The Story of a Stone: A Reflection on Surveying and Colonial History

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Here in the metes and bounds states it’s uncommon to come across a boundary line that has not been surveyed multiple times as the nation has grown. As properties are conveyed and as land owners maintain their bounds, evidence remains which renders boundary retracement a workable process. But every so often there is the case in which modernization renders a parcel obsolete, nature takes care of all the evidence, and what remains are location dilemmas…and an old stone.

When called upon as surveyors, we enter into these dilemmas unaware, and face the common struggle of where to "draw the line" literally. Before that decision is made there are many other nonliteral lines to draw, such as how far back to research old records, how far down the road to survey, and when to send the crew out again to search for a monument that you know should be there. This story is one of just those cases where a seemingly typical boundary location turns out to be a deed research nightmare, and a few forgotten stones unveil a rich story of colonial living and history.

In the fall of 2010 our firm was called upon to survey the boundary of a farm tract in the town of Atco, New Jersey; a typical South Jersey farm hosting a healthy crop of blueberry bushes and plenty of good sandy soil. The farm is bounded on the north by a branch of the Mullica River, a county boundary, and on the south by a good accessible road just outside of town. The majority of the property exists within an old rectangular farm lot subdivision surrounded by "paper streets" in an area that never quite met the expectation of an ambitious nineteenth century land speculator.

At first glance the property looks like a relatively easy survey, but a closer look reveals a strange configuration of irregular lots along the river incongruent with their surroundings. These lots, at present, terminate at the thread of the watercourse better known as "the swamp."

We began our survey in normal routine and recovered property corner monumentation along the rectangular lots. I quickly realized after seeing the "more or less" distances along the rear of the subdivision, that the line along the swamp would not be as friendly. The deeds back there are of strange skinny tracts that describe from bank to bank "cropping" the swamp. Many of them call for posts and trees with a few calls for stones. All are compass and chain and their closure is the typical tens of feet. This is easily forgiven by taking one look at the swamp with its standing water and impassable greenbriers that make the surveyors long ago who pulled their steel chain across "that," some sort of super heroes in modern eyes. It is times like these where tribute is due to the untold number of surveyors over the centuries that without recognition have cut out and measured the most forsaken terrains.

The next seemingly useful step in this retracement was to ask why these lots exist. The deeds reveal the common recital of the phrase "Cedar Swamp." Now this would not have been too hard to figure out if cedar trees were in the swamp, but to the contrary there are few. The trees consist mostly of swamp maples and greenbriers galore with the occasional large white cedar. All things considered it became certain that these small lots existed for the very same reason that the cedars do not exist today. And just like that, it seems we are no longer locating a briery old swamp, but are taken to the workplace of the 18th century colonist whose sweat and blood depleted this place of cedars, which no doubt still exist within the walls of homes, businesses and churches in Philadelphia and western New Jersey’s colonial towns.

In attempt to gain a grasp of the time frame when these lots had been established, I hit the books. A bit of research revealed that the lumbering industry was right on the heels of South Jersey’s early colonists dating into the early 1700s when settlers took what natural resources they had in order to make a living. Many sawmills sprung up during this era and new roads followed right behind. True to form, the sawmill known as "Marpels Mill" that serviced this area was constructed around 1763, and was only a mile or two west of our property. According to local historian David L. Wilcox, "Marple’s sawmill was arguably the most complete and largest in size of the early sawmills in South Jersey, surviving for a hundred years from its colonial origins. In its time, it functioned as the southern extremity of the Longacoming settlement [modern day Berlin, NJ]. Marple’s sawmill served as a landmark for road surveys as new transportation routes developed into the New Jersey Pines and beyond." These timeframes overlay perfectly with the dates of the conveyances along the cedar swamp lots and place the age of this boundary well into the 1700s. At this point I became somewhat obsessive in finding out the exact age of these strange lots. As far back as I seem to research them, they were always there.

In the course of researching I unearthed some further information that makes this survey truly historical in nature. The lumber industry it seems was booming during the 1700s and cedar was a hot commodity. Due to its tall straight rot-resistant nature it is a superior building material compared to the scrubby pines of the region’s uplands. When digging back through old records I was amazed to see how many lots were of cedar swamps. It seemed like this may have almost been the common man’s gold of the time. And so there sprung up tons of three- to four-acre lots spanning small slivers of swamp, just the same as exists on our boundary. As time went on, iron production found its way into the New Jersey Pine Barrens; forges and furnaces scattered the region. In 1781 a man by the name of William Richards, after serving in the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge became manager, then owner, of an iron foundry known as Batsto Iron Works, a common historic site in South Jersey. Two of his sons, Thomas and Jesse, followed his footsteps. After William retired in 1803, Jesse remained at Batsto continuing the work, but Thomas moved westward purchasing the Marple’s Mill tract and land adjacent to our cedar swamp. Thomas operated this mill for some time and in 1827 he established the Jackson Glass works there, manufacturing window glass. During the 1820s, he expanded his holdings to what is now the southern line of our swamp boundary, and met his brother Jesse to the east, together spanning ownership from present day Atco to Batsto. In the mid 1800s the Jackson Glass Works struggled due to the exhaustion of the local timber supply, and in 1860 Thomas Richards died leaving nothing in his will to his two sons due to their having been "unfortunate in business by which misfortune I have been obliged to encumber my estate to provide for the payment of my notes." The Jackson Glasshouse was then destroyed by fire in May of 1877. This obscure swamp boundary we are now called upon to retrace lies in silent witness to the rise and fall of not only the lumbering trade of early settlers, but also to the early iron and glass manufacturing of colonial New Jersey. From the looks of the woods, the land has remained fallow since the mid 1800s. For over a century, the boundaries of a once-thriving area have laid at rest, and today there is but one remaining shred of evidence, the surveyor’s stone.

With a good understanding of the historical contributions to the property lines under our belt, we then hit the courthouse pouring through grantor and grantee books and literally hundreds of old handwritten deeds trying to piece together some missing links in the chain
of title. Due to the age and location of the boundary, deeds were spread out between three counties. We did what we could in Camden County and obtained some adjoining deeds that helped us get a little closer. After hitting the ground with this new information (and with a little surveyors’ luck) we came across an old planted bog iron stone called out in a deed between two brothers, Abraham and Joshua Lippincott, as a division of their inheritance by an 1838 survey. This stone was the first link to the past, and the possibilities that there would still be enough evidence out there that would re-create our boundary. This stone was confirmed by another one on the north side of the swamp, dated in a deed from 1805. The problem remained in that there was still one description to the east that gave only adjoining owner references and an approximate width that was clearly not from a survey. Our 1836 stone got us close, but was still unconnected with the rest of the swamp lots. This is where the real digging begins… in the records.

I resumed research but kept running into the same problem: these lots seemed older than the county records. I searched through all of the Boundaries and Divisions books and checked out the Surrogate’s office in three counties. All of this, and there were still gaps between deeds keeping me from joining them to the 1838 stone. Finally I spent hours behind a microfilm machine searching through tons of nearly impossible to read indexes and handwritten records from the West Jersey Proprietors, the books where the Surveyor General recorded the original warrants and survey returns for the proprietary colony of West Jersey. Before long I came across the first gem, a 1717 survey that covered the entire West side of our swamp. It was an original survey and return to four men: Samuel Lippincott, Thor Evost, John Roberts, Enoch Cord. This deed gave the clue that the missing deed along the swamp was the remainder of a portion to John Roberts that was never conveyed after the original survey; this explained the gap, but still did not render any connection. Next, I unearthed a 1739 survey to Thomas French covering the East side of our swamp and revealing a prominent angle point on the North side. The two surveys are called to be contiguous, but in plotting they do not align at all. Then came the final puzzle piece, a 1754 survey to Isaac Evans of a triangular lot clearly filling the gap between the two prior surveys and ties the three together. The Evans survey calling for a stone pile placed around the point of beginning tree from the 1717 survey a common corner to all three lots and referenced in two newer 1800s era surveys.

With all of this research like small pieces to a puzzle, I applied the magnetic declination to the surveys that had definitive dates, and put them together as well as they would fit. I then oriented them all to the 1838 and 1805 stones, and an old ditch visible on only the 1995 aerial imagery. I knew there was major uncertainty in the line, but decided that the only way to resolve it was with my axe. We traversed to the north side of the swamp and cut some really gnarly line about two thousand feet, and passed within sixty feet of the stone at the angle point. This large sandstone with an "R" on the west side was set for an 1856 survey to Emmor Roberts; it sits planted in what remains of the stone pile from the 1754 survey. After locating this stone, we immediately came up with two more, one chiseled "ER" from a survey to Enoch Roberts in 1824 and one plain but very large Jersey sandstone. Together these stones gave a definite location of the north side of the swamp and the ability to recreate the old boundary to the south, a rewarding ending to a long road of difficult research.

The motto "one man’s trash is another man’s treasure" comes to mind when we talk about these old stones. I was showing off some photos of the stone with the "R" at the angle point to one of my colleagues and an onlooker asked how we know that this rock means anything. I replied with a grin "we measured to it," an answer that seemed to suffice. To most a "rock in the woods" seems a very unlikely object for any treasure hunter. To a surveyor however, a "planted stone" not only holds a precious place in boundary location but is always a witness to an era much different than ours, an era where their "close enough" had a much different definition, but the monuments that they set hold control over the most precise measurements known to man. You have to wonder when you find such old boundary markers, about the men who set them; the men who took the time to chisel and shape a rock and carry it back into the woods. Each one has a story, a name behind it; a surveyor who measured it. You have to wonder if the colonial surveyors ever really realized the value of the work they performed. I’m curious of whether they thought ahead to the years when the land would look much different, and all that would last the test of time is the heavy stone they painstakingly placed…somehow I think they did.

Tim Guisewhite has been surveying since 1998, specializing in boundary retracement and the application of modern equipment to ancient measures. He works as a Party Chief and Licensed Surveyor for Taylor Wiseman & Taylor, an East coast based full service engineering firm. He is licensed in South Carolina, North Carolina & Pennsylvania.

A 3.153Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE