Field to Finish—Perpetuating the GLO Notes into the 21st Century

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In their book `Legal Principles of Boundary Location for Arkansas’, Elgin and Knowles (pg 71) make reference to Clark’s book "A Treatise of the Law of Surveying and Boundaries". Here, the authors quote Clark in regards to the function of the surveyor. They end their quote with the sentence "He must track the footsteps of the first". This phrase, sometimes restated as "follow in the footsteps of the original surveyor" or simply "follow in the footsteps", has come to be accepted as a fundamental doctrine of boundary surveying. As such, the surveyor must utilize all of his/her assets that are available in order to walk in those original footsteps from bygone days. In fact, the current Arkansas Standards of Practice for Property Boundary Surveys and Plats requires that in performing a boundary survey, the surveyor should locate the "field notes and plats of the original government survey…." (pg 5). The reasoning for obtaining both the field notes and plats is because they are inseparable. That is, the plat, when originally created by the cartographer in the Surveyor Generals Office, was developed using the field notes that were made by the deputy surveyors during their time in the field (US Congress, 1796; Robillard et al, 2009). Collectively then, this field note and plat combination is an indispensable resource for the licensed land surveyor and a fundamental component of the USPLSS (U.S. Public Land Survey System). In fact, as noted in the BLM Manual (2009), these notes and plats are considered part of the patent when the land was originally conveyed from the Federal Government (Chps 5-6). In spite of this fact, accessing the original and transcribed field notes and plats can be, at times, difficult. Though many surveyors have practiced the art of alchemy by converting original field notes into a tangible document, that art is rapidly becoming more difficult with time and technology.

To address this difficulty, land surveying students and faculty at the University of Arkansas at Monticello began consolidating the field notes and plats into a comprehensive database through a two-phase project that was funded by the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands (ACOSL) and Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office (AGISO). The first phase of the work was to georeference the original GLO (General Land Office) plats to a common coordinate system and datum (UTM zone 15; NAD83). In total, 1,716 plats were eventually georeferenced to the township and range corners for Arkansas and provided to the AGISO for public access (Figure 1 ).

This work represented the initial step in providing statewide coverage of the original GLO plats in a downloadable format. The next step involved converting all of the transcribed field notes into a digital multipage pdf (portable document format) that would be geospatially linked to a polygon dataset representing the PLSS, which is now available for download from the Arkansas Division of Land Surveys website (www.

However, before discussing the processes that were taken for this conversion, it seems appropriate to `walk in the footsteps’ of the field notes. That is, to see how the field notes were transformed from the hand-written notes of the 19th Century to the neatly typed transcribed notes of the 20th century to the digital conversion that is helping to perpetuate the field notes into the 21st Century.

The GLO Notes in the 19th Century
In the fall of 1815, the largest land survey to occur within the United States Public Land Survey System (U.S. PLSS) was begun. This survey was the beginning of the survey of the Louisiana Purchase, which had been acquired by the United States twelve years earlier in 1803. The call for this survey was due to the need to pay for war debts that the United States had incurred during the War of 1812 as well as compensate the soldiers that had participated in the conflict. As such, a motion was made in Congress to set aside certain lands in order to be surveyed so that they would generate revenue for the young country. When the government began devising a way to systematically survey the land for distribution, Edward Tiffin, Surveyor General, proposed that a baseline be surveyed west from the mouth of the St. Francis River, while Josiah Meigs, commissioner of the GLO (General Land Office), suggested that a principal meridian be surveyed north from the mouth of the Arkansas River (White, 1991) (Figure 2). Shortly thereafter, Tiffin took these proposed locations and composed a list of nine instructions that were eventually sent to William Rector (Principal Deputy Surveyor for the territory of Arkansas at the time. Tiffin would later codify these instructions along with more detailed instructions into what would come to be known as `Tiffins Instructions’.

While these were not the first set of written instructions to be provided to land surveyors, (Jared Mansfield’s "General Instruction to Deputy Surveyors" is credited with that distinction) Tiffin’s instructions are noteworthy because they were the first set of instructions to be issued on a general basis (Robillard et al, 2006). Prior to this, as Robillard, Wilson and Brown point out, surveyors were issued instructions either "by letter or word". One can only assume at the quality and comprehension of the "letter or word" once it had passed through countless hands to its eventual destination, the surveyor in the field.

Nevertheless, Tiffin’s instructions would serve as the model for the systematic method of surveying the public lands, with slight modifications, for the United States which would eventually be carried out in nearly all of the states west of the Mississippi River (Texas and Hawaii have the distinction of being the only two states west of the Mississippi River that do not utilize the PLSS system for subdividing land (Figure 3).

For the Arkansas Surveyor, Tiffin’s nine instructions originally sent to Rector are significant because he outlined specifically what was to be done (survey two million acres of land) and where the job was to begin (at the confluences of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers and the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers). In just two sentences, the basis for the PLSS in Arkansas along with countless other states was established. Nevertheless, the seven remaining instructions are just as important. In fact, these remaining seven instructions would eventually provide the surveyor with the necessary information to begin the job of surveying the lands located between "the Rivers St. Francis, and Arkansas" and eventually other lands that utilize the PLSS (Tiffin, 1815; BLM, 2009).

In regards to the field notes, closer inspection of Tiffin’s 6th Instruction is significant in that it required that the surveyor to not only review his work to see that it was "done agreeable" but to also "return it certified to the Office of the Surveyor General" so that the notes and plats would be "bound in a book" (Tiffin, 1815). The `it’ referred to in this sentence is in reference to the field notes. It should be pointed out that this instruction was a slight modification of the original instructions found in the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, whereby the plats and the `report’ (i.e. the fieldnotes) would be submitted to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for the purpose of binding them into a book. (U.S. Statutes, 1933)

At the time of Tiffin’s instructions, surveys that were to be conducted within the area that would later become Arkansas reported to the Office of the Surveyor General which was located in the Missouri Territory at St. Louis. Later on it would be the Little Rock office that the notes would be submitted to. It would be these offices that the deputy surveyors field notes would be sent so that they could be used to draw the official plat of the land. Recalling the Act of May 10, 1800, it was the responsibility of the Surveyor General to supply copies of these plats and notes to the Secretary of the Treasury and the surrounding land offices so that they could then be used to eventually sell the lands to the general public. This process of sending the field notes back to the Surveyor General’s office was to continue until the survey of the public lands was complete. It was then in 1853 when a federal act was passed that set a provision for all GLO plats and field notes be transferred to the respective states once all public land surveys were completed in that state. In addition to allowing for the transfer of these legal documents from Federal to State possession, it also required that, in order for this transfer to occur, each state had to create a provision which designated an office that would accept and retain the copies for future use to the public. For Arkansas, this provision was accomplished with Act 20 of 1868 which allowed for the creation of the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands office (ACOSL, n.d.). It was this office that would eventually receive the original plats and field notes from the federal government, and to this day is the custodian of these invaluable documents (ACA 22-5-208).

The GLO Notes in the 20th Century
As with everything though, time takes its toll and with turn of the century in 1900, the original field notes and plats were approaching old age. By the 1930’s many of these original documents were over 100 years old and were in need of repair. As fate would have it, the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression and with it brought the creation of the WPA (Works Projects Administration). It was the women of the WPA that transcribed the original field notes into the typed documents that professional surveyors still use today (Young, 1986). As Larry Young pointed out in his article, the ladies that were employed by the WPA were of varying ages, but were also committed to performing a task that has “lasting value” (Young, pg 13). This lasting value can be seen when one compares the original handwritten notes with the transcribed notes (Figure 4). Many surveyors have come to rely on these transcribed notes because of the immense challenge in trying to interpret the hand-written notes.

The ladies of the WPA project performed a task that is commendable for the effort applied in both reading and typing these historical documents. Nevertheless, while the surveyor is challenged with interpreting the hand written notes, he/she is familiar with the terminology and abbreviations that one typically sees within the notes. This was not the case with the ladies of the WPA. Many of them were unfamiliar with the terminology as noted by Larry Young’s interview with Mrs Elaine Weir Cia when she stated “One lady told me to just type it as best I could, even if it did not make sense.” (Young, 1986). As a result, there are instances within the transcribed notes that are not as reliable as the original hand written notes (Fig 04). This is because some of the ladies of the WPA project were unfamiliar with the terminology that was used by the 19th surveyor or simply because the writing was illegible even for the most astute eye. It should also be pointed out that these are compared copies, not certified copies, of the original handwritten notes. For them to be considered a certified copy, someone would have certified that these notes were indeed identical to the original handwritten notes. In spite of these discrepancies, these transcribed copies are still a valuable source of information for the practicing surveyor.

Similar to the concept of perpetuation of a land corner, these typed notes could be viewed as the perpetuation of the written words of those original surveyors from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was then in the early 1980’s that the GLO notes were once again updated. At that time, the recently elected land commissioner, Charlie Daniels, authorized for the creation of a digital compilation of the GLO notes and plats for the state in CD format. The final result of this work was the development of the Alchemy® Program and the multi-disk set that contained the GLO notes and plats (Figure 5). While innovative at the time, the regular changes in computer technology began to take its toll on the software.

When originally developed, Alchemy required the computer to have the Windows 95/98 operating system (Alchemy® System Requirements, n.d.). Over time and with regular updates and changes to the evolving computer operating systems, the software began to not be as user friendly as it was intended to be. As a result, efforts were initiated to once again, work on the perpetuation of these notes and plats into the 21st century.

The GLO Notes in the 21st Century
Today, the professional land surveyor as well as the general public has access to these original handwritten GLO notes as well as the transcribed copies, through the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands (ACOSL) website (http:/ / Here, the user is able to not only view, but also download copies of those original field notes and plats that described specific sections and Townships. Unfortunately, these copies are not bound. Recalling Tiffin’s 6th Instruction, upon completion of the survey, the field notes were to be submitted to the Office of the Surveyor General so that they would be bound in a book.

It was only a matter of time that a new mode for binding these notes would be proposed. This new method of binding was to utilize the files from the Alchemy® program as well as the files from the ACOSL website and digitally bind them into a single document for each township. Efforts to begin digitally rebinding these books was initiated in the Fall of 2014 by surveying students at the University of Arkansas at Monticello with the end goal having all of the transcribed boundary field notes and subdivision field notes converted into single multi-page pdf’s (portable document format) for each township.

Revisiting Tiffin’s Instruction Number 6
Attempting to consolidate the GLO field notes into a comprehensive database that is geo-spatially referenced is a daunting task. Consider this, within the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands database (http:/ /, there are 2,593 books that serve as the official record for the PLSS in Arkansas. Within those 2,593 books there are literally thousands upon thousands of pages of notes (over 60,000 pages). It is these vital notes that document all aspects of the lands of Arkansas from 1815 when Brown and Robbins began their trek through the swamps of Southeast Arkansas to the first half of the 20th century when other surveyors such as Lester Clement was performing his work along the shore of Moon Lake in T12N R09E. Unfortunately, accessing these vital and historic notes can be a daunting task all by itself. Although many of us are, or have been, practitioners of alchemy in the sense of transforming the GLO notes from disc into paper, this ability is beginning to disappear with the advent of newer computers and updated computer operating systems. Needless to say, there is a need to have access to these notes. They are part of the public record and serve as a key piece of evidence when conducting research for a land boundary survey.

The impetus for this effort is the continuation of a previous project that was spearheaded by the students and faculty at UAM in 2013. At that time, the emphasis was placed on georeferencing the original plats within a GIS environment. A GIS (Geographic Information System) is a powerful tool that allows one to store, process, analyze, and visualize data within a geospatial framework. Georeferencing is a process within the GIS by which an image with an unknown coordinate system (the original plat) is aligned with, and referenced to a corresponding image, in this case the PLSS shapefile, which has a known datum and coordinate system (NAD83, UTM Zone 15). After completion, each plat for each township was geospatially associated with its respective township corners. The result of the georeferencing process is an image that has a known coordinate system and can then be displayed in a reasonably correct geospatial position. For the 2013 work, a total of 1,716 plats were georeferenced (Post, 2013) resulting in complete coverage of Arkansas of the original GLO plats (Figure 1).

With the original plats georeferenced to a common coordinate system, the next logical step was to associate the transcribe GLO field notes (boundary and subdivision notes) with its corresponding township. The motivation for this work stemmed from the inability to download a single multi-page document of the GLO field notes that are associated with specific GLO plats. Although one may access the COSL’s website or the BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) website (http:/ / to search for survey plats and field notes, results from this work will for the first time, provide a georeferenced link for all of the transcribed GLO notes (boundary notes and subdivision notes) for the state of Arkansas.

For this second phase of the project, the students began a multi-step process which included converting images from one format to another, combining these files into a multi-page document that is also `searchable’ using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) algorithms and linking these documents to the PLSS shapefile.

Upon acquisition of the images of the transcribed notes, it became apparent that the notes needed to be converted into a format that was conformable to the .pdf standards. The images of the notes were in a .tiff (tagged image file format) or jpeg (joint photographic experts group) format. In order to create a pdf of the GLO notes, it was essential that these image formats be converted to a pdf format for eventual consolidation. Following the conversion of the image files, the software Adobe Acrobat Pro®, version 11 was used to combine the individual pages into one complete document. The final step of this process utilized the OCR tool within Adobe Acrobat. OCR is a method that allows for a computer to recognize text in a document and convert them into an editable document. The final result is a multi-page document that can be searched using the computer.

Following the creation of the multi-page pdf, the notes were then organized by townships and type of survey (boundary or subdivision). That is, a distinction needed to be made between the location of the notes and whether or not the notes were original boundary or subdivision notes or if they were a resurvey or dependent resurvey of either the boundary or subdivision. By separating the notes into the type of survey, the ability to geospatially associate this vast amount of data was accomplished, thereby providing the surveyor a way to locate the transcribed notes graphically and download the original as well as any resurvey notes (Figure 6).

With these processes completed, the files and associated datasets were submitted to the ACOSL and AGISO offices where the information was then uploaded to the AGISO server for publication to the Arkansas Division of Land Surveys website (surveyor. Today, users may visit the Division of Land Surveys website and click on the `GLO Link’ whereby he/she is taken to an interactive map that allows for the user to view the GLO plats along with the ability to view and download the transcribed notes for the boundary and subdivision notes for the townships of Arkansas. In addition to these documents, the website is still being updated with new dependent resurveys that are still being performed today.

Following the land surveys of the Louisiana Purchase, which began in 1815, the surveyor’s field notes were sent to GLO offices in Missouri for binding. These notes were then transcribed in the 1930’s to ensure the longevity of these priceless documents remain accessible. It is, once again, time that these notes be perpetuated so that the GLO notes are still accessible to the surveyor and the general public. Having converted the transcribed notes into a multi-page pdf and linked them to a geospatially referenced shapefile, the surveyor now has the ability to access to these primary sources via a geographic information system via the Division of Land Surveys website: It is hoped that this same process will be performed on the original hand written notes, thereby providing the surveyor access to both the original and transcribed notes of the PLSS in Arkansas.

In terms of the needs for the professional surveyor of today, the opportunity and need exists whereby the original GLO field notes can now be linked with the established spatially referenced GLO plat data thereby enhancing the surveyors ability to `track the footsteps of the first".

We are indebted to Ms. Nickki Heck at the ACOSL and Mr. Shelby Johnson and the staff at the AGISO for providing the funding for this work. Thanks must also be extended to Mr. Scott Lawrence and staff also at the ACOSL who generously provided digital copies of the transcribed field notes. Thanks is also given to Mr. Tom Webb and Leondard Gabbard for providing informative conversations on the history of the GLO within the State of Arkansas. Finally, thanks must be extended to the students Jeremy Plummer, Josh Jacobs and David McLelland for contributing to this work.

John Dennis, PhD, PS is a Surveying Instructor at University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) where he has taught both land surveying and GIS classes since 2014. Prior to joining the faculty at UAM, John was completing his doctoral degree in environmental dynamics and working in the private sector for several surveying firms in Arkansas.
Tom Jacobs, PS, is a Surveying Instructor at University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) where he has taught both surveying and forestry classes since 2006. He has been a licensed surveyor since 1983 and worked as a surveyor in private industry and as a consultant before coming to UAM.

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A 6.154Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE