Surveyor General Instructions

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Francois D. "Bud" Uzes

Several published books contain reprints of early public lands surveying instructions. The preface in one points out that despite diligent efforts, there can be no guarantee about the completeness of any compilation. The possibility of additional instructions being uncovered in the future is fully recognized.

Two additional sets of unknown instructions have surfaced in recent years. A handwritten document entitled Instructions for District Surveyors, 1819, From Edward Tiffin, Surveyor General of the United States, was offered for private sale in 1992 in the eastern United States. The original source of this document and its present whereabouts are unknown. The information supplied here is based upon a photocopy of the original text.

Scarcely had the impact of the new Tiffin material faded when another set of early instructions came to light. This time it was an original printed and bound copy of the General Instructions to his Deputies; by the Surveyor General of the United States, for Wisconsin and Iowa, Dubuque, 1840. Remarkably, it is complete with instructional text, specimen field notes, and the rarely seen sample township plat. The copy is personally signed by George W. Jones, Surveyor General, and was presented to John Bannister, Deputy Surveyor, on Oct. 24th, 1840. The book made its appearance at a Minnesota bookstore auction in 1997.

It is beyond the scope of this article to give full particulars on the two sets of early instructions. What is done is to compare each to its closest reprinted counterpart.

1819 Instructions

The 1819 instructions by Edward Tiffin are similar to ones he issued in 1815. That set has been reprinted several times and copies are readily available. The principal differences between the two are that the 1819 edition is rearranged and shortened. The sentence structure in the 1819 version is sometimes changed, and some paragraphs are relocated to better fit the overall arrangement. The 1815 instructions dealing with the "Method by which to calculate the Northern and Western tier of fractional quarter sections" are entirely removed.

Some other changes are worth noting. In subdividing a township under the 1815 instructions, the Deputy Surveyor is directed to start at the southeast corner of the township and proceed west along the south line of Section 36 to the ¼ corner, and then on to the corner to Sections 35 and 36. This is wasted effort because in theory that line was previously run during the survey of the exteriors. The 1819 instructions eliminate the duplication by beginning the subdivision survey at the south corner to Sections 35 and 36. Another change is the requirement to set meander corners, which is not present in the 1815 edition. Also new is the building of mounds when corners fall in prairies and there are no trees suitable for bearing trees.

A changed word between the 1815 and 1819 versions is somewhat intriguing. In discussing watercourses, the 1815 version refers to those "navigable, rapid or mountainous." The 1819 instructions use the wording "navigable, rapid or otherwise."

1840 Instructions

George W. Jones, Surveyor General for Wisconsin and Iowa, issued instructions in 1840 for the survey of the public lands in that district. They are very similar to, and in most cases repeat word for word, the 1833 Surveyor General’s instructions for the states of Ohio, Indiana, and the Territory of Michigan. The 1833 instructions are reprinted in the book, A History of the Rectangular Survey System, by C. Albert White, 1982. Unfortunately, that copy is missing the specimen field notes and sample township plat. The differences between the two instructions are mostly deletions of some of the earlier extraneous material, including remarks on the movement of the line of no magnetic variation. Locations and dates also differ to reflect the changed district and time frame.

It is interesting to note that in both the 1833 and 1840 instructions, the method for determining the variation of the compass is "extracted from Flint’s Treatise on Surveying." It is stated as perhaps "the most convenient and best adapted to the service in the field."

The 1840 Wisconsin and Iowa instructions were replaced by ones issued in 1846. The newer version is reprinted in White’s book, although portions of the specimen field notes are omitted and the sample township plat is again missing. The 1846 surveying instructions are completely rewritten from those issued in 1840, but there are similarities in portions of the specimen field notes for subdivision surveys. The two differ in slightly changed dimensions to the same line objects, and in the number of topographic details included. The 1840 subdivision notes generally contain more information than their successor. The inclusion of other types of notes varies considerably, however. The 1846 notes include the running of township lines, which are not present in the 1840 version. The reverse situation exists for private claim notes, which only appear in the earlier set.

These two rare finds were made only after government and other archival repositories had been checked and rechecked over a 50-year period by a number of dedicated researchers. This raises the hope that even more old government survey instructions may come to light.



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