It Started Here

November 21, 2003
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Honoring the work of surveyors during the bicentennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase.

Re-enactors portray life in the days of the Louisiana Purchase. This view looks west from the Initial Point down the base line that was cleared to the roadway in 1921 to bring in the monument.


In the bicentennial years of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2003-2006), historians, researchers and the public alike are recognizing the important work of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Another esteemed bicentennial celebration is that of the Louisiana Purchase-and the work of two other influential surveyors named Joseph C. Brown and Prospect K. Robbins. Brown and Robbins established the Initial Point for the surveys of much of the land in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. And thanks to a forward-thinking Secretary of State in Arkansas, the home of that Initial Point, the survey is not going unnoticed. Secretary Sharon Priest organized a committee to bring attention to Arkansas' unique role in the history of the Louisiana Purchase and to this survey that played a pivotal part in the settlement of the American West. And in November 2002, a dedicated group of surveyors and other interested parties walked the first 23.5 miles of the survey route from the Mississippi River to the Initial Point to show appreciation for the inheritance of the land and the mark of the surveyor on the western and central United States.

A Look Back

Two hundred years ago, the Louisiana Territory was a vast and mostly untamed wilderness. President Thomas Jefferson, however, saw this land bound by the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains, the Gulf of Mexico and the Canadian border as having great opportunity for political and territorial control over Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France. The Mississippi River also provided a strategic waterway advantage. So, in 1803, Jefferson purchased more than 600 million acres of wilderness land from France for less than three cents an acre, thereby doubling the size of the United States. It is often referred to as the greatest real estate deal in history.

After the War of 1812, the young country of the United States found itself badly in debt. Veterans of that war were promised land in the Louisiana Territory in compensation for their service. Thomas Jefferson, son of surveyor Peter Jefferson, had long realized that the newly acquired land needed to be surveyed in an orderly fashion before settlement. The subdivision plan had been devised for the Northwest Land Ordinance of 1785 and revised in 1805. In 1815, then President James Madison ordered the surveys to begin in the new territories.

Two million acres were set aside in three different areas. The land that was in the Louisiana Purchase Territory was not to be due west of Saint Louis as some argued for, nor near New Orleans, where there was already a port city, but between the St. Francis and Arkansas Rivers in present day Arkansas. Per the Surveyor General's written plan the base line was run due west from the mouth of the St. Francis River, and the Fifth Principal Meridian run north from the mouth of the Arkansas River. Wherever those two lines intersected would become the Initial Point for the surveys.

Sworn in as deputy surveyors were Joseph C. Brown and Prospect K. Robbins of Missouri. On Oct. 27, 1815, Brown began surveying at the mouth of the St. Francis River at the Mississippi River, 26 miles and 29.82 chains east of the Initial Point on the Fifth Principal Meridian in today's Louisiana Purchase State Park. He passed by that point seven days later, on November 2nd, and continued west 13 more miles until November 4th. Robbins also began on October 27th at the mouth of the Arkansas River, 58 miles and 60.5 chains south of the Initial Point, and arrived to intersect Brown's line at the Initial Point on Nov. 10, 1815, after 13 hard days. On November 2nd, after the 26th mile, Brown wrote in his field book: "The most of this mile very low and swampy with cypress and briers and thickety in abundance. Can not say what is the bearing of this swamp or its width it not being well defined."

As luck would have it, the intersecting point happened to fall in a headwater swamp in eastern Arkansas, near the present day town of Brinkley. While Brown and Robbins probably did not think it particularly lucky, it made it possible for surveyors to find the original bearing trees (two Tupelo Gum trees) in 1921 to resolve a land dispute among Lee, Phillips and Monroe Counties.

In November of 2002, on the day before the 187th anniversary of the establishment of the Initial Point, a small group of surveyors and other interested parties completed a three-day walk along Brown's base line from the mouth of the St. Francis River, over Crowley's Ridge, and across the delta to the Initial Point. John Gill, an attorney and historian in Little Rock originated the idea and enlisted Bill Ruck, PE, PLS, of Garver Engineering, Little Rock, Ark., to help plan the "Base Line Expedition." The Expedition members included Sharon Priest; John Morrow, park interpreter for the Arkansas State Parks; Jim Grant, information officer with the Arkansas Forestry Commission; Lee Lowder, chief surveyor for Arkansas State Parks Department; Mickie Warwick, PLS, surveying instructor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello; and of course Bill Ruck and John Gill. The group was limited in number by the easements obtained from private landowners during the harvest season.

As Ruck noted, on November 9th, "The monuments they set are "˜monumental' in American history. The witness trees still standing, which we still use today, "bear witness" to the wisdom of their plan."

The Daughters of the American Revolution, a volunteer women's service organization dedicated to preserving American history, realized the historical significance of the point and purchased a large, inscribed stone monument in 1925. The dry summer of 1926 enabled a mule-drawn cart to pass through a narrow opening cut along the base line. A small donation of land led to a 38-acre state park, which surrounds and protects the monument location in its natural state. A gently curving boardwalk was constructed 950 feet through the swamp to the Initial Point.

This year, the monument was rededicated by today's Daughters of the American Revolution as part of a ceremony to recognize the significance of the point in the settlement of what was then the American West. Beginning at this point, the land west of the Mississippi began to be laid out into the familiar Public Land Survey System grid so that veterans and settlers could make Thomas Jefferson's vision for the future a reality.

The Initial Point monument of the Louisiana Purchase was re-dedicated on May 10, 2003. Participating in the ribbon cutting ceremony were: Director of Arkansas State Parks Richard Davies; U.S. Representative Marion Berry; former U.S. Senator David Pryor; state and national representative of DAR; French Consul General to the United States Denis Simonneau; Secretary of State Charlie Daniels; and Frank Arey of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

Surveying the Swampland

The land did not come easily, however. The surveyors running the lines to the Initial Point averaged four miles per day. Afterward, Brown would go west 66 miles to the Arkansas River at Little Rock and average 50 percent more, or about six miles per day. Robbins would continue north 317 miles to the Missouri River in central Missouri, averaging 7.5 miles per day, nearly twice as fast as the progress south of the Point.

The surveyors paid for this gift of land in other ways besides their time. They faced all kinds of dangers, and were exposed to heat and cold, rain and snow, disease and accidents, all far from civilization. They came in the fall and winter to avoid mosquitoes and snakes. There were no roads, only an occasional Indian trail. They had no cabin to come home to, only a tent with fellow, dedicated workers. "Home" was wherever night found them.

The surveyors carried all their supplies with them. A typical subdivision party of six took eight barrels of flour, three barrels of salt pork, three to four bushels of white beans, 10 pounds of tea, 60 pounds of coffee, 150 pounds of dry sugar, two bushels of dried apples, 25 pounds of oatmeal, five pounds of castile soap, salt and pepper, and any other articles they could afford.

Their lifestyle was primitive with only a tent for shelter. Their covers were mackinaw blankets. They carried water in a tin pail and washed in a small basin. A few cooking utensils and a gun for hunting were about the only non-surveying tools they could carry on their pack mules.

The efforts and troubles of the early surveyors were not recorded in history books, nor celebrated in movies, as are the hardships and trials of the early explorers and settlers, and the heroic efforts of lawmen. Even the exploits of trappers and traders are better known to modern readers. But before any lasting settlement could occur, before anyone could get legal title to any land, before anyone even knew much about the natural geographic and ecological features of the land, the surveyor and his team of about six workers braved the wilderness to open it up for settlement. On a total budget of about $2 per mile, they quietly, efficiently and bravely criss-crossed and mapped eight million acres of wilderness land in the first four years! Alone and heading into territory populated only by Indians-sometimes hostile Indians-these skilled and hardy men, using inferior and sometimes homemade equipment, ran the lines that are called for in every land deed west of the Mississippi. This Initial Point is called for in land descriptions in six states: Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Minnesota.

At the Base Line Expedition celebration, Ruck highlighted: "Nine score and seven years ago, two surveyors-Prospect K. Robbins and Joseph C. Brown-brought forth this new survey system, conceived as a result of a fight for liberty-the War of 1812-and dedicated to the proposition that the courageous men who defended freedom's gates should be rewarded with a large measure of that freedom. That is, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through private ownership of property, land forever removed from the control of kings and queens, dictators and despots, and yes, even from the control of our own government should it spin out of control. Indeed, the new inhabitants of this land were allowed to enjoy this new liberty-only 39 years old at the time-thus creating the greatest nation the world has ever known."

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 is recognized in history books for its massive land transfer between countries. Today's Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park in Arkansas hosts the Initial Point of the survey, carries the honor of a National Historic Landmark and offers visitors the opportunity to walk along a convenient boardwalk over the swampy area, and experience the sights and sounds of the wilderness much as the original surveyors did.

This year we celebrate 200 years of exploration, settlement and enjoyment of what we term "The American West." We marvel at the hard work it took, and the representative democracy that rewarded such hard work. Americans nationwide can celebrate the inheritance of our land, made possible through a blood kinship to those patriots who gave theirs in exchange for ours, and the hard work of generations of dedicated surveyors.

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