Point of Beginning

Rendezvous in Council Bluffs

January 8, 2013
Participants in the 2012 Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous retrace the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and commemorate several milestones.

Don Erickson of the Corps of Topographic Engineers sets up an astronomic observation station, complete with an observation tent and zenith sector, at Lewis and Clark State Park.


How did Carter Lake, Iowa, end up in Nebraska? Why is Fort Atkinson at Fort Calhoun? Where was the final spike driven to complete the first transcontinental railroad? (Hint: It wasn’t Promontory Summit, Utah.)

More than 100 participants learned the answers to these questions and many more at the 2012 Surveyors Historical Society (SHS) Rendezvous, held Sept. 13-15 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The first stop was Fort Atkinson, a reconstruction of the original fort based on archaeological evidence. Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. military post west of the Missouri River. It was established in 1820 by the Yellowstone Expedition, and its location was based on a recommendation by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The name “Fort Calhoun” appears on a map made by Major Stephen Long in 1820 and was intended to honor John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War under President James Monroe (1817-1825). However, the works constructed at the Council Bluff were instead named Fort Atkinson in 1821 in honor of the first commander, Colonel Henry Atkinson. The nearby town retained the Fort Calhoun name.

Bill Weikel, a member of the SHS board of directors, gave two presentations, one on the mapping tools and techniques used by Lewis and Clark, and another on his extensive research on the location of the Council Bluff where Lewis and Clark held their first council with the Western Indians on Aug. 3, 1804. George Drouillard (in the person of Darrel Draper) regaled the group with tales of his exploits as hunter, interpreter and sign-talker for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.



The backsight point mistakenly identified as Stargazer’s Stone.

At Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa, Milton Denny set up his chain-making operation, and Rendezvous participants produced a carefully calibrated two-pole Gunter chain that was auctioned at the annual SHS banquet.

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the creation of the General Land Office, Denny presented a historical overview of the operations of the GLO and discussed the “collision zone” that occurred along the Missouri River when original surveys in Nebraska, based on the 6th Principal Meridian, overlapped original surveys based on the 5th Principal Meridian in Iowa due to the large and frequent fluctuations in the location of the river.

I gave a presentation based on my collection of original letters from deputy surveyors to the surveyor general in Dubuque. The letters give a unique insight into the day-to-day issues faced by deputy surveyors. For example, Deputy Surveyor William Dewey wrote to Surveyor General James Wilson on Nov. 1, 1843, stating, “In closing down on the Missouri line, I could discover no trace of the old boundary nor of any line whatever… there is no certainty where it really does run. I do not know its course. I have nothing to guide me.” The location of the boundary between Iowa and Missouri was decided by the Supreme Court in 1849 (48 U.S. 660). A commission was tasked with surveying and marking the line. The commissioners appointed surveyors Robert Walker of Missouri and, you guessed it, William Dewey of Iowa to do the work. In July of 1857, Deputy Surveyor John Gay wrote to George Sargent requesting more time to complete his contract, pointing out that, “Some of my men have taken sick and some have got sick of their work” and departed. In August of 1847, Deputy Surveyor Jonathan Evans wrote to George Jones stating, “The extreme hot weather and bad quality of the water we used was the cause of so much disease and this Skunk River is death on a white man any time.”

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act, Daniel Freeman (in the person of Darrel Draper) joined the proceedings to tell how he became America’s first homesteader. Freeman was a soldier in the Union Army on secret duty at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. For some time, he had been eyeing a piece of land on Cub Creek in southeastern Nebraska near Beatrice. Freeman knew the Homestead Act was going to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but he had to be back in Fort Leavenworth on Jan. 2. So Freeman tracked down the Register of the Brownville Land Office who was attending a New Year’s Eve party and persuaded him to open the Land Office just after midnight so he could enter his claim, making him America’s first homesteader.

Participants also marked the 150th anniversary of the Pacific Railroad Act through special presentations, re-enactments, and visits to General Dodge House and the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.

It was an event that will undoubtedly live on in the hearts and minds of all who attended.