Locators: The Lost World

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A Homesteader`s Portfolio (1910-1916)
The following is a synopsis of an account of a homesteader and locator at the Broadview Homestead near Post, Oregon. The author, Alice Day Pratt, used her 1910-1916 journal to compile her 1922 book, A Homesteader’s Portfolio, published by The McMillan Company of New York:

A black-robed priest…"And how long have you been in this country, Madam?" "One month." "And how long do you intend to remain?" "I came to locate." "God help you!" and he resumes his walk.

Here…came the word of fate to me in the shape of a summons from my locator in Prineville, Crook County, Central Oregon, to come down at once to look at a homestead location just discovered that seemed particularly desirable.

Thanksgiving Day nineteen-eleven! It should appear in red letters in my chronicle-the day that I attained to El Dorado…My guide, the locator, was an interesting young engineer, enthusiastic, crammed with the facts I wanted, human and likable. We had a splendid day. [There are several accounts of single women homesteaders marrying their locators, see the book Old Jules.]

"It is only five miles from your place." My place! I caught my breath audibly and he laughed… I had a haunting fear that it would be tame. I knew what practical considerations would appeal to the locator. But it was not tame. "That butte," pointing with his whip, "that is Friar Butte. The land I want to show you lies at the base of Friar Butte." I loved Friar Butte at first sight.

In the days to come, through the doubled and redoubled allowance to the homesteader, it was to become my own, almost entire, my upland pasture.

That afternoon at the land office I took my first lesson in land description: "The SW1/4 and the S1/2 of the NE1/4 and Lot 1 of Section 4, T17[S], R19E, WM. It was Greek to me, but on the map the little squares had more significance…It impressed me greatly that, because of the curvature of the earth’s surface, it was not 160 acres that I filed upon, but 159 and some one-hundredths. My papers must go to the general land office at the Dalles and from there I should receive notice that my filing had been duly allowed, after which the land was mine in all essentials, except that it could not be sold or mortgaged until all requirements of residence and improvement should have been fulfilled and title won, three years hence.

Behold then, on this morning of the 21 of June, 1912..the Pilgrim, on this fateful morning, began her homestead residence… Everybody knew by phone that I had arrived and my first callers were not out of sight before others began to arrive.

As [my] second autumn approached… and a teaching position offering in Prineville, I decided to close [my homestead] for the winter and move into town… Each week-end I rode out to the homestead to sleep-a sixty mile round trip…With the coming of real winter, I claimed my five months’ leave of absence and saw the homestead no more until early spring.

The term of residence required for proving up on my original filing was now fulfilled, but, unfortunately, some mythical citizen had [cross] filed….and utterly disappeared. A term of advertising was therefore necessary in order to give him time to assert his rights…

The summer of 1916, my departure awaited only the last act in the drama—the making of final proof of requisite residence and improvement. It was only a brief ceremony-the business at the land office. My proof was incontestable, my witnesses were on hand–the Nashes and the DeLongs…

Some months later, as I sat at breakfast in an eastern city, a long envelope bearing the seal of the Department of the Interior was delivered to me. From this envelope I drew forth a document bearing in turn the seal of the United States of America. It was my patent and it declared that my claim to "the SW1/4 and the S1/2 NW1/4 and Lot 1, Sec. 4, T17, R19E, WM…had been duly consummated, that it was mine.

The Land Locator
An Engineer wonderfully builds his skyscrapers and bridges in the three dimensions of X, Y & Z. The Land Boundary Surveyor works in the three dimensions of X, Y & Time; like a tripod with one leg in the past. Though the two systems are similar, and both are measurers, engineer-types tend to bump the "past" leg. We wouldn’t tolerate a "leg bumper" on our survey crews but leave our profession studded with engineers who ignore the past, particularly on our state survey boards and sometimes at survey conferences.

The past dimension that we are concerned with in this article is that of the Land Locator. In the United States, Land Locators died a lingering death from the dry years of the late 1910’s to final internment with FLPMA in 1976. They were buried without honor or thought. This lost connection with history has deluded some, leading them to believe in "virgin sections" and themselves as original surveyors when subdividing those sections.

Holy Roman Empire
The word "locator" is a pure Latin word, but we have been un-able to find the equivalent of the "Land Locator" in Roman Law, though that system must have been practiced in Rome’s conquered areas. What we do know from our research is that later nations, enamored of the Romans, adopted the Land Locator system for settling newly conquered territory. As early as 1150 AD the holy Roman Empire assigned the title "Locator" to "the pioneering German settler who recruited other peasants into new settlements and divided the lands into hides". 1 In return the German Locator received 1/6th of the area surveyed, which area was to be free of taxes in perpetuity.

Colonial Locators in America
As early as 1700 the English gave the same Latin title to surveyors who recruited settlers to new settlements. Daniel Boone and George Washington are examples of early Land Locators/Surveyors under the King, who gained their wealth and stature from the ¼ to ½ royalty for locating land for warrant holders. As we know from George Washington, this work included surveying & mapping.

Articles of Confederation
The first 70 pages of the 1838 book, Biographical Sketches of General Nathaniel Massie…2, details the role of Locators/ Surveyors under the US land warrant system. The roles of Locator and Surveyor could be separate but a Locator often acted as the Surveyor also, as was the case of Massie during the 1780’s in the Virginia Military District on the Ohio River. "Massie, at first, acted as a surveyor, but he soon discovered that it was a small business, and that the profitable land business fell into the hands of the locators" (page 15). In one of Massie’s first contracts as a Locator, dated December 17, 1783, he received this classic instruction: "(You are to be found) faithfully, and effectually, doing and performing at every stage of the business, whatever it is customary for surveyors to do and perform." (page 23)

Locators Were Everywhere
It is certain from early literature that Land Locators practiced in all the States during the time of settlement, except perhaps Hawaii. When the Warrant system was supplanted by the US Rectangular Survey System the position and role of the Land Locator/Surveyor continued, though the fee system was modif
ied to direct payment only and the agent could only assist the settler3, he could not represent him. Often, after the GLO Township Survey was completed, the Deputy Surveyor, or member of his crew, settled in the area and had a ready-made business as a Locator for the settlers.4 Once the desirable land in that area was claimed, the need and memory of the profession of Locator soon receded into nothingness. But not entirely, as a young lad on our ranch in the Bitterroot Valley in the early 1950’s, I recall one old timer talking about the slick jargon of the 1900’s Locators, how if the underside of a rock was damp they would crow to the settler about how the ground was naturally moist and there was no need for rain. The effect of the Locator’s establishment of section subdivision corners also lives on in the form of ancient fence corners.

The American Settler’s Guide of 18955, page 12, contains this gem: "Cost of Getting a Claim; The first item of cost is the fee of the land agent for locating a settler upon the claim. Nor can this be well avoided, except by those who have made the subject a matter of careful study, or have by experience gained the necessary knowledge."

Locators in the Western States
The following three quotes detail the workings of Locators in the west:

1910, Montana; Bad Land by Jonathan Raban, published by Pantheon Books of New York: "… most of the locators, who showed up in their buggies at railroad stations whenever an emigrant train was expected, had done time on the (GLO) Land Survey…

`Your place’-as the locator kept on calling it-was a brain-teasing abstraction. The moment you grasped it, it dissolved on you…you blinked…and the place had slithered off elsewhere… Was (the homestead) on this pimple? Or that one? Or that one over there?… would you ever succeed in finding it again without professional help?" (pages 51, 54 & 55)

"The locators, aboard lightweight stylish buggies, had the intolerably superior air that goes with a full diary and more clients than you can shake a stick at. Ned found for himself a glorious site for a farm…He hired a locator to check the property…" (pages 113 & 114)

1910, Montana; Montana’s Homestead Era, by Daniel N. Vichorek, published by Montana Magazine: "The Locator had a buggy or a wagon, or an automobile in later years, and he liked to fill these conveyances to capacity when he went out to show clients unclaimed territory. (page 28)

Frank Smrz had a role in bringing the area population from near zero to its highest point. Smrz worked in 1912, 1913 and 1914 as a locator… (he) kept himself abreast of who was doing what along the hi-line, especially who was about ready to sell his relinquishment and move on. When someone was ready to sell a relinquishment, Frank Smrz would arrange to have the people who wanted to file on the land go to the land office along with the original homesteader who was going to give it up. First in line was the original homesteader to give up the claim, and right behind him was the man or woman who wanted it. The government had no part in the sale of relinquishments, and in fact such sales were illegal, but there was little or no effort to do anything about them." (pages 110-111)

Fremont, Oregon 1907-; Portraits: Fort Rock Valley Homestead Years, composed and published by Fort Rock Valley Historical Society: "Mr. Hawk was a good businessman. In addition to having the creamery, he was a land locator and brought settlers into the valley. Potential customers in Portland would contact him and he would go to Lakeview to see what land was available. He would then go to Portland and bring the prospects into the valley and have the land surveyed for them. He never sold land sightunseen or unsurveyed. He was paid $100 (by) each new settler (equal to two months wages)." (page 124)

The Pre-emption and Homestead Acts required occupation and cultivation by the settlers, but gave no details. However, the American Setter’s Guide5, page 62, details the questions each settler were asked during the "proving up" interview and these questions zeroed in on house, cultivation & improvements. These details also can be observed in the settlers’ writings. The reason for extensively building fences and plowing ground becomes apparent in a dialogue on page 418 in the 1896 book Choup Nit Ki6 by Jane Gay. This excerpt is an interview between a government agent, Alice Fletcher, and an Indian settler.

"Is your land fenced, Techoke?"
"Yes, all fenced, and all plow."
"Very well, I do not think it can be taken from you…"

Before barbed wire was readily available, fences on the prairies were not practical. In the first-hand accounts of homesteading after the innovation of barbed wire in 1876, we see a greater movement into Kansas and Nebraska and a greater emphasis on fences and consequently, surveying.

Effects of Land Locators Today
The Locator of the past fits the General Land Office’s contemplation7 of the role of the local surveyor closer than any other office. Locators were knowledgeable and capable, about to the same degree as the corresponding County Surveyor or US Deputy Surveyor. Typically, the Locators were the first to set the center ¼ corners, and this always before patent. Therefore, both the General Land Office and the settlers relied upon the Locator’s center ¼ corners for their transactions and improvements BEFORE the sale was consummated, the ultimate definition of an original corner.

If the fences meet the following criteria, then the courts should allow a rebuttable presumption that the ancient fence corner marks the corner of an original survey.

1. Location of fence corner is reasonable from at least one of the four directions;
2. Locators were active in the area;
3. These Locators were knowledgeable and capable;
4. Wire is rusty (no zinc).
5. Wire is in long, unspliced lengths;
6. Perhaps the wire is embedded in a tree to the target growth ring;
7. Old timers are willing to sign affidavits that the fences have been there as long as they can remember and the fence corner, to the best of their knowledge, has always been considered the center ¼ corner.

It is probable that Locators stubbed-in the center 1/4 corners, but, before we turn up our noses and sniff, we must acknowledge that most County Surveyors did also. (Apparently many County Surveyors sought their position solely because of its exemption from residing on their homesteads.5 page 56) US Deputy Surveyors were not examined nor trained; political affiliation being the most important criteria5 (page 425). In those rare instances when GLO surveyors subdivided a section, they usually stubbed in the center ¼ corners.

The infallibility of an original corner is a well established principle, therefore, we should think twice before rejecting an ancient fence corner. The "you do so at your own peril" should belong to the fence rejecter, not the fence acceptor. Clark8 writes; "The courts consider the evidence of fences more significant than any other form of evidence" and refers to this line of case law as "the ancient fence doctrine". Of course, a surveyor presenting these ideas/principles in his/ her survey report or court presentation must be prepared to roll out the evidence and historical record. Personal accounts, like the book, "A Homesteader Portfolio,* help to add reality to the lost world of the locator.

Chad Erickson’s experience with homesteads and fences began from birth at his Grandfather’s homestea
d in Madison County Idaho. Chad has surveyed original Townships for BLM in Alaska, administered and inspected contract surveys for the State of Alaska’s Land Disposal Program and he and his wife, Linda, had a homestead in Alaska. Without knowing what it was called, Chad also functioned as a Land Locator for other homesteaders in Alaska. Linda is the daughter of a Canadian homestead kid. From childhood they have built and ridden miles of fences. Chad & Linda operate Erickson Land Surveys out of Idaho and Arizona and their spare time is spent in searching nationally for first-hand accounts of GLO Surveyors, settlers and locators.

1 Parishes, Tithes & Society in Earlier Medieval Poland, C. 1100-1250, By Piotr Görecki, page 103.
2 Biographical Sketches of General Nathaniel Massie…* by John McDonald, published 1838 by E Morgan & Son.
3 "Settler" is the term used in the GLO’s official publications. Other search words are "pilgrim", "pioneer", "homesteader", "sodbuster", "honyocker", "nestor", "scissorbill", "clodbuster", "granger", "first-comer" and "bordermen".
4 Vanguards of the Frontier by Dick Everett, 1941, page 426.
5 The American Settler’s Guide,* 1895, by Henry N. Copp. It was annually published from 1879 to 1903.
6 Choup Nit Ki is a must read for surveyors working on Indian Reservations. It can be downloaded at http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/ view/3463914?n=15, the download sequence is under the print button. It is loaded with photographs from 1889-1892.
7 "In this capacity, the local surveyor is performing a function contemplated by law." §3-132 BLM Manual of Surveying 2009.
8Clark on Surveying & Boundaries, 8th Edition, page 433 and 2008 Supplemental page 96.

Most of these books are more than 75 years old, are part of the public domain, and may be downloaded at http://openlibrary.org.

A 4.364Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE