Guest Column: Commemorating the Louisiana Purchase Survey
It began with an “oath of values,” a common practice in 1815 when the field crews for the survey of the Louisiana Purchase were sworn in and began the rigorous work of defining the Initial Point for the survey.
The original field books uncovered in the State Land Commissioner’s vault in the State Capitol Building in Little Rock, Ark., tell the story of the creation of the fifth Principal Meridian, its Base Line and their intersection known as the Initial Point.
On Oct. 27, 1815, two deputy surveyors swore in their chainmen and markers “to well and faithfully to perform the duties of a chainmen [or marker] according to the instructions I give you, to the best of your judgment, so help you God.”
Setting the Grid Lines
Deputy Surveyor Joseph C. Brown had come down the Mississippi River to the mouth of the St. Francis River. Per his instructions he blazed a line due west for 39 miles ending in the East Edge of the White River bottoms on Nov. 4. On Nov. 25, he headed back east to the Initial Point, which by that time had been established. The Initial Point location was passed on Nov. 2 at 26 miles. His crew wanted to return east to look for the other crew. After they rested for a few days, Brown continued the Base Line to the Arkansas River in the center of the state.
Prospect K. Robbins took a boat down the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Arkansas River. From there he blazed a line due north for almost 58 miles, creating the fifth Principal Meridian. He intersected the Base Line on Nov. 10 in a bottom land swamp. The thick trees apparently made the Base Line visible enough to see. Surveyor Brown would return days later and insert into his notes the location of the intersection. After a brief rest, the Robbins crew continued the fifth Prime Meridian to the Missouri River in the Missouri Territory.
Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Committee
The story is being told and the event commemorated with a large sculpture because of the work of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Committee in Arkansas. With the financial blessing of the state legislature and the leadership of Secretary of State Sharon Priest, the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Committee of Arkansas began meetings in 1998. Ivan Hoffman, PS, was president of the Arkansas Society of Professional Surveyors (ASPS) and appointed Bill Ruck as its representative to the committee. ASPS and its current president, James Aunspaugh, have provided valuable support to the committee. Chairman John Gill, a Little Rock attorney, and Sharon Priest have continued to serve the committee in various roles for the last 18 years.
- A number of history teaching aids were provided to schools and the public, plus a Speaker’s Bureau of knowledgeable surveyors was established.
- A three-day walk along the Base Line from the Mississippi River to the Louisiana Purchase State Park at the Initial Point was arranged involving more than 20 people — many of them experts in various technical fields. The Journal of the Second Base Line Expedition was later published to record their observations.
- The Arkansas Educational TV Network (AETN) explored the history of Arkansas since the Louisiana Purchase in a documentary produced by accomplished producer Larry Foley entitled “It All Started Here.”
A Fitting Design and Site
The final project addressed by the committee was a monument to the early surveyors. A public selection process was initiated through public advertisement. Michael Warrick (University of Arkansas at Little Rock) and Aaron Hussey (Baton Rouge) were selected to produce and install the sculpture.
These sculptors have created works in the U.S. and abroad. However, logistics on this project were challenging. The bronze casting equipment was at the University in Little Rock, while Hussey’s stainless steel fabrication shop is located in Baton Rouge. The plan was complicated by floods in Louisiana in 2016, which flooded Hussey’s residence — a major slowdown in his part of the work.
The initial site for the sculpture was to be in the center of the intersection of Capitol Avenue at Cross Street. However, a local city board member and advocate of public art, Dr. Dean Kumpuris, M.D., influenced the selection of a superior site at the front door of the Little Rock Convention Center. Adjacent and immediately to the north is a flourishing outdoor sculpture park on the Arkansas River in the historic Little Rock downtown area. The public visibility was far superior to the other site.
Only one major problem at this site affected its installation — the basement of the convention center extends below the sidewalk to the curb line. Therefore, the planned tall cylindrical base was eliminated in favor of a load-bearing slab. The Little Rock Public Works Department provided design and installation of the slab under the direction of Jon Honeywell, PE. The rest of the design remained exactly as conceived, making it the second largest glass sculpture in the United States.
The sculpture cost more than $200,000 and was paid for using a large share of private funds to supplement the funds remaining in the Louisiana Purchase Committee account. Those contributing $10,000 or more were granted a bronze plaque on the base of the monument.
A Winning Design
Warrick and Hussey incorporated appropriate symbolism into the sculpture recognizing that the surveyors had indeed accomplished their task.
The plumb bob lies casually on its side on the earth-like surface, lying on the ground as though at the end of a long day’s work.
The clear glass circle, absolutely flat, illustrates that the grid divides the land all the way to the Canadian border.
A Jacob’s staff is plunged in an obvious, one-handed skew as one might do at the end of a long day’s work. Indeed, the grid was established by Brown and Robbins.
An organized globe rises up with the embedded stainless steel curves of latitude and longitude they laid out. The geometry involved in “squaring up a round world” with only a compass and an ax is exemplified. The lines all cross “perpendicular” to one another, but on a globe the convergence of the meridians dictates that no right angles actually exist. The sculpture’s name, “Straight Lines on a Curved World,” indicates the difficulty they encountered as they constructed at small scale the geometric reality faced at full scale by all geodetic surveyors.
The scale of the tools indicates the importance of the work. Indeed, the monuments they set are monumental in world history. The greatest nation the world has ever known was expanded by the work of the GLO surveyors, which enabled settlement and expansion.
The witness trees they marked still bear witness to the wisdom of this American plan.
The oath of truthfulness taken by every surveyor and their crew, a professional tenet, was required by all.
A noble experiment in governance was facilitated by the surveyors. They paid a great price — exposure, lack of food, heat and cold, rain and snow, disease and accidents, and indian attacks — all far from the civilized world. They became their own pack animals as they carried food and tools on their backs. They had no cabin to go home to — a tree to sleep against in the worst or a crude canvas shelter at best. Wild game and beans sometimes provided protein. Flour and water mixed in a small basin was baked on an open fire for bread. Guided by a compass and an occasional check on the North Star, sheer determination to finish kept them going as the winter winds bore down.
These scraggly men of science finished their assignments. The fifth Prime Meridian took Robbins northward toward home and the Colombia River. Brown took the Base Line to the Arkansas River near the central Arkansas landmark known as “the Little Rock.” It is marvelous that this generation is choosing to memorialize the value and sacrifice of those who came before.