How much do you know about surveying history?

Surveyors are natural historians. Their every day work often involves digging into the past to answer questions about the location of land boundaries. And “retracing the steps of those who have come before” is an oft-uttered phrase in the profession. We wondered how much extra-curricular interest surveyors have in surveying history and how much or how little they value historical knowledge.

The good news is, none of the 22 respondents to our July Surveying History poll claimed that they knew nothing about surveying history. A modest 45 percent admitted they knew “a little” about the history of surveying, 32 percent said they knew quite a bit about it and 23 percent said that they knew a lot.

About 55 percent responded that they attended events related to surveying history, with 18 percent stating that they have attended one event, 36 percent stating that they have attended several events over the years and an over-achieving 2 percent said that they attend several events every year! Some of the events named were the Surveyor’s Historical Society annual rendezvous, reenactments and seminars.

Most respondents (95 percent) said that they enjoyed reading about/researching surveying history. Popular ways to do this were: reading books (86 percent participated in this activity); researching old maps and documents (55 percent); reading magazines (77 percent); and talking with experts on the subject (45 percent).

Collectors of equipment made up a little over a third of respondents (36 percent), another 36 percent said that they did not collect surveying equipment and 27 percent said that they had some but did not consider themselves collectors.

Finding historical objects while out on surveys appears to be a fairly common occurrence, with 73 percent of respondents claiming to have found one. Some examples of those are: a gravesite of one of the soldiers that died on Jackson’s march; a New York/New Jersey boundary marker from 1774 and a few points of local interest; a railroad date nail in southern New Mexico dating back to 1908 in an area where a large station once stood; and a monument of French origin located in a southeastern Louisiana swamp dating to the late 1700s.

Lewis and Clark topped the list of favorite surveyors, gathering the favor of 18 percent, Mason and Dixon came in second with 14 percent, and Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Ellicot and Abraham Lincoln tied for third with 9 percent each. George Washington garnered 5 percent of the vote. Write-ins included John Love, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, Nathaniel Bowditch and Benjamin Banneker.

Does learning about the history of surveying help with being a surveyor? Survey says yes. In fact, 95 percent of respondents said it did. And 95 percent also agreed that it is important to know the history of surveying in order to be a good surveyor.

Mark Tooke, a Louisiana land surveyor, commented that, “Technology has progressed to the point where many surveyors are only concerned about precision, and not accuracy. We still have to follow the footsteps of those who preceded us. How can you do that if you don't know what [your predecessor] was doing?”

Matt West, a Wisconsin/Washington land surveyor said, “It's a sense of pride being in a profession that many of our greatest forefathers had in common.”

Jeffrey Barnes, an Indiana surveyor commented, “It makes me appreciate the equipment I use today and [gives me] a deep respect for those that surveyed before me when I read about their surveying adventures. The majority of our work is directly affected by what surveyors did in the past. Without an understanding of how things were done in the past, we might be reinventing the wheel every time we did a survey.”

“Understanding the historical limitations of equipment, technology, education, budgets, man-power resources, etc. helps us to understand the decisions that resulted in the property lines represented in the deeds and maps we deal with every day. We are better able to weigh our decisions in resolving inconsistencies if we understand the intentions of a historical surveyor or surveys,” said David Cass, an SIT in Massachusetts.

“You must know at least some of the techniques--both field and office--to understand some of the older surveys and the possible blunders therein,” said A. Jessup, an engineer and surveyor from New York.

“One needs to know at least a little about the where and the how from the older generations. It’s not all satellites and buttons,” said Robert Kerrick, an Ohio/Kentucky land surveyor.

We also asked respondents to name an event or events that they feel have changed the land system, here in the U.S. or elsewhere. Cass named the Louisiana Purchase, stating that it “necessitated that a standardized system of survey be employed to eliminate the vagaries and inconsistencies that developed in the original colonies.”

A New Mexico land surveyor said, “I think that PLSS was developed as a way to quickly and effectively manage real property during the time when the United States was expanding westward.”

Kerrick offered, “The Land Ordinance of 1785 and 1796. The introduction of several different rectangular systems proved to be a huge improvement over the colonial metes and bounds system.”

Eighty-six (86) percent of respondents were land surveyors, 5 percent were engineers and 9 percent were both.