In the last column (January 2012 POB), we began to look at the art of land surveying vs. the science of land surveying. We will continue for the next few columns to explore the difference between the two methods and their impact on modern surveying. First, let’s look at some history.

The story of surveying in our modern era goes back to our nation’s forefathers in England. In these early days of surveying, William Leybourn claimed he was the best surveyor because of his experience in estate surveying, as opposed to merely book knowledge like some of his contemporaries.

The vast expanse of the new colonies highlighted the great need for surveyors. Many of the first surveyors came to this country having received training in England or Europe. They, in turn, others in the art of surveying. There was great reliance on textbooks such as “The Compleat Surveyor: Containing the Whole Art of Surveying of Land,” by William Leybourn, or “Geodaesia: or, The Art of Surveying and Measuring of Land Made Easy,” by John Love. While these books did address geometry, trigonometry and other mathematics related to surveying, they failed to address the differences between surveying in a developed country and surveying in the wilderness. By the time of the founding of the American colonies, estate surveys in England had developed into an art form. These surveys were presented in large, color maps, showing all the improvements to the property. Because the property lines, including stone fences or rock walls, had already been established, very little emphasis was placed on cardinal direction, such as true or magnetic north.

This was not the case in colonial America. The new land was heavily wooded, and all surveys needed direction and location in the vast wilderness. The methods commonly used in the old country simply did not apply. The colonial surveyor worked mainly in the wilderness away from family and civilization for long periods of time. The dangers were many, and most surveyors adopted the ways of the native people in dress and food. After working in the field for many months, in many cases it could have been difficult to distinguish the surveyors from Native Americans.

The magnetic direction of a free-swinging needle of a compass is not the same meridian as true north, and it changes its relationship to true north over time. This change and relationship to true north is known as magnetic declination. This correction is determined by establishing true north and finding the difference between true and magnetic north. The correction is applied to a compass by the use of a vernier scale, and it allows the magnetic compass to provide the surveyor with a true north direction.

True north is sometimes called the true meridian or cardinal direction. The true meridian is a plane that passes through the place and the axis of the rotation of the Earth. This is commonly referred to as polar north, based on the location of the star Polaris. The problem with using Polaris for true north is the star is not exactly north, but rotates in a small circle around true north. It becomes true north twice each day. In the past, the surveyor needed to have tables and a method to determine the correct time to sight the star.

Understanding the difference between true and magnetic north plays a key role in the retracement of early surveys. Almost all of the early colonial surveys were conducted using magnetic north, because the compasses did not contain a vernier scale. Some surveyors may have corrected the bearings to true north in the office. The challenge of working in a colonial survey state is determining the base for the bearings. The NGS/NOAA website can be of great help; it contains the tools to calculate the declination between true and magnetic north at any given latitude and longitude for any year between 1750 and yesterday. This is helpful in deciding whether the line you located is the same line used by the earlier surveyor.

Additional information on the responsibility of the retracement surveyor can be found in the 2009 BLM Manual:

(1) All the corners marked in the surveys, returned by the Secretary of the Interior or such agency as he may designate, shall be established as the proper corners of sections, or subdivision of sections, which they were intended to designate; (2) The boundary line, actually run and marked in the surveys returned by the Secretary of the Interior or such agency as he may designate, shall be established as the proper boundary lines of the sections, or subdivisions, for which they were intended, and the length of such lines as returned, shall be held and considered as the true length thereof. (3) Each section or subdivision of section, the contents whereof have been returned by the Secretary of the Interior or such agency as he may designate, shall be held and considered as containing the exact quantity expressed in such return.

These are standards that have changed little in the last 100-plus years and set the framework for the modern surveyor.

What does evidence look like? Let’s take a look at some quotes from an old survey book, “Boundaries and Landmarks,” by A. C. Mulford, 1912.

“The highest and best evidence of the location of a tract of land is that furnished by the monuments found on the ground and which have been made for that particular tract.”

“The line originally run, fixed and marked is the true boundary line that will control irrespective of any mistakes or errors in running and marking the line.”

“The marks on the ground of an old survey, indicating the lines originally run, are the best evidence of the location of the survey.”

“The position of old fences may be considered in ascertaining disputed boundaries. As between the old boundary fences and any survey made for the monuments after dispute, the fences are by far the better evidence of what the lines of the lot actually were.”

Here are some types of evidence from the early days of surveying in the United States:

Buggy hub and axle. The surveyor who followed in the footsteps of the original surveyor used many different items to mark the corners. Buggy axles or hubs were items found lying around many farms. When the time came to set a corner, they reached for the items on hand.

Shotgun barrel. While not a common corner, many surveyors have found shotgun barrels; many times they are referenced in the deed. At a recent seminar, I asked how many surveyors had found a shotgun barrel, and about 20 percent responded in the affirmative.

Civil War cannon with barrel down. This is not a common corner, but it has been known to be at all corners of a township in a coastal area. These were most likely set by a local county surveyor.

Upright railroad rail. Railroad rails have been used all over the United States, with most set by the local county surveyor to monument section corners. It is likely that if you fine one, there will be others in the area, always set upright and about 3 to 4 feet long. Some are light rails from a narrow gauge or logging railroad.

In the next column, we will discuss the small survey, serving the client professionally, what evidence looks like and where to find other evidence. The art of surveying will continue.