol" Meredith had long since quit the country, moving back to his Indiana farm to raise longhorn cattle in 1869. He died in 1875.
Marsh carried on the initial surveys, extending the meridians in all four directions over dozens of miles before winter shut him down, then resuming work in the spring of ’68. Like deLacy, Marsh remained in Montana the rest of his life, dying in Helena in 1903 after serving as Deputy U.S. Mineral Surveyor and county surveyor in Helena.
Crews slowly expanded the government survey, mapping east into the Gallatin Valley and north to Helena. By 1870, Missoula was laid out and work continued up the developing Bitterroot Valley.
"Because it was an imperfect system and because there was a lot of it to be done, they were trying to get to the land that was being settled first," Weikel said.
In theory, a township is comprised of 36 sections on a perfect grid 6 square miles by 6 square miles. By the time the land surveyors crept back over the Divide to the east side, things inevitably failed to match.
"There were huge gaps and overlaps," Weikel said.
"They may have missed by miles, just because of blunders. But there were ways you handled that."
Today, an entire west tier of square-mile sections may be missing from some townships in the area.
LeRoy Miller has been aware of the Initial Point on the family ranch "for pridnear as long as I can remember," he said.
His father worked for the Trident Concrete plant north of Three Forks before buying the ranch in 1936, at about the time LeRoy was born. LeRoy has lived here ever since.
"Now I’m gettin’ to be one of the old-timers," Miller chuckled.
Through the years, sporadic attention has been paid to the hill across Old Yellowstone Trail from the Miller place. LeRoy has hauled to the ridgetop groups from the Montana Historical Society and the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society. A roadside sign on the fence up the road points it out, courtesy of local civic and historical groups.
More than 140 years later, most but not all of Montana’s 147,000-plus square miles – roughly 4,100 townships – have been mapped out by the GLO and its successor, the Bureau of Land Management. It took time. Lost Trail Pass, for instance, was surveyed in 1935, the Yaak in 1961.
If you live in Missoula, Weikel said, you live in Township 13 North, Range 19 West.
"That means you’re approximately 13 times 6 miles (78) north and 19 times 6 miles (114) west of that Initial Point," he said.
Not every state has an Initial Point. The original Thirteen Colonies and at least five of their offspring, states where land was allocated before 1785, use the English system of metes and bounds.
Understand them or not, legal descriptions are integral to our lives, whether we’re buying land or selling it, subdividing it, or paying our property taxes.
"The rectangular surveying system is the basis of everything we do as surveyors," Milam said. "And the Initial Point is the basis for that system in Montana."
Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or at email@example.com. This story, with pictures, appeared HERE