Divided by Determination

December 1, 2004
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The trials and tribulations of surveying in Texas in the 1800s.



"The Thing That Steals the Land." That was the name given to the surveyor's compass by Texas Indians in the mid-1800s. A box compass with peep sights mounted on a Jacob staff and a surveyor's chain were the tools early Texas surveyors used for running lines. A rifle, a pistol and a knife were the tools needed to survive on the job.

In the early days of Spanish rule, before 1821, after completing a survey for a settler who had obtained a land grant, the surveyor was required by Spanish law to point out each corner to the grantee and proclaim "in a loud voice" that the grantee was invested with the property bounded by the corners. A tree bearing the grantee's initials or a mound of dirt at least 3 feet high marked each corner. The grantee responded by "throwing rocks, shouting aloud, firing guns, and making other and sundry noises." While Texas was under Spanish rule, these activities were witnessed by the local alcalde, a representative of the king of Spain. After Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the ceremony was not strictly followed.

After the constitution of Coahuila and Texas went into effect in November of 1827, Stephen F. Austin, known to generations of Texas schoolchildren as the "Father of Texas," devoted himself to recruiting new immigrants and improving the system of surveying and allocating land. Up to that time, the Mexican system of distributing titles on loose pages was causing duplications and overlapping of boundaries. Austin obtained permission from the Mexican government to record titles in a bound volume, which were certified by a land commissioner and had the validity of the original. He directed the work of his surveyors, checked their field notes, allocated grants, and prepared titles and records. Under his management, the Mexican vara (33-1/3") and the cordel (50 varas) replaced land description terms such as "a slow horse ride to the west for two cigarette smokes," or "a half a day's walk." A method to speed up the surveying of prairie land was to tie a rag to a buggy wheel, drive over the lines following a magnetic compass, and count the revolutions of the wheel to measure the distance.

Austin also set a standard for use of the compass, which had been another source of error. Some surveyors were using a magnetic declination of east, some used west, and some used none at all but just ran a magnetic course. No compensation was made for calendar variations of magnetic north, and no correction was made for the curvature of the Earth. Austin required that his surveyors use the true meridian after calculating compass variation.

Another of Austin's requirements was to mark every line not bounded by a river or creek so that it could be easily traced and followed. To prevent new colonists from monopolizing water access, plots fronting on permanent creeks, rivers, large lakes, bays and the seashore were required to run twice as far back as the distance along the water's edge.

Stressing the importance of accuracy, Austin further required correct notes and plots for each survey. But one source of errors resulted from the good intentions of the surveyors. When land was cheap and unoccupied, some surveyors were in the habit of adding 20 to 100 varas to each mile of line to make certain that no one was cheated. Some sections of land have been found to contain from one to 100 acres of excess.

Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," issues a land title to a Texas colonist of 1822. Courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1977/62-2

Setting Standards

The Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836, drawing a huge tide of immigrants and increasing the population from about 30,000 to more than 140,000 in a 10-year period. The demand for surveys increased accordingly. Consistent with the practice of the Mexican regime, Texas heads of families who arrived before the creation of the republic were issued a first class headright for a 4,428-acre square league or sitio of pasture land for raising livestock and a labor of farmland (177.1 acres). One-third league (1,476.1 acres) was available to single men over the age of 17, which was 369 acres more than the one-quarter league that was allotted to them by the Mexican government. The only costs to the settlers were for a survey and a small administrative fee.

Three basic steps were involved in the land grant process in the Republic of Texas after 1836. First, qualified individuals received a land certificate for a specified amount of land. Next, the grantee or his assignee would locate available land from the public domain, have the land surveyed and send the field notes for filing to the Texas General Land Office after its creation in 1837. After complying with any conditions of the grant, such as making improvements to the land, the individual could apply for the original title or patent from the General Land Office. The original landowner's name is still shown on Texas land maps today.

The Texas General Land Office opened for business in January 1838. Augustus W. Cooke, the newly elected county surveyor of Robertson County wrote to the commissioner for instructions as to how to proceed in his position. First, he asked for clarification of units of measurement, since there had been some intermingling of Spanish and English units to measure areas and linear distances.

Second, Cooke asked whether he needed to ascertain correctly the variation of the compass and run accordingly, or run to the same variation that had been formerly used without proving its accuracy. The compasses in use at the time did not always agree on the direction of true north, and surveyors sometimes met to have their compasses adjusted.

Cooke's third question was in regard to a portion of the Land Law, which read as follows: " "¦all streams of the average width of thirty feet shall be considered navigable streams within the meaning of this act, so far up as they retain that average width, and that they shall not be crossed by the lines of a survey." Cooke noted that one tributary averaged more than 30 feet in width, but it ran so close to the main river that leagues fronting on the main river had to cross the tributary and extend beyond to make the quantity of land called for in the deed. Most of the land in question had already been surveyed, and some had been deeded.

Cooke's fourth question was whether he had a right to survey lands by virtue of old Mexican land grants when there were settlers actually living on the land. To this question, the commissioner answered that Cooke was only authorized to survey for persons having a valid certificate from one of the seven boards of land commissioners. By the next day, the new commissioner had compiled a leaflet to answer the most pressing questions for all of the surveyors, adding his handwritten notes to answer their specific questions.

Portion of Mexican title. Courtesy of the Texas General Land Office.

Dodging Arrows

In spite of the constant threat of Indian attack, rattlesnakes and other dangers, many early Texans loved their lives as surveyors, pushing the frontier westward through the brushy hills, green valleys and arid plains. Many became rich in the process. The surveyor's fee was payable in property or in cash, and many surveyors like Samuel A. Maverick became even wealthier by buying certificates and joining with other surveyors on extended surveys to locate lands. Maverick, too, had a narrow escape of death in the fall of 1839 when he left a surveying camp early, as he had promised his wife he would. Soon after he left, Comanche Indians raided the camp. Only one chain bearer was found alive, scalped, with an arrow in him. At the time of his death in September 1870, Maverick's holdings topped 300,000 acres.

Surveying became increasingly dangerous as the Indians became aware of the outcome of the surveyors' work. A surveying party usually included guards to watch for Indians while the surveyors worked. Often in his haste to get out of Comanche country, a surveyor would locate only two or three corners and figure the other side or sides, which resulted in careless errors in chaining and bearings.

Many surveying parties lost members to Indian attacks, but the incident involving the greatest loss of life was at the hands of a tribe of seemingly friendly Kickapoo Indians. In October 1838, a surveying party was formed for the purpose of surveying bounty grants for military service in what is now southern Navarro County, northeast of Waco. The survey party of 23 men left the town of Franklin in Robertson County and set up camp when they reached Richland Creek (now Battle Creek) near the present town of Dawson. Soon they discovered about 300 Kickapoo Indians camped nearby who had come from their reservation in Arkansas to kill buffalo and dry meat for winter. Game was abundant in the area, and according to a member of the surveying party, "from the hills you could see a thousand buffalo at a sight."

Mexican title translation.
On the morning they were to begin surveying a member of the party discovered that one of the compasses was not working properly. He and another member of the party decided to return to Franklin to get another compass, urging the others to wait until they returned and telling them to spend their time driving the buffalo away from the area, so that the Indians would follow the buffalo and leave the surveyors alone.

Ignoring the advice, the surveyors began their work. The Kickapoo Indians treated the surveyors well at first, allowing them to go about their business. On the third morning, the Kickapoo chief reported to the surveyors that a wild tribe, the Ionies, was coming to kill them. According to one of the surveyors, "We thanked them for the information, but said that we were not afraid of the Jonies [Ionies], and said if they attacked us we would clean them out, as they have nothing but bows and arrows any way." The chief begged them to leave, saying that if the Ionies killed them, it would be blamed on his Kickapoo tribe. The Kickapoos knew that any tribe who attacked the surveyors would incur the wrath of the government. The surveyors refused.

The Kickapoos knew that the surveyors would begin work where they had ended the previous day. As the surveyors passed a ravine where approximately 100 Kickapoo Indians were hiding, the Indians arose from the ravine and attacked, wounding several of the surveyors and killing some of their horses.

In the daylong battle that followed, 17 surveyors were killed. Three of the survivors managed to reach another Kickapoo camp. When asked of their business, they reported that they had been fighting with the Ionies, and the Kickapoos supplied provisions and a guide to Fort Parker. The fourth survivor, whose thigh was shattered, managed to crawl 18 miles to Tehuacana Springs, where he was rescued by a party of about 50 men on their way back to bury the dead. When they reached the battleground, they found only the bones of the dead-wolves had already eaten the flesh.

Another surveying party had attempted to join the group at Richland Creek, but one member was brutally murdered and the leader killed by Indians, forcing the rest of the party to return to the settlements. Earlier in 1838, yet another party had been attacked in the same vicinity on Pin Oak, a small tributary of Richland Creek. One of the surveyors was killed and the rest were forced to retreat.

Future Land Control

The fateful end of these expeditions hindered development in the Texas area until about 1845 when the Indians were pushed back, allowing effectual surveys to be completed and permanent settlements to be established. In a law enacted Dec. 5, 1836, Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, attempted to enact a policy of peace and friendship with the Indians while protecting the frontier settlements. Houston was sympathetic to the Texas Indians, having been intimately associated with them. Mirabeau B. Lamar, the second president of the republic, was inaugurated in December, 1838. He had no sympathy for the Indians and began to do everything in his power to destroy them or drive them out. Houston was elected to a second term following Lamar and attempted to resume a policy of peace with the Indians. Houston's treaties with the Indians helped to establish friendly relations and reduce the number of raids, although the settlers were not safe from Indian attacks until the 1870s. When Texas was annexed to the United States on Dec. 29, 1845, the federal government assumed control of the Indians, while Texas retained control of the land. As the settlers' demand for property increased, it "made extermination or expulsion of the Indians, whose relation to the land was quite different, a practical necessity."

Note: The Battle Creek Burial Ground is located one mile west of Dawson, Texas, on State Highway 31.

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