It Has Been Measured

locke2When Thomas Jefferson was asked to write the Declaration of Independence in late June 1776, he did so in just a few days. The document we know isn’t terribly long, but the draft he delivered to the Second Continental Congress was much longer, and the original draft was heavily edited, revised and diluted by committee. One phrase that was in both the original and final versions is, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Why did this phrase appear in both versions? Jefferson was a well-read person; his home Monticello was filled with the works of contemporary and historic philosophers. In fact, one of Jefferson’s favorite thinkers was English philosopher John lockeLocke. Locke originally posited (in “Two Treatises on Government”) the idea that a person’s right to live a healthy life, free to amass and maintain property — “life, health, liberty and property” — is one granted by God. Locke also reasoned that our fates are determined by God; no other individual may interfere with that fate

Locke….cites property as a natural right. Clearly, Jefferson took Locke’s concept of the right to life and liberty and applied it to the fledgling United States and its citizens in the Declaration of Independence.


lockeeeOwnership of property can be simply expressed as, “This is mine; that is yours” or “This is mine; it is not yours.” The ability to make a distinction between what is mine and what is yours is necessary to individual liberty, and the land surveys that preceded the settling of the the country were the result of a basic truth:  if we cannot establish where my ownership ends and yours begins, no one can effectively claim to own anything.

Land surveys were necessary precedent to the Oklahoma Land Rush, necessary to the development of the farmlands of Iowa and eventually, Wyoming ranches – as they moved beyond open range grazing of herds of cattle numbering in the tens of thousands.


The following is from Story of the Great American West (Reader’s Digest Association, 1977)

Surveyors–Forerunners of Orderly Settlement

locke5The surveyor of the late 1700s relied principally on his compass and chain. The compass, mounted on a tripod, gave the direction of survey lines; the 66-foot chain, with links of standardized length, measured distances. A plumb bob hung from the tripod marked the starting point for measurement. In the field, the surveyor locke4sighted on some prominent landmark, or his sighting pole, while his chainman measured the distance.

….A well-trained surveyor could get accurate results even with his simple instruments; however, errors often occurred, giving rise to disagreements and lawsuits among later landholders.

Now somewhere in our seven hundred acres of pasture was a geodetic survey marker. One day our Dad took us to the place where it sat countersunk in the short prairie grass and gave us a short history of the business of the surveying of the prairies, circa eighteen hundred and something.

locke8Seeing that marker anchored in the sod and trying to understand that it was linked by measurement to every other such survey marker in the west stirred a conscious effort in my thoughts that day, and I tried to peer through the little I understood to understand something new.

I could not comprehend the unknowns or the vastness of the land but knowing all those markers were out there changed my understanding of the bit of prairie on which I stood. No matter how vast our almost twelve hundred acres seemed – it had been measured. That was interesting to think about.

locke3In the spring of 1805 Lewis and Clark went through our neck of the woods as they headed west. Their return trip brought them back to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Then the government and the railroads  geared up for the opening of the Great American West to the pioneers and their plows, and surveying was essential.

Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged Western migration by providing settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land. After six months of residency, homesteaders also had the option of purchasing the land from the government for $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act led to the distribution of 80 million acres of public land by 1900.

It’s remarkable that the surveying which would become the linchpin of secure land descriptions and the basis for settling and owning land was completed as early as it was. I think that’s quite an achievement no matter how you cut it.

Not all surveying was well done, of course, and there were occasional zippy criticisms of certain individuals published in the local papers which went into some detail about the sloppiness of their work.  On October 26, 1877, one such critique appeared in the Weekly Journal in the home town of my husband’s great-grandparents in west central Minnesota.

One J. R. King had done serious disservice to the good citizens of Otter Tail County, Minnesota in earlier days. The writer of this dripping-with-sarcasm piece was not about to let him quietly skulk off and impose his surveying skills on Ramsey County, which includes present day St. Paul.

Consider the utterly civil use of language clearly intended to do serious damage to Mr. King’s reputation in his new environs. Apparently Mr. King was a flat out liar and this well-equipped local wit who knew the whole story made good use of his opportunity to share.

We notice that down in Ramsey County, one J. R. King is running for county surveyor.

Can these things be? And is he really the gentle galoot who, in the high old democratic days before the flood, surveyed some of the towns in Otter Tail county?

Take Aurdal, for instance. A town full of lakes, and with the Red River running through it, in which – as competent surveyors assure us – no foot of meander surveys were made on the ground, although some 40 miles of such appear on the map and of course, were paid for by Uncle Samuel.

When Mr. Jones, who owns a quarter section on the west side of the Red River ascertains definitely that his land is on the east side of the river, and that Mr. Smith owns it, then Mr. Jones swears. There are many Mr. Joneses in Aurdal and profanity is on the increase.

We tremble for the morality of the rising generation in that district.

….and now the writer warms to the revelation of  Mr. King’s fraudulent descriptions of woodlands and forest where there was actually a huge lake. I suggest you read this out loud to get the full benefit of the writer’s work.

Over in the northeast part of the town, the township plat and field notes show a fine beautiful tract of land, covered with forests of stately oak and juicy maple, where the antlered deer and the bob-tailed rabbit roamed in peace and security through the undulating wilds.

The surveyor’s notes revel in gorgeous description of the beauty and fertility of this remarkable tract of land, and the minuteness and fidelity of his delineations merit volumes of praise.

At his section corners, he tells us with a truly remarkable precision the size and character of each tree and the exact distance and direction of the same from the section corner.

Alas, that sweet and soft illusion must be dispelled.

William Tell was a myth. John Smith was not saved by Pocohontas and Shakespeare was Bacon. Daniel Webster didn’t say, “I still live.” George Washington could tell a lie, and J. R. King could see him and go one complicated official oath better.

All that beautiful region in northeastern Aurdal is known as Big lakeFish Lake, a deep and beautiful sheet of water, some three miles across. We have no heart for comment.

When that bold surveyor made that comprehensive oath – the pre-curse, so to speak, of many others – he must have been only Jo. King. Which, of course, was nothing to speak of.

So not all surveyors were good guys, and not all surveying was lawsuit-proof or accurate even under the best of efforts, but it was an amazing effort that was necessary to the building of our nation. Skills. Math. Truth. Equipment. Years of effort. Lots of paper and documentation.

It’s good to engage with things that elicit wonder and present mystery. Sometimes the wonder and mystery may rise out of incomplete knowledge that can be corrected by a few years of growing up or reading a book. Sometimes the wonder and mystery can be chased for a lifetime.

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