Land Locators, Claim Jumpers & Drop Kickers Part II

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Walt Coburn, the hero of Part I wasn’t the only settler who suffered from the actions of claim jumpers, nor the only one who responded with a drop-kick. Near Edmonton Canada in 1882 a land jumper’s house was pushed off a bank to smash on the ice of the North Saskatchewan River.1

An 1895 Camas Prairie, Idaho homesteader, N. B. Schlader, reported, "I never had any trouble with claim jumpers, but some of the neighbors did. Then we all went together and hauled them off, cabin and all, out onto a road some place several miles away. After a few of these moves we weren’t troubled any more out there. Every one worked together and stuck together so our neighborhood wasn’t bothered much."2

The Claim Jumpers of Walt Coburn’s story have a modern equivalent. In our day we have "surveyors" claiming that most sections should be treated as though they were survey celibate and all evidence of previous survey activity should be ignored, thus laying new lines over the originals. Many of these modern claim jumpers are found in high places and are thus more destructive to a stable society than the claim jumpers of old.

Visualize this: In a standard township there are 36 miles of north-south section lines and 36 miles of east-west section lines, all marked by the General Land Office. In a standard township with 1/4 section homesteads there are also 36 miles of north-south 1/4 lines and 36 miles of east-west 1/4 lines, most all marked by local surveyors at the time of Homesteading (Land Locators). We are awed by the immensity of GLO’s work but sniff at the work of the local surveyors. Why? The first is recorded and the second is not? Yet this should not be surprising since there was not a mechanism to record local surveys until the 1970’s. One snubs original surveys by Land Locators at peril, for they were performed upon the ground before first conveyance and were relied upon by both buyer and seller.

Let’s start with George Washington. From the 1886 book Trans-Allegheny Pioneers, page 57, in the course of a 1755 story, we read this: "This point of crossing of the river (The Big Sandy) was probably about the forks, and near the site of the present town of Louisa, where fifteen years later, according to Collins, Colonel George Washington located, for John Fry, 2,084 acres of land, the first survey ever made in Kentucky." If we ignore the original surveys performed by Locators, shall we also ignore those boundary lines "located" by George Washington? If we ignore the ancient barbed wire fences in Idaho shall we ignore the stone fences in Kentucky?

From the book Bad Land by Jonathan Raban, page 115, we read of the fence building activity in Montana in the first year after the area was opened to homesteading (1910): "The yards of the hardware stores in Ismay and Mildred were packed solid with bales of fencing wire. Freight cars laden with wire stood in the railroad sidings…From the first fall through to the following spring and beyond, the new arrivals lived and breathed fencing. It was hard, cold tedious labor; a much bigger job than the building of the house and the barns."

Barbed Wire Peddlers Knocked On Doors Like Avon Ladies
The purchase price of land from the GLO was $1.25 per acre but the cost of fence wire and posts to enclose the homestead exceeded this. It would be foolish to presume that a homesteader’s improvement, more valuable than the land itself, was carefully placed on the homestead boundaries. We can’t talk to the fellers, they are all dead, so are their children, but their efforts live on in the remains of their fences. Are we to ignore this immense and expensive store of evidence, indicating where the homesteaders understood the section and section subdivision lines to be? BLM’s 2009 Survey Manual says we are. At §6.19, 36, 41, 43-46 the manual uses the word "fence" 8 times, always followed by something like, "The surveyor has no authority to accept… fences as prima facie evidence…" (§6.41). To us descendants of homesteaders, this smells like claim jumping. (Idaho for Chad and Alberta for Linda.) Such claim jumpers might be chagrined at being confronted by drop kickers in the pages of the American Surveyor Magazine but they’ve had it comin’ a long time.

A Review Of Land Locators
Walt Coburn, the hero of Part 1, born in 1890, himself became a surveyor before launching a career as "the authentic western writer". His experience as a surveyor ranged from homestead claims in Montana, mining claims in Bisbee Arizona and a hydro project at Parker Arizona. This background, and his "word wrangling" abilities, made his accounts vivid, including his Part I account of a section subdivision survey by a Land Locator.

In Part I Walt Coburn referred to Charles Beard as his "Surveyor" but Mr. Beard’s actions were the much larger ones of a "Land Locator". Which were:
1. Identify the land still open for claiming;
2. Find and evaluate the land;
3. Transport the client to the land and show it to him;
4. If selected, survey the land and mark its boundaries;
5. Fill out the claim applications;
6. Accompany the client to the Land Office for filing.

To a homesteader the Locator’s greatest value was in "Identifying, Finding and Evaluating" unappropriated Federal land, but, where there was no livery stable, #3-Transportation-wasn’t far behind.

Nedra Sterry, in her book, When the Meadowlark Sings, page 124, writes of the latter situation: "I could never get Alton’s mother to tell about the early days, but Olaf was a talker. The hardest part, he said, was finding a horse and buggy to go out and look for their claim. He told of horses literally being driven to death, for it was hard to judge the distance in that flat and treeless plain."

We have an unexpected aid in dating fence wire. Apparently the first homesteaders saved their dollars by forgoing the galvanized option. Besides the considerable savings the ungalvanized wire was lighter (less freight) and much stronger (greater spans=fewer posts). This prevalence of ungalvanized wire (long since rusty) appears to hold true up to about the year 1910 after which it seems only the galvanized option was available.

To us the most endearing and enduring quality of the Land Locator is in #4, "surveying the land and marking its boundaries". In Part I, Charles Beard, with transit and chain, marked six 1/16th corners and 1 closing corner. Thus we might also refer to Charles Beard as a competent original surveyor, though his full capacity was that of a Land Locator.

A common remark often made to settlers by Registers and Receivers at the many GLO Land Offices was: "…the government office is not to tell the nature of the land nor its location…go see some of the land locators"3. This remark is at the same time a testimony to the necessity of Land Locators and the reliance of both the GLO and Homesteader upon them. In some things history does not repeat itself. We have no further need for Land Locators just as we have no need for Lewis and Clark, however, to lose our appreciation for the vast number of Land Locators and their accomplishments is to lose our perspective as retracement surveyors.

Even The Rectangular Land Survey System Did Not Function Without Land Locators
(to be developed in Part III)
We can learn by contrasting the land disposal systems of Canada, where impromptu Land Locators were apparently outl
awed and prosecuted4. The Canadian system provided government Land Guides and immigration halls-shelters-tents for the settlers. Such guides and shelters were sometimes too few and too late. Consequently we have this eye-opening letter from a Canadian settler: "There have been a good many claims taken in this district but they are all waiting for the (Dominion) surveyors…so that they can build on them. If the Government don’t soon get in here with the surveyors we will all leave here and go back to the States where the (land locators) have the claim staked out as soon as you file on it."

Some Settlers didn’t wait for the surveyors and paid the price. When the lines were finally run near Pincher Creek, Alberta, John Garnet found his expensive house split by a section line complete with road allowance5.

Whether in Canada or the U.S., never was there more surveying performed than during the land disposal programs, and in the U.S. one half of that original surveying was performed by local surveyors, usually in the form of ¼ lines by Land Locators. Much of the split within our profession spins from the BLM’s "if they don’t conform to current standards and regulations then off with their heads" attitude. Isn’t this rationale the very source of "pin cushion" corners?

How about the decision of 126 IBLA 361 (91-116) Yeargan v. BLM 6-19-1993, which parroted BLM’s 1973 Manual, in stating: "A lost corner is a point of a survey whose position cannot be determined, beyond reasonable doubt, from available evidence or testimony." Of course, NO collateral evidence can meet this standard. So, according to BLM’s parroting, hip-pocket court all missing section corners lacking direct evidence must be restored by full reliance upon numbers. This smells of Euclid’s "numbers are the ultimate reality"6 delusion.

Abraham Lincoln’s "Determination"
Let’s conclude this discussion with an analysis of the fabled, but seldom read, 1859 decision by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s 1859 method of subdividing a section was the same as that method first accepted by the GLO Surveyor General for the States of Illinois and Mississippi in a directive published in 1850. However, in 1854 the highly regarded William A. Burt published a book titled "A Key to the Solar Compass and Surveyor’s Companion", in which Judge Burt directed that the center of the section AND missing section corners were to be determined by distances, not bearings. This was the old "distances have priority over bearings" ploy.

Whereupon the GLO in 1857 reversed their directive and parroted Judge Burt. The boys in Illinois and Mississippi were bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball and sought relief in 1859 from Mr. Lincoln, an active but out-of-office Republican politician, to determine the issue. His astute, but less than conclusive, answer follows:

"…I think the true rule for dividing into quarters, any interior section, or section which is not fractional, is to run straight lines through the section from the opposite quarter section corners, fixing the point where such straight lines cross, or intersect each other, as the middle, or center of the section.

Nearly, perhaps quite, all the original surveys are to some extent erroneous, and in some of the sections, quite so. In each of the latter, it is obvious that a more equitable mode of division than the above might be adopted; but as error is infinitely various, perhaps no better single rule can be prescribed."
–Abraham Lincoln January 6, 1859

Don’t get us wrong, we agree with and practice every point of Mr. Lincoln’s dissertation, but that is not the point. The point is that Lincoln’s dissertation was only a dissertation by a person who held no office at the time, and an unpopular, rejected dissertation it was too, if we are to take note of the hundreds of thousands of non-conforming monuments set since that time by both local and GLO surveyors. In their manual of 1881 the GLO switched back to Center 1/4’s at P.I.’s. However, for the next 30 years surveyors continued setting Center 1/4’s at midpoint, especially when the GLO used the 3 Mile Method.

It seems to us that the only thing unambiguous about the point for the center of a patented section is an existing ancient fence corner. Yet BLM, that house of claim jumpers, writes, at §3.137, that existing C1/4 corner monuments can be set aside where there was a departure from correct methods. We’re not talking here about 2014 monuments and fence corners; we’re talking about ancient 1878-1890’s fence corners.

Thus BLM gives a double evil eye to fence corners, then preaches to us about the "fundamental law of original corner s" at §5-29. Go figure. 

Coming Soon–Part III Claim Jumping Surveyors Meet Drop Kickers

1 Laying Down the Lines, by Judy Larmour, page 49.
2 Remember When, by Longeteig & Miller, page 88.
3 Ashland Tidings, Ashland, Oregon June 27, 1912.
4 The Morning Oregonian, January 28, 1914.
5 Lines, ibid, pages 87 & 89.
6 Numerology: Or, What Pythagoras Wrought, by Underwood Dudley, 1997, all of it. Also, The Einstein Theory of Space-Time Without Mathematics, by Samuel K.K. Blankson, 2006, page 87 & 88.

Chad & Linda are avid sleuths of the history of surveys and monuments. Linda says, "The more we know of the Metes and Bounds states the more we will understand the future of PLS states." Chad & Linda would appreciate research suggestions:

A 5.481Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE