Questioning long-held sacred principles and practice is considered by some surveyors to be a form of blasphemy. 

We can go all the way back to the first edition of Curtis M. Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles, published in 1957, to review the principle that “the intentions of the parties to a subdivision are paramount to all other considerations.” Brown goes on to state that “the monuments as set by the original surveyor within a subdivision, to show the lines as marked and surveyed, express the intent of the subdivider, and, where the monuments, so set, most clearly express the intent of the subdivider, they become the paramount control for resurvey within a record subdivision.”

Later, in the 1967 edition of Brown, Robillard and Wilson’s Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location, the principle is restated in Sect. 2-35: “The evidence of intent of a survey as called for in a conveyance is to be interpreted from the map of the survey, the field notes of the survey, and the acts of the surveyor”; and in Sect. 2-36: “A call for a survey also calls for monuments set on that survey.”

It seems pretty clear cut. Who would dare question the location of an original monument? Of course, many of us would look at a supposed replacement of the original monument and hope to see evidence of a chain of history by which the monument was rebuilt, replaced or perpetuated by ties or accessories, resulting in an acceptable present-day survey monument. But it can be all too easy to miss that evidence if we’re not willing to periodically re-evaluate our procedures from a historical perspective.

Traveling Back in Time

I began my career with a small family-owned civil engineering and land surveying firm in 1973. I was fortunate to have a varied work week. On most days I handled the inside work--drafting parcel maps, topo maps and grading plans. But if there was an abundance of field work or if the firm needed a chainman (it wasn’t until later that this position was upgraded to the term “survey tech”), I got to do what I really wanted--surveying.

I knew to keep my lip buttoned up out there since I was the newbie and the top party chief, ol’ Will, was a grizzled survey veteran who knew his act. I had heard that the firm had gone through several licensed land surveyors who were very capable in the office but had not met the owners’ requirement for each chief to complete the entire job himself, from field to finish. Although he wasn’t licensed, Will was knowledgeable and had a reputation for having an organized and calm approach in the field, something that many people lacked.

I had been amazed to hear through the office grapevine that the last chainman, the owner’s son, had been banished from the crew by ol’ Will. Apparently, the young man had been making some attempts at directing the operation, which resulted in more jawing and less doing. Will had issued an ultimatum to the owners: “Choose one person to remain on the crew, me or him.” The owner, a civil engineer, was a level-headed person with an appreciation for the bottom line; the next day, his son was back in the office, and I was the chainman.

I could see right away that this tall, lanky salt of a chief had some very patented techniques for completing survey work. He told me his key factor for being productive and accurate--”knowing when you can hang loose and when you have to tighten up the operation.” The only time he ever gave me what sounded like a lecture was when he stopped the truck suddenly to point out a survey crew that “wasn’t coned up.” Incredibly, there was one guy with an instrument in the busy street intersection and another guy kneeling on the sidewalk marking a point, with no safety cones in either location. Will just shook his head and remarked, “Now that’s the first sign of amateurs.”

After I had gone out in the field a few times with the old salt, he remarked that it was good to work with me. He observed that I had a cooperative attitude and came with an all-around background in surveying, both office mapping and field survey. I told him I knew all the basics but did not understand all the boundary decisions I had observed being made by others when I worked in the office.

The next day, we were sent to a part of the county that had been ravaged by giant wildfires that often blow through southern California during the summer months. There would be a minimum of brush to stomp through or cut down, but the thought of the horrific property damage and loss of life, both animal and human, was sobering. Surveyors’ plastic ID caps would be useless, with most of them melted into the iron pipes beneath.

Ol’ Will liked doing the driving, so I took the opportunity on the way out to peruse the subdivision map. It was from the 1920s and was neatly drawn. It did not have a legend for the map symbols, but there were a couple of statements that applied: All lots, except as noted, were 60 feet by 150 feet, and the regular blocks were 300 feet by 360 feet. I read aloud that the map called for 2-inch by 2-inch redwood hubs with tacks at all lot and block corners.

“The witch won’t help us today if it’s hubs we’re looking for,” Will commented, referring to the Schonstedt metal detector that was his favorite tool.

A random line of original stakes along the front block line.

Following the Right Footsteps

Our job seemed pretty straightforward. We were given two adjoining lots to survey, and we had to either find and flag up the existing corner monuments or set new ones. “Let’s start this retracement,” Will remarked. I noted that he was in the habit of using the word “retracement” rather than the word “survey.” I had come across the word retracement in the federal manual but had not previously heard it used regarding private subdivision work.

We started at a front block corner and were lucky to find the melted remains of PVC tubing still standing upright. We scrapped around, and there was the partly burned and blackened hub with a rusted tack. This was starting to look as routine as can be. We did not see any other sign of a witness or a hub along the front block line until we arrived at another melted PVC witness for the other front block corner. That one, too, was burned and blackened.

Our lots were in the middle of the block, so Will set up the Wild T-16 engineers’ transit on the hub we had just found, and I gave him the backsight at the other block corner. Will said there was no need to get the “device” out of the truck (his terminology for our electronic distance meter, an AGA geodimeter) since this would be easy chaining on level ground over burned-down brush.

We chained across almost level but rocky ground and ended up with a measurement of 360.04 feet after a series of four measurements, or “bites,” as Will called them. Then he called for a repeat chaining in reverse, which gave us a result of 360.02 feet. I asked him if he planned to average the two results and prorate in the half hundredth per lot. Will just laughed. “Dave, you can put that amount in your pocket with your other spare change and forget about it!” he said.

We proceeded to chain record distance on line into the three front corners for the two lots. All points fell on the edges of jagged rocks that stuck up about a foot out of the dirt. Since there was nothing visible on the rocks, we marked temporary black X’s at each point. Will usually did the routine instrument setups, but he often had me do them when they were more challenging, such as on a steep slope, over a crevice between two boulders, or on rocky ground. He must have believed people don’t learn as much from the easy stuff.

I looked down toward the X through the optical plummet and saw another blackened 2-by-2-inch hub with tack just a couple of tenths away near the bottom of the rock, flush with the dirt. I called Will’s attention to it and asked him if I could slide the tribrach over the hub. His answer puzzled me; he told me to continue with my setup on the X.

Next, he had me turn the record angle to the back corner of our first lot, and we started chaining the 150-foot distance to the back. The ground became less rocky and easier to traverse across as we got to the back line. Our second “bite” was the final 50 feet. Lo and behold, at the bottom of my plumb bob was the old burnt hub and tack, dead on line and amazingly within 0.02 feet of record distance. “If you had set up on that original hub in front,” Will said, “you would be missing this rear hub by the same falling as in front, a couple tenths.”

We continued on to the next two setups, finding the same hubs wedged down between rocks, again off line and distance a couple of tenths but in various random directions. Using our marks on the rocks, we again turned to the rear and had the same results, finding the rear hubs at record line and distance within a few hundredths of a foot. We flagged up all corners.

Will explained that the front hubs were very likely the original monuments but were not the surveyor’s real footsteps in this instance. The civil engineers probably drove those hubs in order to satisfy the statements on the map at a reasonable location. The hubs were the result of practical location close to the X’s they would have set on the rocks. “The proof is in the pudding,” Will said. “Our markings on the rocks are right on top of where their X’s had been. Our occupying each of them, then turning our angles to the rear and making those finds where we did, following each of their actual transit lines as it would have been done back then--now that’s following in the footsteps of the original surveyor.”

Brown, Robillard and Wilson note that “footsteps equates to evidence”1and that the object of a resurvey is to “retrace the footsteps of the original surveyor.”2They also convey that the concept of following footsteps “is one of determining where the evidence of the original survey is located.”3

Years later, the more we read and recall our real-world experiences, the more sense it all makes. 


1, Brown, Robillard and Wilson, Evidence and Procedures, 3rd ed., p. 3.

2. Ibid, p. 207.

3. Ibid., p. 300.

David Eisenberg is a registered land surveyor in the state of California, where he runs a private surveying practice. He also serves as a consultant to civil engineers and architects. He can be reached at