Stakes Outgun Colt Revolver

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


January 1988

Valentine Nebraska - Romance has it that Colt's revolver practically tamed the West.  Doubtless it had great influence.

But commanding far more authority in settling the frontier were the small section stakes called "government monuments."  Set firmly into the ground at intervals of six miles at the township, a mile at the section and others at the half mile, or quarter section, the stakes provided accurately marked sites from which settlers located their claims.

Literally planted across the land by government surveyors over a period of decades, the stakes had far greater influence in turning America's vast untamed prairies into a domestic homeland for the pioneer than did the sting of any bullet.

The "Metes and Bounds" system, a method describing land locations by existing landmarks, was used until the Revolutionary War, especially throughout 17 east coast states and in Texas.  Too often roads were moved, trees decayed or fields were cleared of boulders and the landmarks were destroyed.  When the method proved inadequate, township and section corner monuments came into use.

On May 7, 1785, Congress adopted the Rectangular System to measure land, dividing areas first into six-mile square townships and then into mile square sections.  Thirty-six sections, with numbers beginning the in the northeast corner and ending in the southeast corner, made up a township.  States surveyed since 1785, principally most of the western states, adopted the Rectangular System.

The survey in Nebraska began in 1854 when a base line was established west from the Missouri River at the 40th degree of latitude on what became the Kansas-Nebraska boundary.  At a point 108 miles west of the river, a north-south line, the 6th Principal Meridian, was established.  This became the "naming" or controlling line for all land in Nebraska.  All land east of this line is referred to as "east of the 6th Principal Meridian" and all land west, as "west of the 6th Principal Meridian."

Many of the original section corner locations were established with native stone or cedar posts, both durable and resistant to deterioration.  Wooden stakes often were charred to further resist decay.  Durable material also was placed at the base to make it possible to relocate corners, should the stake be removed.  Charcoal, readily available from early campfires, was most often used, although some glass has been found.  Survey parties were required to keep field notebooks each day to list distances measured, description and quality of land, any natural objects and how each corner was marked.

Trees often were used as reference and corner monuments if they grew at logical locations.  A portion of the bark on a "bearing tree" was stripped away and location data was carved into the trunk.

Cherry County Surveyor, Lloyd Smith, has in his collection of survey artifacts a carved portion of a pine tree, which had deteriorated and was no longer of significant value.  The corner position at this point was restored to its original location by reference on live bearing trees.

Land survey progressed rapidly north and west across Nebraska as settlers claimed the land.  By 1857, 7,000 miles of survey line was run, but it took years to survey the entire state.  Stakes sometimes were destroyed, especially by Indians when they realized their land was being taken from them.

Survey parties suffered constant hardship and danger.  With tents their only shelter, some survey crews, as well as their horses to death during sudden winter storms.  Gnats, mosquitoes and green-head flies caused daily discomfort in summer.  Ague, a fever accompanied by chills, also was common.

The last survey in the state was made in Sheridan County at the Gates of Sheridan Reservation 56 years after the first survey had begun.

It took eight years, from 1874 until 1882, to survey Cherry County.  Parts of the county were re-surveyed by the U. S. General Land Office in the early 1900s.  Corner locations found and restored at that time were monumented with iron pipes and brass caps, the caps inscribed with designated sections and the year.

These monuments, or stakes, were 36 inches long and flanged at the bottom.  Normally township and section corner monuments were three inches in diameter.  Quarter-section corners at the half mile were one inch diameter.  Less expensive aluminum monuments with magnets placed in the cap, and in some instances at the base, are presently used to replace lost corners.

"The first two general rules followed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is the predecessor of the U. S. General Land Office, are controlling upon the location of all public lands," Smith said.  "They are, one, the boundaries of the public lands when approved and accepted, are unchangeable.  And, two, the original township, section and quarter-section corners must stand as the true corners, which they were intended to represent, whether in the place shown by the field notes or not.

"It is up the surveyor in the progress of his surveys to determine that these corners are in the true position that they were placed," he added.

"Witness corners were established at recorded distances on lines that intersect the true corner point when those points were inaccessible, for instance, should they intersect in a lake or a river," Smith explained.  "Presently all such township, section, quarter-section and quarter-quarter section corners found or set are retrenched to other permanent features or monuments and recorded, so that if destroyed, their position can be restored by simple point-to-point measurements."

Early settlers often moved onto land before it was surveyed and claimed whatever suited them best.  After Indians were placed on reservations in 1877-78 and the Newman ranch was established at the mouth of Antelope Creek on the Niobrara, northern Nebraska fast became the gateway for the beef issue.  After the spring of '79 when Newman cowboys found cattle had overwintered in the Sandhills, open range ranches soon dotted the meadow lands.  Mile after mile of free grass lay in between and, with no fences to contain them, cattle grazed from waterhole to waterhole and everything in between.

The cattlemen were as disturbed as the Indians, then, to see the land surveyed and homesteaders trekking in.  Countless range wars ensued.  Homesteaders formed claim clubs, cattlemen cut fences and blood was shed on both sides.  But in the end, the government stakes remained in place and the land was settled.

The 160 acres allotted by the Homestead Law of 1862 were inadequate at best in farming areas and proved to be a mere subsistence in the Sandhills.  The Kinkaid Act of 1904 allowing homesteaders 640 acres offered promise, but it, too, proved inadequate.  Family members who could legally qualify filed on adjoining homesteads in order to acquire a tract of land large enough to make a living.

The law required homesteaders to live on their land at least part of each year.  Countless incidents occurred where ingenious settlers established homes across section lines.  Perhaps the most interesting incident was that of four brothers who built their house where the four sections intersected, thereby meeting the residence requirement in one house.  They had chained the location themselves, but a later survey showed their calculations inaccurate.  The house sat on only one of the sections.  One brother was able to patent his claim, but the others had failed residency requirements and lost theirs to claim jumpers when their claims were contested.

Disputes erupted over fences not positioned on the survey line and many fences were moved.  A field notebook published by the University of Minnesota indicates a strip of land one foot wide and one mile long contains only .12 acres and a strip eight feet wide and a mile long only .96 acres.  Landowners aware of these facts oftentimes found it more feasible to establish a line of agreement rather than to bear the expense of a survey.

Without a doubt the land survey helped tame the West.  The initial point of that base line and the 6th Principal Meridian established in 1854 was re-identified on the Nebraska-Kansas border near Reynolds, Nebraska, during a June 11 dedication ceremony.

Dawes County Surveyor Ronald Curd has located and photographed the point of original survey at the northwest corner of the state.  Curd and Smith hope to relocate the initial point of survey where the Nebraska-South Dakota line was established on the Keya Paha River.


Taken from the Lifestyles section of the North Platte Nebraska Telegraph


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