Studio photograph of a surveying party, 1876, posing with typical tools and weapons found on a surveying expedition. Top row, left to right: Richard P. von Blucher, Grove R. Crafts, Charles F.H. von Blucher, Surveyor in Charge. Bottom row, left to right: George A. von Blucher, Philip Fullerton, Hilario Martinez.[3]

Getting the Lay of the Land — Pioneer Surveying in Texas

The Oxford English Dictionary defines survey as to “examine and record the area and features of (an area of land) so as to construct a map, plan, or description.”[1] This definition barely scratches the surface of the difficulties and dangers contended with by those who took up this task in the pioneer era of Texas.

Surveyors dealt with many obstacles on the frontier, including sometimes rugged terrain, dangerous wildlife, uncooperative settlers, and the occasional violent altercation with indigenous peoples. The nature of their jobs also meant that they had to traverse literally uncharted territory.

The archives of the General Land Office hold numerous examples of the difficulties faced by surveyors who completed the task of plotting the foundation of Texas’ land system as it expanded from its early origins to encompass the boundaries we recognize today.

A record of the sometimes violent confrontations between settlers and Native Americans, this affidavit for the loss of a conditional headright certificate was filed with the Land Office in 1847. In it, John McKimm testifies that his certificate was “placed in the hands of a surveyor, who is said to have been killed by the indians [sic], and that the said certificate was lost or mislaid…”[7]

Pioneer Land Surveying in the Spanish and Mexican Period (Pre-1836)

Jorge Antonio Nixon, Special Commissioner to the Lorenzo de Zavala, David G. Burnet, and Joseph Vehlein empresario contracts, drafted a set of surveying instructions based on previous interations, including those of Austin’s Colony.[4]

The remoteness of Texas from the centers of government in New Spain left authorities little choice but to decentralize the implementation of surveying practices.

The complicated nature of Spanish titles required approval from officials at various levels of government and a survey in order to perfect a title. There were no professional surveyors in the newly settled lands north of the Río Grande, leading to errors and less-than-perfect surveys.

Laws drafted after Mexico’s independence from Spain allowed governors to appoint commissioners for land distribution, who in turn, appointed and supervised surveyors. These commissioners drafted regulations that instructed surveyors on issues like vacant lands, permanent landmarks, rivers, principal creeks, and the amount of land called for in the order of survey.

As the first empresario to receive the government’s approval to organize the location of American settlers in Texas, it fell to Stephen F. Austin to devise a system of land distribution based on his experience and pre-existing instructions. Austin set in place the surveying standards for his colony and resolved the practical problems of surveying it by employing the surveying system of “metes and bounds.” Although most surveying equipment and practices, methods of calculating surveys, and surveyors themselves came from the United States, the profession required the adjustment of the various surveying chains to the Mexican vara.[2]

These field notes, written in English by surveyor Byrd Lockhart and later translated into Spanish for the title, also include a detailed plat of the quarter-league tract granted to Benjamin Fulcher located on the Guadalupe River.[5]

The surveying practices instituted in Austin’s Colony became the basis for the instructions provided by other commissioners and principal surveyors at later dates during Texas’ Mexican period. It should be of no surprise that many of these same regulations were carried over in the surveying instructions issued by John P. Borden, a surveyor in Austin’s Colony and the first commissioner of the General Land Office of the Republic of Texas.

[Detail of] Instructions to Surveyors, 1838, issued by John P. Borden, first Land Commissioner of Texas.[6]

Surveying in the Republic and State of Texas (post-1836)

Rusk County Surveyor James King expresses his exasperation in 1863, claiming that “if this is not correct, I cannot make it correct.” King asserts that “I have surveyed a half million of acres for the old government and this is the most difficult survey to make I have ever made oweing [sic] to the cane and briars in the Sabine Bottom.”[8]

The search for the best, most productive lands often took surveying parties well beyond the boundaries of established settlements. They frequently explored frontier territory historically controlled by Native Americans who viewed the surveyors’ work as an incursion onto their lands. The encounters between settlers and natives sometimes ended in violence. This led to armed surveyors on the frontier adopting the role of an unofficial first line of defense for the settlers they were serving. Although the frequency of these violent encounters diminished over time, surveyors were continually exposed to danger.

Many additional factors made frontier life hard for surveying parties. Changing weather conditions, poor first aid options, and a potential scarcity of resources affected their health. Snakes, coyotes, scorpions, and other dangerous wildlife threatened their safety. Conducting business with uncooperative landowners presented another challenge, as some people were distrustful of the government or anyone they believed might be trying to trick or steal from them. Finally, the land itself became a final obstacle, with certain areas of Texas presenting a terrain that was inhospitable and difficult to navigate, even for the most hardened frontiersmen. Despite the myriad challenges surveyors faced, they were able to accurately measure property lines that formed the basis for land ownership in Texas.

A suspicious rancher wrote to the Commissioner of the Land Office in regards to a “sneaking surveyor” who he believed had been on his property, threatening that “a #10 boot should be applied to the suitable portion of the gentleman’s anatomy” should anything dishonest occur.[9]

[1], accessed 1/13/16.

[2] The vara (33 1/3 inches in Texas law) is a standard linear unit of measurement that was introduced into the New World by the Spanish, but eventually it included local variations, such as 33 inches in California and 32.99 inches in Mexico. The vara is still a unit of measurement in Texas. The earliest surveyors used a waxed rope (to prevent shrinkage when wet), and later a linked-metal vara chain to measure distances. This chain is the equivalent of ten varas. Today, the linked-metal chain has been replaced by lasers and GPS.

[3] Image courtesy Charles F.H. Blucher Family Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Mary and Jeff Bell Library, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Texas.

[4] Nixon’s instructions to surveyors, 1834, Box 78, Folder 67, p. 1, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[5] English Field Notes to the Benjamin Fulcher Grant, 1831, English Field Notes, Book Lockhart, page 238–239, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[6] John P. Borden Instructions to Surveyors, 1838, Deputy Surveyors Field Note Book, p. 260, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[7] Affidavit regarding the loss of a certificate, 24 June 1847, LIB 2–17, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[8] Plat to the Sarah English Grant, 21 December 1863, RUS 1–109, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[9] Letter, E.M. Hughes to J.T. Robison, 23 March 1914, TRA-2–209, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

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