“At the corner point…”

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Not far into the history of the PLSS surveys, the General Land Office had to address the issues of perpetuation of evidence of corner points set previously. In early surveys we can see circumstances where the GLO crew found a previously monumented corner, and simply left it alone. Early on, the requirement to establish accessories (bearing trees and objects) was added to ensure the position of a corner would stand a better chance to survive.

The GLO assumed that local surveyors, primarily county surveyors, would go about the business of perpetuating corner evidence. And in some states, they did an excellent job of this. And sadly, after this huge investment in land tenure infrastructure, some states did not step up to the plate. Further, when the corner monument was simply a wood post, it had less than a fair chance to survive 200 plus years.

As the system evolved, the idea of perpetuation turned more into active remonumentation. Beginning in the early 1900’s, especially where a wood post, marked stone, or mound of earth was the monument, GLO referenced the position, and then replaced it with an iron post and brass cap. A great idea.

But as many of you have experienced, oftentimes GLO did not destroy or bury the original mark, thus leaving two monuments showing at a place of one single corner position. In a measurement system which was to the nearest link, perhaps they thought it would not matter about a foot or two of "confusion". In many cases, they actually stated that they set the iron post "alongside" the stone.

The practice at BLM, and as was taught in the CFedS program, is to read the notes for the remonumentation effort, and to pay close attention to the term "…at the corner point…." to get your signal as to which of the monuments was actually at the corner point. In most cases, the notes clearly said the new monument was at the corner point, not the original monument; implying that the original had been moved out of the true position. Thus, the rebuttable presumption has always been the newer monument occupied the corner point.

Disturbing Policy Letter
But an interesting, if not disturbing, letter in the GLO’s archives reveals a very different plan was in effect. In a letter dated April 20, 1916, from D.K. Parrett, Acting Assistant GLO Commissioner, written to Mr. Ernest P. Rands, Assistant Supervisor of Surveys, Portland, Oregon stated:

You will also make provision in these supplemental instructions for the perpetuation in their true position of all original corners that serve to define the boundaries of the resurveyed sections or of claims that have to be defined by metes and bounds, by establishing alongside of them iron posts as accessories, leaving the old original corners intact. The original corners must not be destroyed except when an independent resurvey is authorized, and then only when they will be of no further service, in which case they must first be tied by course and distance to a corner of the resurvey.

This letter goes on to clearly say the iron posts were intended to be accessories to the original corner, and to be tied by bearing and distance to the true point. The letter chides those surveyors who just set the brass cap alongside and fail to state its relationship to the original position. This author has never seen any bearing and distance tie given from a brass cap to the corner position.

This, of course, is quite opposite what most of us have assumed and been taught over the years in our PLSS work. And as with most things in the PLSS, there were probably some districts/state offices that followed the rule, and others that did not, or left it up to the Deputy in the field. This revelation certainly adds to the confusion and uncertainties in our corner evidence recovery efforts to this day.

When it comes to boundary law and procedures, anyone having a set of black and white rules is a foolish and dangerous surveyor. Clearly, it would not be safe to say "the new monument is always the corner", or the opposite. I have written on this topic as a number of fellow-surveyors working in the upper Midwest have been struggling with this and similar policies.

Additional Evidence Analysis needed
What this information leads us to is the need to perform a little more analysis of our situations in the field. Which monument is the true corner position? Is one an accessory to the other, or just placed alongside the original position, or a true remonumentation? It appears that sometimes a careful reading of the notes is not sufficient.

A basic analysis would include these ideas:
1. It is probably safe to assume that any one Deputy Surveyor or GLO surveyor operated within the same procedures within a given township.
2. Is there anywhere in the township, or on your project, where there are definitive traditional accessories? To which monument do they refer?
3. In locations with consistent terrain and very close relationships exist between the GLO record and your measurements, do they identify a preference on which evidence to use?
4. Are there other evidence ties which might isolate the answer, such as buried memorials, very close and reliable topographic calls, or ties to unchanged cultural features (fences, structures, wells, etc.) that would sway you to one position or the other?
5. Does the original monument look undisturbed, not upside down, are the marks are properly oriented per the record?
6. Absent any of these, you must come to a solution, and you must make it a public record so we will all know what you did.

It would seem that the rebuttable presumption mentioned above would still stand; absent clear direction that the iron post is an accessory, with bearing and distance ties, one should use the iron post. But a black and white "one size fits all" answer will never suffice.

We are still creating this chaos
In some parts of the country, professional surveyors are still potentially adding to this chaos. When they come across an original monument they drive their rebar and cap alongside. We should examine this practice carefully, as it has the potential to cause uncertainty as to the true corner position. Why is this done?

1. Some set it to have a definitive location to which they measure. This practice creates an anomaly with the original corner.
2. Some set it to simply say "hey, I was here and found this corner". This may seem innocent enough, but does it potentially confuse future retracers, landowners, fence builders, and the general public? Many untrained survey techs see the rebar before the broken stone or rotted remains of the wood post; thus shooting the wrong point.
3. Others set it to "validate" the original position/evidence. While this seems a good idea, one must wonder why some PLS’s rebar is needed to validate the GLO evidence? This practice comes closer to that of a dog marking his territory; "hey, I was here and this corner is now really official because I said so".
4. And others claim that setting this new monument is to help perpetuate the corner. If the rebar is set within a foot or two of the GLO position, one will probably be disturbed at the same time as the other due to development or construction.
5. As an absolute minimum, if we are doing this, are we recording a plat/ monument record that clearly says which monument is the corner? This author has seen many of these where a record is filed, and no mention is made of the rebar and its relationship to the corner.

A better way to perpetuate
If our desire (and professional obligation) is to perpetuate, what can we do? First, let’s not add additional confusing evidence unless it is truly an accessory. And good accessories are at a different location than next to the corner itself. This helps prevent the double monument situation we have discussed above. Accessories exist to help perpetuate the original position by being carefully measured to the corner point but at a distance where most natural or manmade damage would be negligible.

While not every original stone or other evidence requires "upgrading", we should look at the pros and cons of this. Many states require the surveyor to remonument all original evidence with new monuments and new accessories. This is a great policy. And if your state does not require this, you should do it anyway. It is fundamental to who we are and what we do. Some remonumentation is needed because the existing evidence is fading.

Some perpetuations need to be done due to impending construction. But we should understand that the general public, the users of our data, are relying on the mark as a clear and definitive location; and much of the public does not recognize the wood post, stone, or other evidence. Witness the number of times you have found the section corner stone hanging in a fence to hold it down over a small drainage. I found a wood post used as a fence post, quite some distance from where the corner was found to be. Since the users of our data are more inclined to recognize a rebar with a cap as some sort of survey evidence, we should strive to replace most original evidence upon our discovery of it.

But wherever you stand in all of this discussion, the single most important thing you can do is make a public record that completely tells the story of your visit. Don’t leave us in chaos.

Once you have found and used original GLO evidence, future surveyors should never have to wonder what evidence is actually "at the corner point".
Dennis J. Mouland is a nationally known speaker, educator, and consultant. In addition to teaching boundary law subjects at the University of Wyoming and Oklahoma State University, he is the President of Witness Tree Consulting, based in northern Arizona.

A 2.820Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE