As land surveyors, we are often faced with the need to know something about the history of our profession, the instruments once used, the surveyors who once used them and certainly the history of the land we have been hired to survey. Yet how far back must our knowledge extend?
Property ownership and the need for land measurements to protect owners' rights have very early beginnings. The Bible contains references to land boundaries in the Old Testament, including a famous reference to land boundary markers in Deuteronomy 19:14, "Do not move your neighbor's boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land."
Ancient Egyptians were among the first to employ the art of surveying by the harpedonaptae, or "rope stretchers" as we more commonly know them. Ropes of known length were stretched to determine crop sizes for taxation purposes. Crop growers placed large marker stones or monuments on boundary lines along the Nile River to distinguish one property from another after the annual floodwaters subsided. The need to accurately reestablish these boundary lines after the flooding had disturbed or destroyed these landmarks required the application of mathematics to their surveying.
The discovery of the New World and the development of the heavily wooded territory of the Americas created the need for improved surveying instruments such as the surveyor's compass and Gunter's chain, which became the instruments of choice for surveyors in this rugged new land. In 1688, John Love recommended the use of an instrument called the "circumferentor" (surveyor's compass) for surveying "the thick woods of Carolina" in his book on surveying titled GEODAESIA. In 1831, an American named William J. Young built a brass compass and telescope into one combined instrument. This "surveyor's transit" coupled with the chain (and later the steel tape) became the most commonly used surveying tools for more than 100 years.
These rugged tools were invaluable to the early surveyors of Thomas Jefferson's Public Land Survey System (PLSS) and to the surveyors of the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highways of our country. They often spent days, weeks and sometimes years in the wilderness under extremely harsh conditions. We learn most of their history through the letters and notes taken while performing these historic surveys. The General Land Office (GLO) issued instructions to surveyors of the public lands over the years that now serve as a historical record of how those PLSS surveys were performed and what instruments were used. Electronic distance measuring devices and the Global Positioning System (GPS) have now all but completely replaced these early surveying instruments.
For the most part, these new instruments bear very little physical resemblance to the equipment used by earlier surveyors. But we as surveyors need to understand the history of how our predecessors surveyed the land and what equipment they used. The surveyor's job is often to follow the footsteps of the original or previous surveyor. That is why this historical knowledge is so important to us today as we try to reestablish boundaries laid out years ago in an effort to help protect the rights of the landowners.
One of the first things many surveyors do when a survey is ordered is check and see if they have done a prior survey on the same or nearby property. Their own files may contain prior surveys, legal descriptions, notes or other valuable information. This history helps them find a starting point for the new survey. Often, the next task is to search public records to learn the history of the property through deeds, tax records, easements and other related historical documents on file with the town, county or state where the property is located. Surveyors then look for historical evidence of prior surveying activities in the field, such as property monuments or right of way markers, for starting points to begin the new survey.
And finally, surveyors set or remark the corners and create a new map or plat with legal description to make a historical record of the work done. This establishes or verifies property ownership rights and thereby leave a record for future owners and surveyors to work from. Justice Thomas M. Cooley of the Michigan Supreme Court (1864-1885) said it best in his essay on the judicial functions of surveyors: "No man loses title to his land or any part thereof merely because the evidences become lost or uncertain." Amen.
Note: While Editor Lieca Hohner is on leave, Mickey Shackelford shares his perspective this month on the significance of surveying history.