The Surveyors

by Walter Mow

The story of western expansion in the United States is missing a major part, that of the surveyor. Ted Morgan’s book, “Wilderness at Dawn” succinctly puts it all in perspective. “Before the soldier, before the settler, before the missionary, came the meticulous and peaceable surveyor”…

The Public Land Act of 1796 mandated the surveying of Public Land for sale. The act created the office of Surveyor General; an office that President Washington felt needed a most honorable and honest man to be Surveyor General. After 3 months of deliberation, General Rufus Putnam, a surveyor with 20 years experience was named to the post. The act also established two field offices, one in Pittsburg and one in Cincinnati.
NOTE: Rufus Putnam and General Israel Putnam were cousins. Washington being an accomplished surveyor himself was probably the best qualified to make the decision to hire General Putnam.

From 1796 to May1800 surveyors only laid out entire sections (640 acres) for sale. May 7, 1800 the surveyors had to resurvey large tracts from a section to a half section (320 acres) only to have the law lower the acreage to one quarter section (160 acres) by 1804. This would create backlogs and allow unscrupulous surveyors and land office clerks called registers by subterfuge to hold title to prime properties. Although not allowed to bid on lands themselves, they often used an accomplice to acquire lands for themselves and speculation.


President James Madison ordered the surveying and sale of public lands be transferred to the General Land Office in 1812. The land office was run by Commissioner Edward Tiffin and he would appoint Josiah Meigs Surveyor General. In a strange run of affairs in 1815, Tiffin, from Ohio wished to return home and prevailed on the president to allow him and Meigs to exchange jobs.

In March 1815 Tiffin would write Meigs that he was continually harried to finish surveys pertaining to the 6 million acres set aside for veterans of the War of 1812. Harassment by Indians would complicate the issue. Surveyors found that swampy grounds could be surveyed faster when the ground was frozen, that the prairies were more favorable to surveying in the spring.

As the need for surveyors grew, the more corrupt the system became. The Rector brothers were among the worst offenders, shoddy surveys, inaccurate records and unfinished reports. The lack of qualified surveyors tied Meigs hands he had little choice but to allow the Rector brothers to continue to contract out the surveying duties. Congress would become aware of the Rector brothers in 1821.

Senator David Barton of Missouri wrote President James Monroe urging William Rector be indicted for misconduct. William’s brother, Thomas Rector would kill the Senator’s brother Joshua in a duel stemming from the argument on Bloody Island June 30, 1823. President James Monroe would remove William Rector from his post in the fall of 1824.
Chicanery would continue to plague the General Land Office and its Surveyor General. Treasury Secretary George Bibb recommended to President John Tyler that Valentine Conway be removed from office. In 1844 Conway would be charged with malfeasance and embezzlement.

To the credit of the General Land Office, discrepancies were remedied over time. By and large the field surveyors were honest hard working individuals. Working in conditions that would try most individuals, they would plat the lands of the United States. Every President from Washington to Truman was involved with the General Land Office is some capacity. President Harry Truman would be the last President to preside over the General Land Office; it would close for business in 1946, 150 years after it began its mission to plat the public lands for sale.

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