Point of Beginning

A Rock-solid Legacy

September 1, 2006
The 6th Principal Meridian Memorial erected by The Surveyors of the 6th P.M. in 1987.


What drew 300 people to gather at the site of a rock in the middle of a deserted road in northern Kansas this spring? It was the history behind the rock. This particular rock stands as the initial point for the Sixth Principal Meridian (6th P.M.) and 40th Parallel. The 6th P.M. is the north-south imaginary line through Nebraska and Kansas where surveyors of earlier days were tasked with dividing all or part of five states-Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming-into townships. It may be a smallish rock in size, but the magnitude of its legacy still lives on.

The referenced rock lies in the deserted road under a manhole with a commemorative lid. A short distance away is a base block of stones and a tall-standing monolith made of Colorado red granite. This impressive monument was dedicated by a group known as the Professional Surveyors of the 6th P.M., established in the mid-1980s to re-monument and commemorate the historical location of the 6th P.M. for the five states. It is this group that initiated a dedication ceremony of the 6th P.M.'s 150-year anniversary this past June.

A sesquicentennial re-enactment: The chain crew of Todd Burroughs and Cameron Howell are kept on the baseline by Compassman Larry Graham, while the monument wagon of Ken and Arleta Martin stands ready.

A Sesquicentennial Celebration

The sesquicentennial celebration was held on June 10 in Mahaska, Kan. The event included a chaining re-enactment, horse-drawn wagon rides and a surprise visit from the notable Surveyor General John Calhoun (which I portrayed), the man credited with overseeing the survey of Kansas and Nebraska in the mid-1800s. Many people from the region were intrigued to find that an important piece of history was resting in their area. A limited number of commemorative lapel pins, patches and paperweights were distributed.

Event attendees wanted to know how and why this location and this rock became the Initial Point of the 6th P.M. and who was involved with its creation. The answers to those questions provide a fascinating look at our political and surveying history.

An inquisitive crowd gathers around Cameron Howell of Colorado and Steven Brosemer of Kansas for answers to political and surveying questions.

The Political Fabric

The Territory of Kansas found itself in tumultuous times in the spring of 1856. Kansas was being groomed by powerful political forces to be the focus of the divisive issue of slavery. The end of May 1856 in Kansas brought the sacking of the city of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces, and the retaliatory attacks led by abolitionist John Brown at Pottawatomie Creek, which led to the killing of five pro-slavery settlers. In the same month, Representative Preston Brooks from South Carolina brutally caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the U.S. Senate floor because Sumner had criticized southerners for pro-slavery violence in Kansas. These events were harbingers of the civil unrest to come.

It would be comforting to assert that the government surveyors of Kansas and Nebraska were above all of this social and political intrigue. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. President Franklin Pierce appointed John Calhoun of Illinois as the Surveyor General of both Kansas and Nebraska in August of 1854. Calhoun was to oversee the surveying of these two territories and was given great authority to proceed as he saw fit. Calhoun was a former county surveyor, attorney, engineer, railroad promoter, close acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, eloquent speaker, and most importantly, a loyal and staunch Democrat. In keeping with the patronage system of the day, he surrounded himself with like minds, including Charles A. Manners and Joseph Ledlie, also of Illinois.

After Calhoun had assumed the Office of Surveyor General, he became suspicious of the qualifications of the man selected to survey the baseline between Nebraska and Kansas, mathematics Professor John P. Johnson of Fayette College, Illinois.

Arleta and Ken Martin of the Oregon Trail Association wait for Larry Graham to "move ahead."

The Flagrantly Wrong Baseline

Johnson's instructions were to place a special cast iron monument where the 40th Parallel of Latitude intersected the west high bank of the Missouri River and to then proceed west between Kansas and Nebraska on the parallel for 108 miles. At that point, he proposed to establish the 6th Principal Meridian. Captain Thomas Jefferson Lee of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, charged with determining the 40th Parallel for Johnson, completed his work on Nov. 17, 1854, by observations and measurements from the east side of the Missouri River over to the west side of the river. Unfortunately, the specially made cast iron monument was not yet onsite. Johnson set stones and a post, then proceeded west, establishing his corner for the 6th P.M. on Dec. 5, 1854.

The subdivisions of Kansas and Nebraska were to begin in earnest during the spring of 1855 with Deputy Surveyors Manners and Ledlie establishing the First Guide Meridian East from Johnson's "60 Mile Corner" west of "the Cast Iron Monument at the initial point of surveys" on the west bank of the Missouri River. From here they were to lay out the First Guide Meridian East and the Standard Parallels to the east borders of Kansas and Nebraska.

Manners was to first erect the newly arrived cast iron monument at the spot determined by Johnson and Capt. Lee on the west high bank of the Missouri River (near present-day White Cloud, Kan.). This point was designated as the baseline corner to Township 1 North, between Ranges 18 and 19 East for Nebraska. In Kansas, all range lines, except for the First Guide Meridian East and the 6th P.M., were treated in the same manner as any offset closing line on a parallel.

This gave Calhoun a perfect opportunity to test Johnson's baseline on west. Ledlie was to proceed ahead of Manners to Johnson's 60 Mile Corner (between Ranges 8 and 9 East) and was given verbal instructions from Calhoun to test Johnson's line to see if it was in fact on the parallel. If either of them found a "serious error," they were to cease surveying and return to Fort Leavenworth "to await further orders."

Manners erected the cast iron monument on May 8, 1855 and proceeded west to test the baseline. On the night of May 9, 1855, Ledlie took polar observations at Johnson's 60 Mile Corner and established "a very satisfactorily true meridian." The following morning, Ledlie "found to my horror and astonishment the baseline wrong. At this point it ran south of west nine rods [148.5 feet] per mile." Racing east by wagon, Ledlie found Manners some 32 miles to the east on May 13 near the waters of the Nemaha River (north of present-day Seneca, Kan.). Manners had not discovered any mistakes "so flagrant" as Ledlie had. Later that evening in Manners' camp, Ledlie established the meridian with his transit instrument and the next morning compared it to Manners' solar compass; they were "found to agree to a hair." Manners, not wanting to stop, continued on west, testing Johnson's line. On May 17, Manners arrived in Ledlie's camp, finding the baseline "worse and worse as he advanced" by about one degree south of west. They were both compelled to return to Fort Leavenworth and report to Gen. Calhoun since the baseline "was evidently too erroneously run to be passed over in silence." Calhoun decided to throw out Johnson's baseline and contracted with Manners to completely resurvey the baseline between Kansas and Nebraska. While fussing with Johnson over his contract payment, Calhoun wrote Interior Commissioner George C. Whiting on July 31, 1855, that "In the whole history of surveying I question if so absurd a blunder was ever committed as in this case by Mr. Johnson."

The resurveying of the first 60 miles of the baseline began on June 14 and was completed on June 24 at the First Guide Meridian East (1GME). From this point, Ledlie surveyed a true meridian south into Kansas, and Manners ran a true meridian north into Nebraska to the Missouri River. Both deputy surveyors also surveyed east on true lines of latitude to their respective borders, thus creating the standard parallels. The parallels were placed every 24 miles in Nebraska and every 30 miles in Kansas. Ledlie had originally been contracted for 120 miles. He found that the Osage Indian Lands were just south of the 5th Standard Parallel so his contract was extended.

From this framework, Calhoun's deputies immediately started creating the familiar section, township and ranges of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). The National Elections of 1856 were rapidly approaching and the Democrats were facing criticism for the delays in settling the new territory. So while Kansas was rapidly becoming politically polarized, hundreds of surveyors were in the field, rapidly creating our land survey system.

The Rise and Fall of Gen. Calhoun

The second phase of the surveying of the baseline began on June 5, 1856, when Manners returned to his 1GME stone. His instructions from Gen. Calhoun were to run another 48 miles to the west and establish the 6th Principal Meridian. On June 11, 1856, with Ledlie standing by, Manners set the stone. Johnson's erroneous corner was found about 21/4 miles to the south and a little west of the corner set by Manners and was later destroyed.

With no time to rest, Manners and Ledlie immediately went to work laying out the 6th Principal Meridian, again with Manners running north in Nebraska to the Missouri River near the 8th Standard Parallel North and Ledlie surveying south in Kansas to the 5th Standard Parallel South. Again, they ran east from the 6th P.M. as they progressed, connecting the Standard Parallels to those that were run the year before from the First Guide Meridian East. Both Ledlie and Manners quickly discovered that the convergence of the meridians was greater than Calhoun had apparently thought. Without taking convergence into account, some sections in Range 8 East disappeared in Nebraska while they become nearly three miles wide in southern Kansas. The original plan was to have Guide Meridians placed every 36 miles, but this was abandoned for the sake of expediency and population, as shown in Calhoun's 1854 map to the Interior Department.

This marked the high point of Gen. Calhoun's career. In the next three years, Calhoun would go from influential government leader to the "Villain of Kansas" for his perceived role as a leader attempting to bring Kansas into the nation as a slave state. Fearing for his life, he fled to St. Joseph, Mo., where he died of strychnine poisoning on Oct. 14, 1859. Since he was unable to defend himself during the investigations into "Bleeding Kansas," his scapegoat status has been preserved to this day.

The Case for 108 Miles

So the questions remain, why was the 6th Principal Meridian placed at 108 miles, and why was Johnson's line so wrong? It does not evenly divide present-day Kansas and Nebraska into halves. Besides, in 1855, the Kansas and Nebraska territories went west to the Continental Divide and north to the Canadian border.

The commonly held answer, according to Professor of History Lynn H. Nelson of the University of Kansas, is this: "a surveyor can operate using standard geometry for nine miles. Beyond that distance, the curvature of the Earth becomes a factor and the surveyor has to switch his calculations of lines to spherical geometry and his computation of angles to spherical trigonometry." Prof. Nelson attributed Johnson's 21/4 mile error to being "a cumulative error in his astronomical readings, and I would guess that his watch was running slow (making the elevations he was measuring seem high)." But, as shown in the tracing of Johnson's error, his error does not seem to be entirely systematic.

Johnson wrote in his "General Remarks" that "According to instructions, the baseline was run with "˜Burts Improved Solar Compass.' In no case was any part of the line trusted to the needle alone. The Instrument was used as a Transit Instrument in running from one point of observation (on the Sun) to another by running on a tangent to the Parallel. Being unusually favored with an unclouded sun, we were enabled to fall back on the Parallel without remaining long on a tangent." Johnson also gave the calculated offsets to the north from tangent for the 40th Parallel in intervals of 1-5, 10 and 60 miles. He attributed the formulae used for calculating these offsets to Captain Lee but wrote that "it is thought unnecessary to go into, or rather introduce the mathematical figures & calculations upon which the formula is based, as it would occupy more than a dozen pages."

Perhaps the main motivation for why the 6th P.M. was placed at 108 miles west in Kansas and Nebraska lies in economics and politics. The Democrats and the Pierce Administration had promised to settle the rich farm lands of Kansas and Nebraska and found the nation growing impatient. The preemptive claims arising from veterans of the Mexican War were now a decade old and unfulfilled. Time was of the essence and Johnson's blunder had the potential to spell political disaster.

The First Guide Meridian East runs through the physical barrier of the Kansas Flint Hills. It was thought by most that nothing west of the Flint Hills was of any real economic consequence and that all the prime ground worthy of cultivation was to the east. Calhoun wrote to Pres. Pierce for his message to the 33rd Congress that the baseline in "its present proposed breadth of 108 miles will not interfere with any Indian claims, and be likely to prove sufficient to include the present settlements and prospective wants of settlers in both Territories within the region to which the Indian title has been extinguished."

Paying Homage to the Line

Although the 6th Principal Meridian no longer has any influence on the politics of our nation, it still holds particular interest and mystery to those of us who call the line our own. It is this admiration and intrigue that led to this year's homage to the line: a joint remonumentation project by the Professional Surveyors Association of Nebraska and the Kansas Society of Land Surveyors on June 10, 2006. The sesquicentennial event I spearheaded (on behalf of Kansas surveyors) along with Jerold F. Penry and Gene A. Thomsen of Nebraska reflected on the surveyor's role in politics and history in an era much different from today.

Sidebar: Sesquicentennial Activities

Early in the morning, with the decorative lid removed from the vault that protected the stone, the mass of viewers could see the exposed stone. Dressed in period clothing, Ken and Arleta Martin of the Oregon Trail Association brought to life the pioneer days by offering rides with a horse and wagon. Ken Johnson, president of the Salina Chapter of the Kansas Society of Land Surveyors (KSLS), explained to the crowd the June 11, 1856 origins of the stone and the origins of the memorial erected at the site by the Professional Surveyors of the 6th P.M. This group found the stone and dedicated the memorial on June 11, 1987.

Paul Scherbel, the oldest of the original Professional Surveyors of the 6th P.M., came all the way from Big Piney, Wyo., for the reunion. A crowd-pleasing re-enactment of a chaining crew was led by Cameron Howell, LS, and assisted by Todd Burroughs, LS, who used a vintage Gunter's 66-foot chain, measuring toward the crowd. Larry Graham, PE, LS, president of KSLS, held a Burt's Solar Compass at each stretch. Upon reaching a point directly over the stone, Cameron Howell yelled, "Set the stone!" putting smiles on faces in the crowd.

Geocachers participated in a game of technological "hide and seek" at the anniversary event as well. For Ernie Cantu's account of this fun-filled activity, click to our web-exclusive article titled ""Geocaching at the Event""

Steven S. Brosemer, LS, is owner of GeoTech Inc. of Emporia, Kansas. Jerold F. Penry, LS, presents on various aspects of surveying history nationwide.

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