Rendezvous 2011—Altered Contours

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From sometime around 1000 BC through 500 AD, natives piled great quantities of dirt into all shapes and configurations within the valley of the great river. What was the purpose of these mounds of fill shaped over fifteen hundred years in the south-central region of present day Ohio– Religion? Artistic expression? A means of hunting, securing necessary protein? Somewhere around thirteen hundred years later, enter the Europeans, trekking the same sacred ground. What did these new blue-eyed guys do? They dug holes in the same dirt, forming long, thin ribbons, much longer than a good mule could walk in a day. Cut or fill? A method of dealing with Nature’s severity? We call it progress.

Such were the topics studied and celebrated at the 15th annual Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous. We convened in September 2011 at the Shawnee Forest Resort and Conference Center located just outside of the town of Friendship (really Portsmouth). Portsmouth, situated on the northern shore of the Ohio River, was the southern terminus of a canal traversing the entire State of Ohio beginning at the town of Cleveland, on the southern shore of Lake Erie. It is also located dead in the middle of extensive remains of the native mounds built long ago in the valley of this great river. Our host was local surveyor Richard Howerton. Serving as co-host was mandolin whacker Ralph Paris. On the Wednesday evening prior to the official start of the conference, everyone was feted at the "Welcome Weary Travelers" reception. This is always the time to greet old fellow historians and meet new ones.

Thursday morning opened with a welcome from David Malone, Mayor of Portsmouth. All professions have boundaries of some sort, all which need to be determined in some way, and Mr. Malone waxed on the "boundaries in public office". Paris then introduced the first speaker, attorney B.R. (Bud) Salyer, who spoke about surveyors and surveying in the Ohio Valley during the 1700s.

Enter the Europeans
European influence in the area began in 1750 with Dr. Thomas Walker, one time guardian for young Thomas Jefferson. Walker explored a large part of southeastern Kentucky, building the first "permanent" structure in that state. The most extensive exploration of the area was conducted by Christopher Gist. The Proclamation of 1763, however, brought all settlement to a halt. In an attempt to calm the trepidations of the natives, the King of England forbade any settlement west of the Alleghenies. Hunting and trading continued nonetheless. A "treaty" at Fort Stanwix (near Rome, NY) made with the Six Nations of the Iroquois opened up the present-day Kentucky portion of Virginia. The fact that the current occupants on this ground were Shawnee, Delaware and Cherokee was a bit of an inconvenience. Grants were made, surveys were conducted, property was settled, and then came the little dustup with the Crown.

Following the Colonists’ victory, military service members needed to be compensated. The country was deeply in debt, but there was now a vast amount of property following the cession of lands by several states. The solution was to pay these veterans in property. The Virginia Military District and subsequent surveys were established for this purpose.

Early on, surveyors were examined and licensed by the College of William and Mary in return for 1/6th the lifetime earnings of the surveyor (that’s 17%). This was later replaced by a process whereby a court interviewed the applicant and ordinarily issued the appointment. When an area opened, the surveyor was the first professional to enter. The second was the lawyer. Some of the earlier surveyors included George Rogers Clark and Daniel Boone. These fellows would go out in the wild, living like the natives. Of the 500 surveyors identified by Mr. Salyer, a full 10% died at the hands of the Indians. Fees were often based on "halvers" (more later). Should a surveyor survive the Indians, most lived into their 70s and 80s, with one fellow making it to 93.

Dog Squirts of Men
Frenchmen of long ago had a custom of burying a lead plate at the confluence of waterways. The frontier surveyors had standardized methods for marking boundaries. Conference presenter Dan Cutler derisively referred to these efforts of laying claim as "dog squirts of men". Wolves and bears do not honor dog squirts, so why should the brave? Cutler portrayed the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk. Cornstalk used a beautiful map showing the lands of the Shawanoa. He joked that the Shawanoa were a race of warriors like the Irish­if they have no one to fight, they fight themselves. From Cornstalk’s perspective, the surveyors came with iron strings and looked through the glass. A legend proven false says that when the soldiers murdered Cornstalk, he rose up to curse the ground they were on. While a Shawanoa would never curse the earth, this doesn’t stop Mr. Cutler "dying" a couple of times a week as he reenacts the legend.

Forest Home Farm & Swap Meet
Dwight Cropper is a professional archaeologist. His farm has been in Mr. Cropper’s family for generations, and once belonged to Patrick Henry. Located just across the Ohio River in Greenup County, Kentucky, the farm is the site of an 18th century settlement known as Lower Shawneetown. Deeper still, it is situated beneath a large segment of one of the most significant Woodland Period mound structures, the Portsmouth Group. Being some 5000 feet long and from 340 to 800 feet wide, this complex construction is still remarkably visible, spilling far beyond the boundaries of Cropper’s "Forest Home Farm". He spoke of the different periods of the mound builder’s history; the Adena Culture of the Woodland period dates to somewhere around 1,000 BC, and somewhere around 500 BC the Hopewell Culture began building more elaborate and complex designs like serpents and spirals. While the simple conical mounds are burial places, as for the other designs and their purposes, there is only speculation or conjecture.

Traveling across the river into Greenup County and onto the farm, our group enjoyed a sunny, pleasant afternoon walking over and upon 2,500 years of culture. These mounds required no imagination to distinguish their shapes, being obvious and striking in their detail and scale. (For more information the Surveyors Historical Society article, "Old Maps of Ancient Sites," in Backsights, Volume 22, Number 2.)

Later that evening, our host, Richard, had anticipated a large group returning on the hungry side after the outdoor jaunt. We were welcomed to a cookout on the patio of the conference center situated on the highest ground for miles. Munching on burgers and dogs, we also enjoyed the many items displayed at the Swap Meet. Dave Ingram covered three tables with instruments, books and drafting tools spanning at least two centuries. A Swap Meet is also the best place to network in the esoteric world of antique surveying equipment.

Patents and Patience
After breakfast on Friday morning we began to examine the intricacies of distributing property within the Virginia Military District. Our presenter was Gary P. Nichols accompanied by fellow surveyor and wife, Rose Coors. It is my hope that Mr. Nichols will eventually produce a book on this very subject, having such extensive knowledge on the VMD.

What was the process to go from, say Hanover, Massachusetts, being a veteran of the recent war into the wilds of the Ohio country and claim your 100 or 1000 acres? It appeared to be a simple four-step process, but could consume
many long years of frustration. The system was not efficient by any means. The final goal was to obtain a patent (original deed out of the sovereign). The steps to acquire this patent were the warrant, the entry, the survey, and finally, the patent.

To obtain the warrant, one had to search out and procure from his commanding officer proof, attested to in court, the amount of time of his service and his rank at discharge. These factors would have a direct bearing on the amount of property he was to receive. The fellow would then take this information to the Register of the Land Office. Then, a land warrant might be issued. A warrant was issued to the individual but was transferable, being a negotiable security. Many individuals rightfully obtained warrants knowing they would never see the western frontier. Warrants could be purchased, bundled and sold en masse.

The warrant holder then saw to it that an entry was made in the book of the principal surveyor. Each entry was dated and numbered sequentially with no gaps. The holder would then employ the Deputy Surveyor to "carefully survey the boundaries and accurately record its limits with a plat of the exterior lines". The property could not exceed a 3:1 depth/width ratio. The amount of property warranted to individuals by rank varied from 100 acres for three years of service as a Private, to 4000 acres for a Captain, and up to 15,000 acres granted to Major General Von Steuben. The surveyor employed the "halvers" system mentioned earlier for his fee. Deputy surveyors received from one fourth to one half of either the value or the area of the tract being surveyed for their fee. (Hey, let’s bring this fee system back!)

The survey owner then sent a certified copy with the warrant to the Secretary of War, later the Government Land Office. A deed or patent would be issued and signed by the President of the United States. Years later, that is.

On Board a Packet Boat
Eventually, the issues with the military grants were resolved for the most part. Farmers were breaking ever larger tracts and manufacturers were springing up to satisfy the demands of the growing population. The populace began easily exceeding their own production. The roads were not adequate for shipping these goods to other markets. There were no railroads, so enter the golden age of the canal.

The Erie Canal in New York was completed in October 1825. Construction on the Erie-Ohio Canal (with its Portsmouth connection) had begun three months earlier. Many years before, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had envisioned the same canal. The unemployed laborers on the Erie Canal brought their skills to Ohio. Costs per mile were nearly half in Ohio compared to the New York canal. Minimum specifications required a width of 26 feet at the bottom, a minimum depth of four feet with the water surface width being 40 feet. Each of the 146 locks was 90’x15′ to accommodate the 80’x14′ canal boats. There were 21 locks in a two-mile stretch just north of Akron. The mules or horses walked on a tow path at the maximum speed limit of 4 miles an hour. The State maintenance boats originally had the right of way, then it fell to the south bound boats, depending on which section of the canal (unless the crew of the north bound boat could physically whip the south bound crew). Railroads eventually dealt the canals the death blow with the coffin nail being hammered down by the flood of 1913. (Original survey plans for the E-O canal can be found at

Crusty old Canal Boat Captain John B. Reynolds (played by Chris Hart) regaled us with tall tales of his times on the canal. Each wild tale was grounded in historic truth. For whatever reason, locals would sometimes excavate holes in the canal embankments, leaving boats high and dry. Circus boats would ply the waters, stretching tightropes over the canal. There were Gospel boats adorned with scripture on their gunwales. On a new trip, a new broom was purchased and mounted on the bow to keep witches away.

With tall tales over and studies completed, we all set off north of town to the remains of Lock 48 S. The wooden gates were long ago rotted away but the stone work looked as though it had been layed yesterday. The next stop was downtown Portsmouth, where we viewed the numerous meticulously painted murals adorning the flood walls of the town, including one of native son, Roy Rogers astride Trigger. On one building we spotted a mural of our very own Chief Cornstalk. Just that moment Cornstalk pulled up. He wasn’t aware he had ever been reproduced 15 feet tall on the main street of Portsmouth, Ohio.

Wrap Up
That evening, we attended the annual banquet and auction. As usual, many were sporting their finest period haberdashery, including Melungeon Indian Roger Moore. Mr. Moore had first visited our group in Akron back in 2008. Roger provided the informative after-dinner entertainment. Then, it was auction time. This is always a fast-paced and pleasantly intense event, raising funds for future Surveyors Rendezvous events. As always, it was a success and everybody seemed quite happy with their purchases.

Driving home, one could not help but reflect on the mound building and the linear strips of concrete over which we now travel that are the results of our modern day attempt at dealing with a harsh nature. We can only speculate what the individuals in the distant future studying these altered contours might be wondering as they make conjectures about us and our purpose in that time long ago.

Bart Crattie holds a BFA degree from Murray State University and is a licensed surveyor in Georgia and Tennessee. He is a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM and has been featured on national television stations regarding the Georgia water shortage and the location of the state’s northern line. Bart serves on the Board of Directors for the Surveyors Historical Society and is a regular contributor to the magazine.

A 3.608Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE