Survey Valley

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The Sandhills region of Nebraska is known, above ground, for its hay and cattle production and, below, for the vast amounts of pure water in the Ogallala Aquifer. It is home to the Kinkaid Act of 1904 which increased the longstanding 160-acre homestead to an entire 640-acre section of free land. The Homestead Act of 1862 failed to bring a substantial number of settlers to the area and those who did come in the late 1800’s found that the land would not produce crops. Cattlemen accustomed to spreading their herds across vast areas of fenceless land were not sorry to see the early homesteaders leave. The Kinkaiders, however, were a new breed of people who decided they could succeed with more advanced farming methods and with supplies much easier to obtain due to the arrival of the railroads.

The original surveys in much of the Sandhills region contain some of the worst fraud in all of the Public Land Survey System. Completing contracts with the General Land Office in the 1870-80’s, deputy surveyors routinely compiled fictitious notes, knowing their work most likely would go unchecked. Monuments built in sand could disappear almost overnight even if the pits and mounds were constructed properly. (See The American Surveyor January/February 2005). After the initial surveying, there were few surveyors in the area to properly find existing monuments to assist homesteaders in occupying their properties. Instead, "land locators" living in the region performed the role of a surveyor, but in reality knew just enough to make the situation worse. When interior section corners could not be found, it is highly suspected that the "land locators" created monuments to resemble original government pits and mounds. Once created, the monuments invariably evolved to become the accepted corners no matter how far off they were in position. When the initial wave of homesteaders left, ranchers reportedly removed many of the stakes to discourage settlement a second time. Two decades later, the Kinkaiders poured in and the land locators were once again eager to assist them.

Between the first wave of homesteaders and the Kinkaiders, a railroad boom in the 1890’s had the Pacific Short Line Railroad seeking to extend their line from O’Neill, Nebraska, westward to Ogden, Utah. This route was hoped to rival the Union Pacific’s transcontinental line further south. Finding a passage through the Sandhills was not an easy task due to the rugged terrain in this area. Grading would be difficult where few natural valleys could be found. In southwestern Cherry County, however, surveyors discovered an east-west valley extending for over 40 miles. The location later became known as "Survey Valley". Despite surveying the route, the railroad was never built through this area.

The increase in population brought by the Kinkaiders, a need for additional post offices so that residents did not have to travel upwards of 40 miles to the nearest town for mail. The United States Post Office devised a plan for individual houses to serve as community post offices and a resident of the house to serve as postmaster. Typically, a room in the designated house was set aside for mail purposes. A postal cancellation in the form of a hand stamp was used to cancel the mail. A carrier would travel by horse and wagon to these house post offices from a distant town several times a week to pick up and deliver the mail. On January 19, 1909, a post office was set up in Survey Valley at the home of John C. Jones and aptly given the name "Survey". Early maps show the location of Survey, Nebraska, as if it was an actual town. This post office moved to four different houses, but always remained in the same general area until it was closed on June 30, 1934.

Conflicts between homestead boundaries were as numerous as the homesteaders themselves. The land locaters rarely went to the outer township In 1946, the U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey established a lines to find existing triangulation station in the area and aptly named it "SURVEY". monuments to define the interior sections properly. They never left the area without Between the first wave of homesteaders defining the homestead, whether right or and the Kinkaiders, a railroad boom in the wrong. Their work was not recorded except 1890’s had the Pacific Short Line Railroad for their own personal files. This became a seeking to extend their line from O’Neill, huge source of frustration for the county Nebraska, westward to Ogden, Utah. This surveyors who diligently tried to sort out route was hoped to rival the Union Pacific’s which monuments were legitimate and transcontinental line further south. Finding which ones were falsified. Landowners, who a passage through the Sandhills was not an didn’t want to have their improvements moved to the correct locations, often gave testimony that the corners used by land locators were original government monuments. They knew that these corners held in a court of law.

By 1910, the federal government was directly involved with many resurveys and Survey Valley had lived up to its name. The General Land Office was first tasked with trying to recreate the interior sections of a particular township and to make a determination as to what corners were original and which ones were not. After the interior sections were recreated, often with grossly skewed lines, the task of surveying the individual homesteads began. The government decided the bona fide rights of the homesteaders could not be infringed upon even if their improvements were not located where the legal description said they should be. The GLO developed a system of tracts, beginning with number 37, within a resurveyed township. These numbered tracts recreated the homestead lines with the intent to establish the correct number of acres with little regard to where they existed legally. Diagonal lines often superseded cardinal directions to obtain the correct acreage and to bring agreement in boundaries between adjacent landowners. Iron pipes with bronze caps were placed at the corners of tracts and known as angle points. The caps were stamped with lines showing the direction of the tract boundaries with the letters AP followed by the tract number. Some land owners failed to agree resulting in overlapping tract boundaries with no resolution.

By the 1930’s, most of the Kinkaiders left the area and the large ranchers began purchasing these tracts to expand their ranches since a herd required a large area to be sustained on Sandhills grass. A one-room country school was located about 500 yards from the Survey Post Office and was named the "Survey School" by local residents. In 1946, the U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey brought their triangulation network to the area and established one of their stations on a hilltop near Survey Valley in T29N-R38W. Because these markers were usually named for a nearby landowner, town, or other feature, the geodetic surveyors chose the name "SURVEY" for this station.

The U. S. Geological Survey finally reached the area in the 1980’s to produce their 7.5-minute topographic quad sheets for one of the remaining areas of Nebraska. Over a century had passed since the land was first surveyed by the GLO, which indicated how little priority was placed on getting this area adequately mapped. A one-lane sand road, known as Survey Valley Road, passes through the area and serves as a cutoff between Highway 61 and Highway 27 to connect the sparse ranches.

In 2013, area residents funded a historical sign placed along Highway 61 near the entrance to Survey Valley Road to bring awareness to the significance of the area. Few surveyors venture into this area today because landowners tend to agree on existing fence locations and accept what is bought and sold without having to prove that boundary lines and fences coincide. Many of the angle point monuments placed on the corners of the tracts in the 1910’s are still scattered across the hills with little significance because the same owner often owns many of the separate tracts now combined into the large ranches.

Jerry Penry is a licensed land surveyor in Nebraska and South Dakota. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

A 6.672Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Jerry Penry, PS

Jerry Penry has been surveying for 34 years, is licensed in Nebraska and South Dakota, and has been employed with Lancaster County Engineering for 21 years. He is also serving his second term on the Board for the Professional Surveyors Association of Nebraska.