This year marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Fifth Principal Meridian and its Baseline.

In the fall of 1815, the Fifth Principal Meridian’s baseline was established by the late Joseph C. Brown. The Initial Point it resulted in, located in Arkansas, was originally used to survey the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Now, it serves as the basis for property descriptions covering more than 200 million acres of land in Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

In an effort to honor Brown and his impressive surveying legacy, the Missouri Society of Professional Surveyors (MSPS) and its St. Louis chapter are planning a memorial and monument, located at a family plot at the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

“This is a unique situation,” says Chuck Quinby, director of MSPS and past president of its St. Louis chapter. “I’ve been here for 15 or16 years and I’ve never done anything like this. It doesn’t happen very often, so I think it’s a very big deal.”

The organization has plans to commemorate Brown during its annual meeting and conference Oct. 8-10 in Osage Beach, Mo. From seminar topics to maps to historians, a wealth of information on Brown’s life is on the agenda for attendees to experience. On Oct. 17, MSPS will host a dedication ceremony at the site of the Brown Memorial. It will include an unveiling of the monument, a reception and reenactments.

Many Surveying Accomplishments

While the Initial Point and Baseline of the Fifth Principal Meridian are two of Brown’s more popular accomplishments, he completed many more significant projects during his career. Other lands Brown surveyed included:

  • The Osage Treaty boundary from Fort Osage on the Missouri River to the Arkansas River near Fort Smith, Ark.
  • The Santa Fe Trail from Sibley, Mo., to Taos, N.M.
  • Wolf Island for the Missouri-Kentucky boundary dispute
  • The western and original southern boundaries of Missouri
  • The boundary of St. Louis
  • Military bounty lands
  • Spanish land grants
  • Missouri school lands
  • Boundaries for the Missouri-Iowa land dispute known as the Honey War

It’s important to put Brown’s career into context, Quinby says, because he was carrying out a lot of big-deal surveying using a compass and chain, without the modern-day instruments today’s surveyors have access to. “Joseph C. Brown’s surveys were pretty tight for what he had to deal with,” Quinby says. “We can follow them today, and you could follow just about everything he did. Even though you’re about a foot or 2 feet off, you’re consistent through the whole thing. So, as tight as they were back then, it should spark today’s land surveyors to take their time, do things right; don’t just throw things in the ground because the money’s there.”

True to Form, a Change of Plans  

Initially, the Brown monument and dedication ceremony were set to serve as a grave-marking. Ironically though, as happens regularly in the surveying profession that Brown dominated, newly-discovered historical information led to a change of plans. What was thought to be Brown’s unmarked gravesite turned out to be the place of rest for his nephew, who happens to also have the name Joseph C. Brown. For that reason, the cemetery has created a family plot next to his nephew.

What has not changed is the intent of the MSPS to recognize a prominent jewel in the history of surveying and to celebrate his work, which plays a very important role in the history of the United States, and geographical borders as we know them. However, the commemoration of Brown doesn’t stop there, according to Quinby. He says shedding light on what Brown accomplished as a surveyor is important at a time when there seems to be less interest in the profession from young people. “It’s about legacy. It’s about trying to drum up interest in the profession itself and to be more than flag men in the road and traffic hazards for people,” says Quinby. “It’s about showing that surveyors do a lot more than boundary work.”

In the meantime, the MSPS is working hard to finish the monument that Quinby says will be about 7 feet long and 3 feet wide. It will likely lay on the ground with one end elevated. The stone figure will show the Fifth Principal Meridian, the Baseline, and some of Brown’s other famous surveys such as the Santa Fe Trail.

Sharing an important figure in the profession’s amazing history to help foster a promising future isn’t easy, though. “It’s really going to cost a lot,” Quinby says. “We’ve achieved quite a bit and a lot is just local surveyors adding in, but what we’re trying to do is get the monument paid for, the engravement paid for, the actual placemat and all the little things tied in. The rest of it’s all going towards the presentation part.”

To help construct a suitable memorial for Brown, MSPS is happy to accept donations. The St. Louis chapter of MSPS has posted additional information on the initiative and how to make a contribution on its website at