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Part II: 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recognizes the importance of its archival collections by investing in equipment and staff to properly care for its historical documents and conduct agency business.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.

John P. Borden (left) and Thomas William Ward (right), the first two land commissioners of Texas, fought for over nine years to establish a drafting department at the General Land Office.

In Part I of this post, we covered the efforts of the first land commissioner, John P. Borden, to establish a permanent drafting department at the GLO. This week, we’ll follow his successor, Thomas William Ward, as he fought to make the GLO more efficient at doing the work of the people of Texas.

The first land commissioner of the Republic of Texas, John P. Borden, spent much of his tenure struggling against limited resources. One of his most important goals was to establish a permanent drafting department to create maps that were critical to conducting the business of the land office. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but his mission didn’t disappear once he left office.

Map of Washington County drawn by County Surveyor Nathan A. Clampitt in 1841. A professional drafting department would be able to produce better and more reliable maps for the GLO. Nathan A. Clampitt, Map of Washington County, 1841, Map #4126, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Not long after Borden’s resignation, President Mirabeau Lamar fell ill and was granted a leave of absence. This thrust the Vice President of the Republic of Texas, David G. Burnet, into the role of acting president. Less than two weeks later, Burnet nominated his old friend Thomas William Ward to replace Borden as land commissioner. Ward accepted, and on January 5, 1841, he became the second land commissioner of the General Land Office.[14]

The following month, Congress finally relented to one of Borden’s repeated suggestions by providing funding for a draftsman for the GLO. In Ward’s first report to Congress as land commissioner, he specifically praised this action, noting that “From the services of the Draughtsman of this office the County has derived much benefit, and would be more benefitted if we had two.” [15]

Ward praised the newly hired Draughtsman and speculated that having two would be even better for the agency.

In that same report, Ward echoed Borden’s frustration with a lack of accurate maps of titled lands and current surveys. However, Ward more forcefully began to advocate for the General Land Office to take control of the creation and maintenance of these maps instead of the county surveyors, who by this point were required by law to create and maintain the survey maps of their county. One angle Ward was particularly fixated on was the fact that county surveyors were elected positions, a condition he referred to as “Another evil which has grown with our statutes.” To him, these elected men “may have little or no interest in land of the County where they reside and vote” and “declare themselves incompetent to make a map of their county.” [16]

Incidentally, this first report to Congress by Ward is also illustrative in the differences in personality between Borden and Ward. Where Borden was mostly considered a quiet though effective leader, Ward had a reputation for being someone who did not suffer fools and was tenacious when he felt he was right. Indeed, in the written reports from each commissioner, Ward comes across as much less interested in decorum and pulled no punches when it came to identifying the rampant problems in the agency. Suggesting elections were “evil” in the context of county surveyors and questioning the competence of those elected is a great example of this contrast in styles and personalities of the first two commissioners.

Ward questioned the competence of elected county surveyors and referred to this process as “Another evil which has grown with our statutes.”

The election of Sam Houston as president in September of 1841 impacted both the General Land Office and Commissioner Ward in profound ways. Houston defeated Ward’s close friend Burnet, for whom Ward had been an outspoken advocate, in the election. The election was particularly nasty with Burnet leveling many character attacks on Houston. Ward was therefore placed in a bit of an uncomfortable situation having to serve as commissioner under Houston. He had only about a year remaining in his term, so it was an open question whether Houston would reappoint him.[17]

Houston had campaigned on frugality, and immediately after his victory began cutting the republic’s budget, including reducing staff numbers and cutting salaries for clerks, including the land commissioner’s. Ward saw his annual salary cut from $3,000 to $1,200. Congress intervened, however, and responded by increasing Ward’s salary to $1,500 and then authorizing an increase in funding for staffers — including funding for the second draftsman that Ward had asked for in his 1841 report. Unfortunately, the appropriations were far too low to retain the current GLO draftsman H.L. Upshur (whose salary was cut from $3,000/year to $700/year), much less attract another one.[18]

Map of Washington County drawn by the first GLO draftsman, H.L. Upshur in 1841. Compare the quality of this map drawn by a professional draftsman to the previous map done by a county surveyor. H.L. Upshur, Map of Washington County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1841, Map #4122, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Perhaps the biggest impact of Houston’s election on the General Land Office was his efforts to remove the capital of the republic from Austin. Houston was never fond of the capital being moved to Austin in the first place, as he felt Houston was a much more secure location from any incursions from the Mexican army. With the specter of Mexican invasion growing steadily as 1842 progressed, Houston issued orders to remove the government archives (including those of the General Land Office) from Austin and transport them to Houston. Ward, who had become de facto political enemies with Sam Houston due to his support of Burnet, nonetheless felt bound by duty and chain of command and was determined to carry out Houston’s orders. He thus became embroiled in a months-long showdown with Austin residents that would later culminate in the “Archives War” when a group of local Austin residents seized the archives and prevented them from being taken from Austin.

Angelina Eberly fires a cannon during the 1842 Archives War. Image courtesy Austin History Center.

This “war” resulted in the official closure of the General Land Office from September 2, 1842, to May 1, 1843, when the agency reopened at Washington-on-the-Brazos without the precious land archives. However, the GLO was effectively closed from March of 1842 when Houston’s first orders to move the archives were issued. The archives remained in private hands until January 1844 and thus very little land-related business, such as the issuance of patents, was accomplished for the better part of two years.

Despite being cut off from the land archives, Ward still issued his report to Congress in the fall of 1843. He predictably noted his dismay that the archives remain in private hands. However, he also went into great detail in reiterating the continuing problems with the current arrangement whereby elected county surveyors are responsible for creating and maintaining connected maps of the counties. He condemned the 1840 law as “very inefficient to effect the object for which it was enacted” because it required the land commissioner to distribute copies of field notes of all surveys to the county surveyors, which he “cannot do until the Archives are obtained.” [19]

Ward noted that he could not fill his duties as land commissioner under the Act of 1840 due to the required records having been taken during the Archives War.

In the same report, Ward offered a detailed plan that he hoped will improve the situation and expedite the creation of the much-needed maps. This plan intended “to empower the Comr. of the Genl. Land Office to send a draftsman the tour of the whole Republic to every different county to compile at the land office, in each, a correct county map from the records, if any errors exist in the records the surveyor of the county will then be at hand to correct them.” Ward considered this an effective means to create reliable maps since “the making of maps is the duty of a draftsman and not of a surveyor,” and any discrepancies could be worked out between the two on the spot, in the presence of the county’s records. [20]

Ward even went as far as hiring a draftsman to carry out his plan — a “Mr. Hirt” — but sadly, as Mr. Hirt was making arrangements in preparation for travel, he fell ill and died. Ward noted that even though he approved the hiring of the draftsman at a salary of $1,000 per year, the comptroller refused to allow anything greater than $850. To Ward, this was “insufficient when we take into consideration the value of his services,” and would make the hiring of competent draftsmen difficult. [21]

Ward notes that he approved a draftsman’s salary for $1,000 per year, but the Comptroller would only allow $850. Ward explains that this is insufficient compensation for the draftsman because of the importance of his work at the agency.

By January of 1844, following Sam Houston’s orders, Ward returned to Austin and resumed control of the archives. The Archives War was over, and Ward effectively reopened the General Land Office in Austin. Several months passed as the GLO staff reorganized their records, and by June of 1844, the Land Office was back in full swing with the issuance of patents.

In his 1844 report to Congress, Ward was still very troubled and frustrated with the elected county surveyors and the lack of usable maps. For the first time, he suggested that the Commissioner of the General Land Office should appoint county surveyors instead of them being elected positions. This, he claimed, would enable the land commissioner to “chose [sic] officers in every way competent to perform their duty” and eliminate a system in which “the question with the county surveyor is, whether it is better for him to obey the people, from whom he receives his office or the Commissioner of the General Land Office” because the elected county surveyor “cannot serve two masters.” He also doubled down on his proposal for a traveling draftsman, asking that the land commissioner “be authorized to employ two draftsmen: one for territory East, and one for that West of the Brazos River” to compile official maps of each county to be used at the GLO to affordably replace the “grossly incorrect” maps currently in use and reduce litigation over land claims. [22]

Ward argued that the land commissioner should appoint county surveyors.

In late 1844 and into 1845, Ward acknowledged that Congress was not heeding his repeated annual pleas for reforms, so he decided to try to introduce legislation. With the help of some legislators, Ward drafted a bill that would most notably grant the Commissioner of the General Land Office the power to appoint county surveyors and transfer responsibility for county maps to the agency by hiring permanent draftsmen. Senator David Kaufman, a political ally to Ward, introduced the bill into the Senate and the outlook for its passage was positive. Sen. Kaufman in January of 1845 even commented to Ward that “I have no doubt of its passage.”[23] The House of Representatives had other ideas.

As Ward’s reform bill was being debated, the House introduced a bill that would serve to remove Ward from office. The House had developed a contentious relationship with Commissioner Ward stemming from his actions during and in the wake of the Archives War. There was also political resistance to Ward due to what was perceived as too slow a pace when it came to the issuance of patents due, Ward would argue, to a lack of accurate maps available to him. As a result of the House bill, Ward found himself fighting for his political life rather than championing a reform bill. Both the House and Senate passed the bill ousting Ward, but it was never enacted either because Anson Jones, the new President, vetoed the measure, or because Congress simply let the matter lapse with annexation to the United States looking almost certain.[24]

Ward did not give up after his reform bill died in the Legislature. Annexation seemed inevitable, with only details left to be worked out and agreed upon in the United States Congress. Because of this, delegates arrived in Austin in mid-1845 to work on a new constitution for the soon-to-be state. One of the key subjects of this constitution was to be the management of Texas’ public lands.[25] Ward made sure these delegates knew of his oft-proposed reforms and he made recommendations that the delegates ended up endorsing. In the end, the state constitution endorsed the General Land Office as the sole agency in charge of the management of Texas’ public lands but left many of the other issues up to the Legislature.[26]

In 1846, the Legislature created permanent land districts on Ward’s recommendation but refuted his idea to allow the commissioner to appoint the new district surveyors. They also rejected his proposal to have four traveling draftsmen to assist with the creation of the long-needed county maps, but they did finally consent to the idea of having two permanent draftsman positions at the General Land Office.[27] At long last, after almost nine years and the non-stop pleadings of two commissioners, the Land Office had a permanent drafting department. Ward even began to hire temporary draftsmen, including paying $20/month plus room and board in his own home to a young German immigrant named Charles Pressler, who went on to a long and productive career at the GLO.[28]

Herman Pressler, Map of Travis County, 1894, Map #16904, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The establishment of the drafting department began a new era where the General Land Office took charge of the creation and maintenance of the all-important “connected maps” first highlighted by John P. Borden and championed by Thomas William Ward. Their joint legacy in advocating for the Land Office drafting department resulted in thousands of beautiful — and more importantly, accurate — maps that served and aided the disposition and management of public lands in Texas for generations to come and remain invaluable to researchers and historians today.

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[14] David C. Humphrey, Peg Leg: The Improbable Life of a Texas Hero Thomas William Ward 1807–1872 (Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2009), p. 59.

[15] Annual Report — Commissioner Thomas W. Ward, 7 October 1841, Box 1, Folder 5, p. 9, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[16] Ibid., pp. 2–3.

[17] Humphrey, Peg Leg, p. 69.

[18] Ibid., p. 70.

[19] Annual Report — Commissioner Thomas W. Ward, 15 November 1843, Box 1, Folder 6, p. 5, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[20] Ibid., p. 6.

[21] Ibid., p 7.

[22] Annual Report — Commissioner Thomas W. Ward, 2 October 1844, Box 1, Folder 7, pp. 7–9, Commissioner Reports, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[23] Humphrey, Peg Leg, p. 106

[24] Ibid., pp. 105–108.

[25] The United States rejected Texas’ offer of all public lands in exchange for the forgiveness of Texas’ debt, and therefore Texas was able to manage its own public lands even as a state.

[26] Humphrey, Peg Leg, pp. 127–128.

[27] Ibid., p. 136.

[28] Ibid., p. 135.



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