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Solo Notes: Digging for the Truth

January 25, 2011
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In December 2010, after more than 30 years and a great deal of digging, two surveyors restored the property corners of Burkhart Homes in Kamiah, Idaho, to their rightful positions. Unfortunately, other surveyors were the reason the corners were moved in the first place. 

Chad Erickson searches for the original iron rebar pin on the northwest corner of Burkhart Homes’ property. 


In December 2010, after more than 30 years and a great deal of digging, two surveyors restored the property corners of Burkhart Homes in Kamiah, Idaho, to their rightful positions. Unfortunately, other surveyors were the reason the corners were moved in the first place.

Prior to 1895, Kamiah was owned entirely by the Nez Perce Tribe. It was not part of the public domain, and none of the land in Township 33 North, Range 3 East, Boise Meridian was, or could be, owned by anyone outside the tribe. The first survey of the township was in 1873 by David P. Thompson of the General Land Office (GLO), but it was a survey done by the Nez Perce Tribe for the Nez Perce Tribe. (Although Thompson used special instructions issued by the GLO in his survey, he was under contract to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.) The Act of April 8, 1864, reads, “That hereafter, when it shall become necessary to survey an Indian … reservation … the same shall be surveyed under the direction and control of the general land-office, and as nearly as maybe in conformity to the rules and regulations under which other public lands are surveyed.” 

Linda takes a shot in the 8.5-foot-deep discovery dig.

The “as nearly as maybe” was stretched to include the three-mile method for all section subdivisions on reservations. The three-mile method used three east-west miles connecting the north ¹/16th corners, west and east quarter corners and south ¹/16th corners. This method was used on all Indian reservation surveys until 1920.

The principle of “following in the original surveyor’s footsteps” dictates that any of these ¹/16th or ¹/64th (¹/32) corners that are lost must be restored by single proportion on the east-west section subdivision line and not by the rules of section subdivision of the various manuals. However, in many instances, recent BLM surveys have not only failed to recognize and use evidence to restore original interior ¹/16th corners, they have sometimes used standard sectional subdivision methods and claimed the resulting corners to be original. This has created a number of problems for the Kamiah region. 

This fence wire was dated by a tree ring count to 1897.

The dilemma at Burkhart Homes began with right-of-way stakes engulfing the properties’ front lawn. The property owners asked us to resolve the issues. We first uncovered an unrecorded monument that relied on the 1985 BLM dependent resurvey of Sections 1 and 2, T33N, R3E, BM (Kamiah). We then asked both the City of Kamiah and Burkhart Homes if they had any unrecorded old survey drawings in their offices. Burkhart Homes found three drawings that predated the BLM survey.

The Burkhart Homes 1976 site plan showed that the distance from the east property line to the front building lines was to be 55 feet and the distance from the south property line to the side building lines was also to be 55 feet. From the existing buildings, we created the 55 foot offset lines; at their point of intersection, we “sniffed” with a metal detector and got a very hot reading. At the apparent intersection of First and Maple Streets, below 6 inches of asphalt, we found a ½ x 18 inch iron rebar, upright and secure, just as the three Burkhart drawings had indicated. This point was 17 feet to the southeast of where the 1985 BLM survey had placed it.

In a review with representatives from the City of Kamiah and Burkhart Homes, it was decided to investigate the possibility of overturning the BLM survey. We knew it would be a difficult task, but it offered the potential reward of preserving the original property lines. 

A backhoe proved to be one of the most useful tools in correcting the survey. 

We promptly found another pin at the southwest corner of the Burkhart property, but we did not find the pins that the drawings said would be at the northwest and northeast corners. It was clear that considerable fill had been placed in these two areas, so we obtained a backhoe and carefully began digging at the point predicted for the northwest corner. At a depth of 7 feet, we finally got a faint metal-detector reading. At 8 feet, the reading was very loud and at a specific point. We finished with a hand shovel and uncovered a ½ x18-inch iron rebar, upright and secure, within inches of the projected position. We let out a yell, did a little jig, and shouted up to the backhoe operator, “Bet you thought we were crazy to dig so deep!” He unhesitatingly shouted back, “I was pretty sure of it.” At this point we were pretty sure, too--not that we were crazy, but that the 1985 BLM survey was just plain wrong. The ½-inch rebars, and their accompanying legal descriptions, were clear and convincing evidence that the 1985 BLM proportionate positions were in error.

Surveys that repudiate BLM surveys must be performed with care to ensure that they can prevail in federal court if necessary. Fortunately, in many cases, this isn’t hard to do. In 2006, at the Beulah Wilson/C.W. Larson subdivision on the west side of town, we overturned a 23-foot shift from an erroneous 1965 USFS survey and a 6-foot shift from the 1985 BLM survey. Our position was confirmed by an old map in the USFS office; tree lines remaining from when the subdivision was a city park; a second unrecorded survey plat; the monuments of that second plat; and ancient fence remnants (fence wire can be reliably dated by the direct relationship between nongalvanized/galvanized and pre/post-1915).

These experiences prove that unrecorded survey plats, and their accompanying monuments, can be pivotal in preserving property lines. When you find yourself in the middle of a controversial survey, make sure to do your homework. And don’t be afraid to do a little digging.


***Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story for a future issue, e-mail pobeditor@bnpmedia.com.***  

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