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Part I: In Their Own Words — Two Commissioners’ Mission to Establish a Drafting Department at the GLO

The modern General Land Office recognizes the importance of its archival collections by investing in equipment and staff to properly care for its historical documents and conduct agency business. In its earliest days, however, the agency’s meager staff struggled to keep up with the pace of operations, in large part due to the absence of a permanent drafting department. It took nine years and the combined efforts of the first two land commissioners, documented in their own words in their annual reports, to finally establish the GLO’s drafting department, which greatly improved the agency’s efficiency and formed the basis for the 45,000-item map collection that endures today.

The General Land Office was established by an Act of the First Texas Congress on December 22, 1836.[1] John P. Borden, a veteran of the Texas Revolution, was appointed by President Sam Houston to lead the new agency as land commissioner. Borden’s first order of business was to obtain and centralize under the purview of the Land Office the land records that were spread out amongst the various pre-Republic colonies that were established when Texas was part of Mexico. Despite frustrations regarding a lack of budget or resources to aid in the acquisition of these records, Borden was able to successfully acquire a majority of the land records by 1837, absent only a few sets of colony records that were either withheld by loyalists to Mexico, destroyed during the war, or misplaced.[2]

Another important task for Borden was to determine which lands had already been granted to individuals under Spanish and Mexican sovereignty. An experienced surveyor who worked closely with Stephen F. Austin in his various colonization endeavors, he quickly realized that maps — specifically “connected maps” of each county — would be vital in accomplishing this objective.

“As it is all important that connected plats of the different Counties as far as now surveyed be made and as this cannot be done with propriety at any other place other than this office it is sincerely hoped that the present Land Law, when passed, will provide in some manner for the accomplishment of the above object; and while making this report it may not be considered irrelevant to suggest to your honourable body the necessity of making some appropriation of money with sufficient house room to enable me to have all such plats made out in due form.”

– John P. Borden in his first report to the Congress of the Republic of Texas, November 6, 1837.[3]

This was important since the Republic had designs to continue significant land grant programs. The new republic was heavily indebted due to the expenses of the war with Mexico and cash in the government coffers was extremely limited. However, Texas had one key source of wealth — its land. It was thus the goal of the republic to utilize this wealth by issuing land grants. These grants were intended to encourage immigration to the new country, as well as to pay for various infrastructure and soldiers to protect its new citizens from Native American raids and hostile Mexican soldiers.

Despite Borden’s plea for funds to allow the General Land Office to create these maps, money was not appropriated for this purpose, and it was very difficult for surveyors to make new, accurate surveys. Borden continued to voice his frustration with the lack of maps in his report to Congress in 1838, noting that “surveyors have not been able to discharge their duties for want of proper reference maps,” which resulted in confusion over whether lands have been deeded or not.[4]

Later that year, Borden took it upon himself as land commissioner to send letters to county surveyors[5] instructing them to produce connected maps “on a scale of 4000 varas to an inch with the names of the original claimant and the quantity marked on each survey” since the General Land Office could not.[6]

Yet despite these instructions, Borden’s frustrations only grew over the next year as there continued to be a dearth of useful survey maps, with “but seven connected maps of counties having been received owing in a great degree to the total want of knowledge” of the locations of older surveys and county boundaries. [7] This, in turn, made the approval of new surveys and the issuance of patents a nearly impossible task.

“Patents have not been issued to headrights for two principal reasons viz: the want of the necessary connected maps and the great uncertainty in the genuineness of the claim upon which many of the surveys have been made.”

– John P. Borden letter to His Excellency Mirabeau B. Lamar, October 23, 1839.[8]

It was also at this time that Borden formally offered a potential fix: the establishment of a new office of a surveyor general which would fall under the management of the General Land Office. This proposed position would serve as Texas’ central surveying authority and perform duties such as examining new field notes and overseeing the creation of connected maps. Borden argued that, without this office, “it will be impossible to issue patents without continual danger of conflicts.” [9]

This time, Congress appeared to take some heed of Borden’s suggestions. While the legislators did not approve the idea of a surveyor general’s office, they did pass legislation on February 5, 1840, requiring every county surveyor to create and maintain “a map on which all the surveys made in his county shall be laid down and properly ‘connected,’ which map shall be corrected at the end of each month.”[10]

Despite the passage of this law requiring a county surveyor to create and maintain connected maps, in Borden’s final report to Congress in 1840, he clearly blamed a lack of useful maps as a major barrier to the issuance of land patents noting that patents were prepared for the president’s signature on 71 surveys but “a much greater number could have been prepared had the necessary county maps been filed.” [11]

Borden repeated his suggestion of establishing a surveyor general’s office, pointing out with a hint of exasperation “though it be a third time,” but also offered yet another potential solution — the hiring of a draftsman. He “insist[ed] upon the necessity” of a draftsman to facilitate the “construction of county maps…and, when not otherwise engaged…examining and comparing the maps already filed in this office.” [12]

Less than two months later, on December 12, 1840, an ever-frustrated Borden resigned as Commissioner of the General Land Office. In retrospect, he deserves enormous credit for collecting and collating the land records after Texas’ independence, highlighting the importance of the General Land Office, and voicing the deficiencies in process and funding that created the barriers for the GLO to be at its most efficient. His work set the foundation for the archival collections of the modern GLO and the important work that the agency conducts on behalf of the people of Texas.[13] Despite his successes, Borden’s efforts to establish a permanent drafting department were ultimately unsuccessful during his tenure. His successor, Thomas William Ward took up where he left off and eventually succeeded.

Check out Part II of this post to read about Thomas William Ward’s tenure as land commissioner, and how he successfully argued for the establishment of a permanent drafting department at the General Land Office.

[1] Hans Peter Mareus Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 Volume 1 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898), pp. 1276–1284.

[2] Annual Report — Commissioner John P. Borden, 7 October 1837, Box 1, Folder 1, pp. 1–2, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[3] Ibid., p. 4.

[4] Annual Report — Commissioner John P. Borden, 10 April 1838, Box 1, Folder 2, pp. 2–3, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[5] Similar letters were sent to W.A. Ferris, Surveyor for Nacogdoches County and Adolphus Hope, Surveyor for Washington County on June 15, 1838.

[6] Annual Report — Commissioner John P. Borden, 14 June 1838, Box 1, Folder 2, p. 7, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[7] Annual Report — Commissioner John P. Borden, 23 October 1839, Box 1, Folder 3, p. 3, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] Ibid., p. 3.

[10] Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 Volume 2, p. 365–366.

[11] Annual Report — Commissioner John P. Borden, 17 October 1840, Box 1, Folder 4, p. 3, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[12] Ibid., p. 4.

[13] William N. Todd IV and Gerald Knape, “Borden, John Petit,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 05, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbo25.

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Texas General Land Office

Official Account for the Texas General Land Office | Follow Commissioner George P. Bush on Twitter at @georgepbush. www.txglo.org