Traversing the Law: Surveying in the Days of Lincoln
Zimri Allen (Z.A.) Enos was born in St. Louis on September 29, 1821.1 The Enos family moved to Illinois in 1823. Z.A.’s father, Pascal P. Enos, was a practical land surveyor and civil engineer and became involved in the layout of the town of Calhoun, which was later renamed Springfield and ultimately became the capital of the State of Illinois. Z.A.’s father died when he was eleven years old, leaving to a widowed mother and the children large tracts of land in the Springfield area that were heavily encumbered. The mother apparently worked the family through the difficult times after his father’s passing and provided Z.A. with advanced educational opportunities at Springfield Seminary, the Jesuit University of St. Louis, and the Illinois College of Jacksonville.
Thinking that he wanted to become a surveyor and engineer like his father, Enos focused his studies on mathematics and engineering. However, after leaving school, Enos joined the Springfield law firm of Baker & Bledsoe to study the law. After his admission to the bar, Enos and fellow law student, James Matheny, entered into a partnership to practice law. At that time, the Springfield bar included some of the most prominent names in American legal practice, including Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Stephen Logan, Lyman Trumbull and others. Presumably, due to the stiff competition, Enos had a tough go at practicing the law, so he left for more lucrative prospects as a land surveyor and engineer.
His training in the law, unlike mathematics and engineering, would serve him well in the practice of land surveying. During his surveying career, Enos surveyed large parts of Sangamon County, served a stint as county surveyor, laid out an addition to Springfield, acquired extensive real estate holdings, and ultimately became one of the most prosperous and prominent citizens of Springfield. In 1904, three years before his death, Enos was in possession of the original Lincoln Opinion Letter.
Early Surveying Practice in Illinois
In 1891, Enos submitted a treatise entitled, “The Early Surveyors and Surveying in Illinois,”2 for inclusion in the proceedings of the Illinois Society of Engineers, presumably for a conference to be held that same year. In that treatise, Enos recounts the early practices of county and private surveyors relative to the procedure for subdividing sections in the field and, in particular, the procedure for establishing the center quarter-corner (a.k.a., the center of section). It was Enos’ observation and experience, that prior to 1860, there were no “fixed rules in making [these] surveys.”
“The early county and private Surveyors of Illinois were not governed by any fixed rules in making surveys. Usually, if called upon to make a survey (for instance) of a half-quarter section, they would commence at the government section or quarter section corner of the eighty and run around north or south and east or west, (according as the tract was located,) 40 by 20 chains, and establish the corners. This was generally satisfactory to all parties concerned, for land was of little value, money scarce, and the saving of expense a great object. If the owner of the land was certain he was on the right tract and in a rod or so of the lines, that was sufficient.”3
As the state become more “thickly settled” and land became more valuable, the procedures for subdividing sections were more closely scrutinized by the practitioners of the day, but there was still no generally accepted method for doing so. Then in 1856, John Loughborough, the surveyor general for Illinois and Missouri, issued the 1856 “Instructions to Deputy Surveyors,” for the prosecution of the government surveys in Illinois and Missouri. The county surveyors of the day often inquired of the Surveyor General’s office relative to the proper procedure for subdividing the sections (a function not normally performed by the GLO surveyors). Ostensibly, bending to the pressure for guidance to county surveyors, private surveyors and others, the 1856 Manual included, in the Appendix, instructions for subdividing sections and restoring lost corners. Enos observed:
“In 1850 [sic: 1856] the Surveyor General for Illinois and Missouri published his ‘Manual of Instructions to U.S. Deputy Surveyors,’ with an appendix for the use of County Surveyors. This was immediately recognized, without any question, as being conclusive authority, and generally adopted by the better class of surveyors in the state; until Judge Burt’s ‘Key to the Solar Compass’ was introduced, which opened up the whole subject of the proper survey and subdivision of the sections and led to much discussion, both oral and written, finally resulting in [a] call for a Surveyor’s Convention.”4
At the insistence of Enos and a dozen other county surveyors, a state-wide convention was held in Springfield on January 7, 1857. The problem, it seems, was that the surveyor general’s instructions for establishing the center quarter-corner were to run a random east-west line through the center of the section to the opposing quarter-corner, then to run back in the opposite direction on true line establishing the center quarter-corner at the mid-point.5 In contrast, Judge Burt’s instructions found in the “Key to the Solar Compass,” was to run straight lines north-south and east-west through the opposing quarter-corners establishing the center-corner at the resulting intersection. After much debate and deliberation on the subject at the convention, the surveyors could not agree as to the proper procedure to follow.
Let’s Try Again
After the failed attempt to resolve the question of the subdivision of sections, according to Enos, most surveyors tended to lean in favor of the instructions issued by the surveyor general. However, the question relative to the subdivision of sections was not the only issue left on the table at the first convention, so another, larger group of county surveyors (two dozen, including Enos) called for a second convention. This convention was held in Springfield on January 5, 1859. Apparently, this second convention was even more well-attended than the first. On the issue of the subdivision of the sections, Enos observed that this question was “of greatest interest” to the surveyors, “and upon which the surveyors appear to be more firmly divided” than before. In contrast to the 1857 convention, however, they did decide on a course of action.
“After a very long and warm discussion, it was finally proposed and agreed to submit the question to some able lawyer for his decision. In the selection of the attorney, the convention chose Mr. Lincoln, on account of his being a practical surveyor as well as a recognized leading member of the bar, on the principle that a good lawyer could better interpret and apply the law to a subject with which he was thoroughly conversant.”6
The Lincoln Opinion Letter
A committee was formed “which waited upon Mr. Lincoln and obtained from him” a written opinion on the correct procedure to follow for the establishment of the center-corner of a section. Apparently, this committee walked immediately over to Lincoln’s office the next day and “waited” for an opinion. Lincoln’s opinion letter is dated the day after the convention, January 6, 1859. Lincoln would have been just shy of his 50th birthday, and a little over six years later, he would be assassinated as a sitting president beginning his second term. Lincoln essentially agreed with Judge Burt, that the Act of 1805 specifically called for running straight lines between the opposing quarter-section corners and the corner is to be set at the resulting intersection.
The 11th Section of the Act of Congress, approved Feb. 11, 1805, prescribing rules for the subdivision of sections of land within the United States system of surveys, standing unrepealed, in my opinion, is binding on the respective purchasers of different parts of the same section, and furnishes the true rule for surveyors in establishing lines between them. That law, being in force at the time each became a purchaser, becomes a condition of the purchase.
And by that law, I think the true rule for dividing into quarters, any interior section, or section which is not fractional, is to run straight lines through the section from the opposite quarter section corners, fixing the point where such straight lines cross, or intersects each other, as the middle, or center of the section.
Nearly, perhaps quite, all the original surveys are to some extent erroneous, and in some of the sections, quite so. In each of the latter, it is obvious that a more equitable mode of division than the above might be adopted; but as error in infinitely various, perhaps no better single rule can be prescribed.
At all events, I think the above has been prescribed by the competent authority.
Springfield, Jany. 6, 1859, A. Lincoln.
We, however, are going back in time to January 6, 1859, when you and the committee are receiving the opinion letter from Lincoln. At 6'4" and standing a head higher than most contemporaries, Lincoln would have been an imposing figure. The following is an excerpt from the “Illinois Boundary Law”7 book:
Imagine being a part of that committee going to Lincoln’s office in Springfield to receive his letter opinion. The letter is handed over, and all of the committee members are allowed to read it. After everyone has had their turn with the letter, you speak up.
“Mr. Lincoln, if I may, I have a question.”
Since you are the youngest one in the bunch, the other committee members immediately give you the wooly eyeball.
“If I may, sir, just exactly how many times is this operation to take place? Once, twice, fifteen times, or until somebody finally ‘gets it right’?”
Now the other committee members, especially Sharon Tyndale8 and Charles Manner,9 are getting extremely agitated. Joseph Ledlie10 begins nervously chomping on the cigar that has been precariously hanging out of the corner of his mouth since you’ve been there.
No answer from Lincoln. He has that stoic look on his face, like on the Lincoln Memorial. You know—where he’s kind of gripping the arms of the chair and really staring you down.
“A thousand pardons, Mr. Lincoln, but if I may sir, I have one more question. Is this directive you have opined for surveyors moving forward, or are we to go back and correct all of the surveys that were done by improper procedure?”
At this, Ledlie’s cigar snaps off from the clinching of his jaw and flies onto Lincoln’s desk, scattering spark and ash in all directions. Tyndale jumps up from his chair and grabs you by the nape of the neck. Several others grab you by the seat of your pants as the whole crowd storms out of Lincoln’s office, tossing you head-long out into the dirt street where you go skipping across the surface like a flat rock over a still pond.
As you get up and dust yourself off, you hear Tyndale shout:
“Are you an idiot? When you come to your senses, you may resume the role of apprentice, for no pay of course, under Mr. D.A. Spaulding11 of Madison County. In a few years we’ll reconsider your professional status.”
Lincoln comes out and stands next to Tyndale.
“Don’t you teach these young’uns the basics? ‘Remove not the old landmark.’”12
Any more questions?
- Zimir Allen Enos (Sep. 29, 1821 – Dec. 8, 1907). Biographic information obtained from a 1904 mini-biography of Z.A. Enos by Joseph Wallace, M.A., published in “History of Sangamon County, Illinois.”
- Enos, Z.A., “The Early Surveyors and Surveying in Illinois,” 1891, Springfield Printing Company, Printers and Binders, Springfield Illinois.
- Enos at 1.
- Enos at 1-2.
- There was a logical and equitable reason for the Surveyor General to give this instruction in the face of federal law that indicated Judge Burt’s recommendation was more in keeping with the law. It seems that it was the general practice of the day for the GLO surveyors in Illinois and Missouri to only run the meridional lines for the sections when subdividing a township, merely “stubbing-in” the north and south quarter-corners of the sections at 40 chains, even though the field notes would indicate that the east-west lines were run completely through the townships. In other words, the Surveyor General did not trust the north and south quarter-corners of the sections since there were no checks as to their veracity.
- Enos at 5.
- Lucas, Jeffery N., “Illinois Boundary Law,” 2012, Lucas & Company, LLC, Birmingham, AL, at 343-344.
- Sharon Tyndale was Illinois Secretary of State, 1865-1869 and connected with the “Coast Survey” for a number of years. Enos at 4.
- Charles Manner along with Joseph Ledlie ran “nearly all of the principal lines of the Kansas survey.” Id.
- Joseph Ledlie was a “life-long surveyor.” Id.
- D.A. Spaulding of Madison County “had been for many years in the employment of the government, both in the field and in the Surveyor General’s office in St. Louis, he having done a large amount of government surveying in this as well as other states.” Id.
- Proverbs, 10:23. King James Version (KJV).