The Moving Meridian and the True American Surveyor

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Between 1819 and 1929 the Texas ­ Oklahoma State Line, nicknamed the “moving meridian” would hold many positions. According to M.E. Melvin in the Chronicles of Oklahoma, this meridian was so bad it is said that the house of Mrs. Moss near Hollis, Oklahoma “…has not moved a foot, yet she has lived in one territory, two states and three counties.” The story of this Meridian, the land in which surrounds it and the surveyors who worked on it are to be comprehensively studied. More importantly this will begin a series of articles about the “True American Surveyor”, Samuel Stinson Gannett and his role as the State Line Boundary Retracement Specialist.

The Texas-Oklahoma State Line was originally described in 1819 between the Treaty of the United States and Spain commonly known as the Adams ­ Onis Treaty. Adams for John Quincy Adams and Onis for Luis de Onis y Gonzalez-Vara, the Secretary of State under President James Monroe and the Spanish foreign minister during the reign of King Ferdinand VII respectively. The treaty read “…the boundary line established between the two countries followed the course of the Red River westward to the 100th degree of West longitude…” and “…all as laid down in Melish’s map of the United States”. This ended up being the same description used in the 1828 Treaty between the United States and the United Mexican States. Not going into detail about the Melish map being geographically distorted, the first actual on the ground survey of the “moving meridian” was done by Captain George B. McClelland in 1852 and was grossly inaccurate to the extent of being upwards to fifty miles off and lying six miles East of the confluence of the North and South Fork of the Red River. This was just one of the surveys, or lack thereof, that created The Greer County Question by Webb Leonidus Moore. According to Melvin the instruments used by McClelland were “…imperfect instruments, and one of them broken…” McClelland was working under Captain R.B. Marcy and they were both directed by Major General Scott of the United States Army to explore the Red River and its surroundings. On May 29, 1852 McClelland determined his opinion of where the 100th Meridian was by using a pocket chronometer. He found a Cottonwood tree fifty feet off the water and marked it on all four sides.

The second survey of the “moving meridian” was to determine the line of a treaty between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians in 1855. This survey was started in 1859 at a position as determined by Daniel G. Major who was an astronomer for the Indian Boundary Surveys. Major established his position by studying the moon culminations over a span of three months. The point of beginning was a two foot tall, six foot diameter, pile of stones with a single large stone two and a half feet tall in the center. The stone had “100 w” cut into it. It shall be noted that this point of beginning was located on the North Bank of the South Fork of the Red River, more commonly known today as the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River. The meridian was then run North by A.H. Jones and H.M.C. Brown setting monuments every mile. Jones and Brown instantly knew they were way off the position that McClelland established and even made note of it and backed up their position in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on November 30, 1858.

The third survey was to determine the boundary line between the United States and Texas according to the Texas Act of 1854 and was done by John H. Clark. In 1859 Clark retraced, and agreed with, the Jones and Brown Survey. This survey was supposed to be a joint survey with Commissioners representing both the United States and Texas, with Clark representing the United States and William R. Scurry representing Texas. Part way through the survey personal differences got in the way and a fight broke out between surveyor John E. Weyss from the Clark party and Anson Mills from the Scurry party. In the end the Texas surveyors walked away. A new Texas group re-assembled, now led by Major William H. Russel, to mark their own opinion of the 100th Meridian. Here, the Texas party constructed a seven foot tall, fifteen foot diameter monument with a scribed wooden shaft in the center on the North bank of the North Fork of the Red River. Historically their actual location of the meridian line was never compared as the main, blatant, difference was the termination of said line. The argument instantly began in which branch of the Red River was intended to be described in the original Adams ­ Onis Treaty description and furthermore takes us back to the question of the location of Greer County. The distance between the North Fork of the Red River and the South Fork is approximately fifty miles in a North ­ South direction. Greer County was formed on February 8, 1860 by the Texas Legislature. This disputed area was eventually ruled upon by the Supreme Court to go to the United States or now the State of Oklahoma.

There were then four different government surveyors who retraced the Jones, Brown and Clark Survey between 1872 and 1875–all agreeing on the locale. Tensions grew between the United States and Texas and in 1892, because of Greer County, yet another survey of the “moving meridian” was ordered by Texas and done by Henry Smith Pritchett. The Pritchett Survey determined the meridian to be 3,797.3 feet east of the Jones, Brown and Clark Survey. Pritchett was a professor of Astronomy at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and eventually became the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pritchett performed his survey off a 4005.315′ long baseline near Childress, Texas and triangulated North and East to the Initial Monument as set by Daniel G. Major in 1859. According to Marcus Baker, in The Northwest Boundary of Texas, he determined longitude at Childress over “…three nights by an exchange of clock signals with the observatory at St. Louis…”. Latitude was determined “… by Talcott’s methods from observations of pairs of stars”. The baseline was run on “… the best available ground…” using a 300 foot calibrated steel tape.

Similar in fashion to the debate between Ohio and Michigan and the Toledo Strip the surveys were protested and yet another survey was ordered in 1902 by Arthur Kidder. The Kidder Survey determined the “moving meridian” to be 3,699.7 feet east of the Jones, Brown and Clark Survey and 97.6 feet west of the Pritchett Survey. Kidder was working for the Secretary of the Interior. Kidder placed his own Stone monument on the North Bank of the South Fork of the Red River. Also similar to Ohio and Michigan the Public Lands of Oklahoma were surveyed and sold based off the Jones, Brown and Clark Survey. Time passed and once again tempers flared, after yet another USC & G Survey in 1923. In 1927 the Supreme Court stepped in and ordered Samuel Stinson Gannett to determine the “moving meridian” once and for all.

Known as the “Gannett Line” he set the Meridian 340.28 feet east of the Kidder Survey, 242.68 feet east of the Pritchett Survey and 4039.98 feet east of the Jones, Brown and Clark Survey. This final survey was done, over a span of two years, under moonlight to eliminate the heat waves and in the end concrete monuments were set, on average, every 0.83 mile for a total of 160 monuments over 133.6 miles. This was all done off a series of 21 Geodetic Triangulation Control Stations stating by Melvin that “It is said to be the most scientifically accurate boundary line in the U.S.” Each Triangulation Station had a True East or West distance to the 100th Meridian. He also kept them close enough that if one of the state line monuments got disturbed it could easily be reset based on the tables in his report. The concrete monuments were in the shape of a conical frustum 36″ long, 8″ at the top and 14″ at the base. The concrete was molded in galvanized iron forms and placed in a concrete foundation of varying size–all with a bronze tablet in the top. According to Gannett in his report to the U.S. Supreme Court the line was run “… with a theodolite having a horizontal circle 8 inches in diameter graduated so as to read to 2″ of arc by two micrometer microscopes”. The distances were measured with a 300 foot steel tape at 20 pounds of tension that was checked every two days against a 300 invar tape. The biggest, permanent help Gannett had was his friend Eugene L. McNair. Other than that rodmen and chainmen were consciously hired equally from each State. This line, once complete, put an end to the “moving meridian” and was ruled upon by the Supreme Court on March 17, 1930 to be the true 100th meridian.

Joseph D. Fenicle, PS is the Chief Surveyor at the Office of the Fulton County Engineer in Wauseon, Ohio. Joe also owns Angular By Nature, LLC a company specializing in Continuing Professional Development for Surveyors and Engineers as well as offering Land Surveying Services across Ohio and Michigan. Joe lives outside of Sand Creek, Michigan on his own active farm with his wife and three young boys.

A 3.620Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Joseph D. Fenicle, MS, PS

Joseph D. Fenicle, MS, PS is a Professor at the University of Akron for its award-winning Surveying/Mapping program. Immediately prior, he was the Chief Surveyor at the Office of the Fulton County Engineer in Wauseon , Ohio for 15 years. He also owns Angular By Nature, LLC, a company specializing in Continuing Education for Surveyors and Engineers across the Nation. Joseph has a MS in Engineering Technology with a Surveying Engineering Technology Concentration from the University of Maine, a BS in Surveying/Mapping from the University of Akron and an AAS in GIS/GPS from Hocking College. He obtained his FAA license in 2019.