Point of Beginning

What Lies Beneath

March 28, 2011

The references that accompany a land corner are not much different than a list of references when you fill out a job application--they deem the corner valid and ascertain its position. These references include the shiny tags set in power poles, the chiseled crosses in headwalls and the modern concrete monuments. Equally important as the references or accessories to a monument (now called connections in the 2009 Manual of Surveying Instructions) are the memorials that go with it. These are the broken pieces of brick or charcoal (sometimes even glass) that surround the corner monument.

The monument, references, accessories and memorial all build upon what Walt Robillard calls the “Chain of History of Monuments.”1 The 1973 Manual says, “The surveyor cannot perform any more important service than that of establishing permanent and accurate evidence of the location of the corners in his survey.”2 Why, with modern technology, is it important to continue such a seemingly outdated practice?

Accessories to monuments became popular with the creation of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). Though they were used prior to the PLSS in various ways, it was the PLSS that standardized them. Some of the first accessories used included the famous bearing trees that were blazed and scribed by the General Land Office (GLO) deputy surveyors, who received specific instructions in regard to setting them.

Here in Northwest Ohio, the bearing trees are long gone--along with most of the original monuments--and new accessories and monuments have been set in their place. What was once a path through the Great Black Swamp first became a plank road and is now an asphalt road. The cedar post that was stuck in the swamp surrounded with three or four bearing trees is now a modern intersection with a traffic light and curb and gutter. The road is built up several feet above natural grade, and a modern magnetic nail is painted on the surface. With a clear history of the original monument and its accessories, the modern magnetic nail has the same weight as the cedar post that may still exist 3 feet below the surface.

Unfortunately, the modern surveyor all too often relies exclusively on technology and doesn’t take the time to continue to reference land corners and memorialize the corner monument. It is a sad fact that many governmental agencies do not reference their land corners but solely rely on the coordinate value from the GPS receiver to re-establish the land corners if they have been disturbed or destroyed. Is GPS considered an accessory to a land corner? Are the satellites that orbit the Earth going to hold in court when a surveyor is asked to validate the position of a land corner as reset with the new technology? Can the modern surveyor testify that the GPS unit was properly initialized when resetting land corners, and can they further testify that there were no solar flares when they performed their work?

Ohio-Michigan Boundary Post 21, considered lost since 1915, was recovered in 2010 by Fenicle and his crew.

The 2009 Manual addresses this issue.

Presumably any point can be reestablished once its coordinates have been determined. However, great care must be exercised to ensure that the original coordinate pairs were produced by a process that is repeatable within a quantifiable accuracy standard. Repeatable coordinates may provide collateral evidence of a corner position, may constitute the best available evidence of a corner position, and, in some cases, may constitute substantial evidence of the position of an obliterated corner.3

If surveyed properly, GPS coordinates indeed will be deemed valid, but they are not the ideal solution. No different than the order of importance of conflicting title elements, there should also be a hierarchy of accessories to a corner, with GPS coordinates at the bottom. Simple swing ties--connecting the past to the present--will always be the best and easiest to retrace.

What if the original monument no longer exists? The illustration at left and on page 26 is typical of most land corners in Northwest Ohio. Depending on the soil type, the cedar post may have disintegrated. We have recovered some intact pieces as well as some discoloration in the virgin sand. It was typical of the county surveyors--and required by the Ohio Revised Code--to set large stones over the cedar posts.4 As the roads were improved and built up, more and more monuments were set on top of the previous ones. As each monument was set on top of the other, new references were pulled and the old ones checked. Memorials like charcoal and broken brick were placed around the post and stones. After you’ve excavated dozens of these and have a clear history of what lies beneath the surface, you can clearly immerse yourself in the history of a land corner, its monuments, accessories, references and memorials.

This illustration was originally drawn for a fair booth exhibit at the Fulton County Fair to educate the public on what lies beneath the surface of a road at a typical intersection. Illustration by Joseph D. Fenicle, PS.

This evidence is what makes up the “chain of history of monuments.” Robillard says that “other than the original monument, the best evidence of a monument’s original position is a continuous chain of history by acceptable records, usually written, back to the time of the original monumentation.”1 If the chain is clear and concise, we truly will be starting at the bottom every time.

There is no better example of a clear chain of history of monuments than Michigan’s Corner Recordation Act (Public Act 74 of 1970). The Corner Recordation Act (similar to the Corner Recordation Act of Montana) not only defines an “accessory,” but it also defines “reference monument.”5 The importance of the Corner Recordation Act is that it forces the private surveyors to record their corner evidence and their accessories and/or references. This is important because if the private surveyor’s notes are unrecorded, they may not hold up in court (without testimony), whereas the public surveyors’ notes will. With this public act, all corner evidence is preserved as a public record. In states where it is not necessary to prepare and record a certificate, I encourage all private surveyors to reference the corners they use and record new monuments they set in place of or on top of another monument. This changes the corner from hearsay to prima facie evidence.

Most surveyors have dug up a rebar when they are looking for an iron pipe and assumed that it is the corner. But how, exactly, did the iron pipe morph into a rebar? I have been guilty of making such assumptions in the past, but as experience and extreme passion for my profession have grown, I have changed for the better. I now keep incredibly detailed notes when referencing and memorializing land corners. I record what I do, and I treat every corner excavation like an archeological dig. I have been fortunate to have been taken under the wing of multiple Michigan surveyors and have learned the ways of perfecting land corner preservation.

A corner is carefully preserved during a road construction project.

There are a lot of existent corners out there, but most of what we deal with is in technical terms considered obliterated. Corners should only be considered lost in extremely rare circumstances. Lost corners bring on myriad problems, mostly with the laws of proportion. There is always some form of evidence out there if enough time is spent on research and field examination, including ground penetrating radar. I have tried to not interchange the words “corner” and “monument,” but the point here is not about picking apart definitions--it is about solid land corner preservation techniques.

I encourage surveyors to be very specific when identifying land corners and to set accessories to help perpetuate their position. I further encourage surveyors to record your findings and to continue to perfect your references, leave your mark with memorials, and do your part to preserve our land corners for the next generation of surveyors. In my next article (slated for POB’s July issue), I will compare and contrast some of the various land corner recordation certificates found around the United States (i.e., Michigan’s Land Corner Recordation Certificate). I will, in turn, focus on the heated issue of replacing original monuments with modern ones and the geometry of pulling what I consider “the perfect reference.” I will also continue with the topic of linking past evidence to the present day.

Author’s note: If you feel passionate about your land corner preservation techniques, please e-mail me at
jfenicle@fultoncountyoh.com, and I will be happy to include your story in the second part of this article. Also, if you live within a state that has a standard certificate, let me know and I will include that information, as well.


1. Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location – 5th Edition. Walter G. Robillard, RLS, et al, p. 104.

2. Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States 1973, p. 122.

3. Manual of Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States 2009, p. 35.

4. Ohio Revised Codes, http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/ 307.36 and http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/315.28.

Michigan Legislature, www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(pj1pcizhyi3mc2554stmq345))/documents/mcl/pdf/mcl-act-74-of-1970.pdf.