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GLO Notes: An Invaluable Resource for Ecologists

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Wednesday, January 31, 2018

by Brent Baker

Since ANHC staff work to preserve and restore natural communities and native species, it’s important to understand their historical context. We often need to know what the habitats were like hundreds of years ago, before settlement and alteration by European-Americans. What were the natural fire and hydrologic regimes at the time? How have plant and animal populations changed and moved over time? These are just a few of the questions and issues natural resource managers deal with. Any resources that can give us much needed historical insight are highly valued.

One such historical resource we’re lucky to have access to in Arkansas is the repository of the General Land Office (GLO) survey notes. The GLO was a federal agency established in 1812 and originally tasked with the surveying, platting, and selling of government-owned lands in what was then considered the “Western” U.S. Its function evolved over time and it was eventually merged with another agency to form the Bureau of Land Management. Although a federal agency, the bulk of the GLO work was coordinated through territorial and later state offices. In the early years of statehood, the Arkansas State Auditor’s Office was in charge of the local GLO duties. These duties and the GLO archive of books, papers, titles, plats, and maps were transferred to the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands Office upon its creation in 1868. The remaining original GLO survey notebooks as well as later transcriptions have been digitized and are available to the public on the Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands website .

Land surveys of the Louisiana Purchase (also called the Louisiana Territory) were initiated in 1815 in order to meet the immediate needs of allocating bounty lands promised to military veterans of the War of 1812, but the platting and selling of public lands continued long after. The starting point for the surveys was determined by establishment of the Fifth Principle Meridian running north of the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers and the Base Line running west of the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi rivers. The point where these lines intersected was established as the starting point (or “Initial Point”) for the land surveys. This point is now commemorated by a historical marker (photo at left) within the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park/Louisiana Purchase Natural Area at the corner of Lee, Monroe, and Phillips counties, Arkansas. The surveys would continue for decades throughout portions of the original Louisiana Purchase, including throughout all of present-day Arkansas.

This survey system, called the U.S. Public Land Survey System (PLSS), is a rectangular grid system that divides land into square townships and uniform subdivisions. It was still relatively new when the survey of the Louisiana Purchase commenced and was a departure from the older and more unwieldy “metes and bounds” system imported from England and used in much of the Eastern U.S. That earlier system used identifiable objects or land features, called “monuments”, as property markers. The distances and directions from monument to monument were recorded as property boundaries. Monuments, however, were not always permanently located, creating many land parcel discrepancies and boundary disputes.

In the PLSS, the 6-mile-square townships are further divided into 36 one-mile-square sections, each ideally containing 640 acres. Sections could then be further divided into quarter sections (160 acres) and quarter-quarter sections (40 acres). This created a relatively consistent acreage and boundary division of land, although errors, both accidental and fraudulent, occurred. Difficulties in surveying such large distances over rough terrain and through sometimes dense vegetation, before the advent of modern survey and mapping tools, has led to sections that don’t always conform to the aforementioned ideal. Townships are identified by consecutive numbers north or south of the base line and by consecutive range numbers east or west of the principle meridian.

Surveyor crews in the early to mid-1800s varied in size, but often consisted of the official government surveyor (usually a deputy surveyor) from a Land Office along with a crew of up to four or five assistants that the surveyor would hire locally. Several of these assistants (called chainmen or chain carriers) would carry and place the chains at the surveyor’s direction. A chain is a specific unit of length (66 feet) that was measured by means of an actual chain of 100 link segments. There would sometimes be assistants designated as flagmen, who would flag off points along the survey line for sighting. Other assistants (called blazers) would blaze (or mark) witness and line trees. Sometimes there would even be a designated assistant in charge of keeping camp for the field crew. Picture at left of a Gunter chain used in surveying.

As the surveyors and their crews laid out the mile by mile grids, they would record relevant information in notebooks. At the very least they recorded the distances (in chains and links) of the lines and distances of landmarks, natural and manmade features, obstacles, and blazed “witness” and “line” trees. Witness trees were trees marked near section corners, and sometimes half-way along the section lines to mark the quarter section corners, as a means of more semi-permanently marking those spots (“bearing witness to the corners”). The compass bearings and distances to each tree from the corners were recorded as well as their diameters. Line trees were marked when the section line directly intersected them. Their distance along the line and diameters were recorded. The surveyors would also take general notes on the terrain, soil, and land cover, with the primary objective of noting whether the land was suitable for cultivation. If surveying through wooded areas, the surveyors would note the dominant timber trees and undergrowth. Some surveyors were more detailed and descriptive in their notes than others with regard to these latter items.

Other surveyors were even more generous in their documentation of details regarding the personal elements of their work and lives and those of their hired hands and even locals they came into contact with, providing interesting historical insights. However, it is the notes on land cover and vegetation that have proven invaluable for giving contemporary land managers an idea of what existed prior to extensive European-American settlement, and therefore target management goals. The notes can indicate where grasslands occurred, where wetlands occurred and their hydrologic regimes, how dense forests and woodlands were and which species of trees and shrubs were present and dominant, how open the understory was, whether fire was a historic component of a particular ecosystem, etc.


Photos from top to bottom, starting at top left:

Excerpt of original GLO notes from 1834 from the Little River bottoms near present-day White Cliffs Natural Area in Little River County, Arkansas. The surveyor describes entering a "Hurricane," an archaic term for a tornado track of downed trees. Upon leaving the tornado track, the surveyor writes that "here a squirrel fell from the top of a tree on my compass and broke the glass and flattened the point of the pivot so that the needle would not traverse." Someone also scribbled in the margin "fine places for hunting" (perhaps plotting some revenge on squirrels?).

Historical marker in cypress-tupelo swamp at the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park/Louisiana Purchase Natural Area at the corner of Lee, Monroe, and Phillips counties, Arkansas, commemorating the "Initial Point" at the intersection of the Base Line and the Fifth Principle Meridian. 

Graphic: Shows Townships and Ranges in relation to a Base Line and Principle Meridian, as well as Township and Section subdivisions. Ideally, each Section is a square mile with 640 acres.

Image of a Gunter chain from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, courtesy of John Johnson Allen.

Excerpt of transcription of GLO notes from 1837, noting an incidence of fire burning a survey crew's camp. There are numerous references to fire and smoke in the GLO notes, including several such records of fire destroying surveyors' camps. Such references are useful in helping modern land managers understand seasonality of fire (whether natural or human-induced) on the landscape before or shortly after European-American settlement of the area.

Images at the very bottom:

Left: Excerpt of transcription of GLO notes from near present-day Washington in Hempstead County, Arkansas. The numbers on the left indicate the distance in chains (before decimal) and links (after decimal) along the line from each Section corner starting point. When the line intersected a tree, the tree species was given as well as the diameter of its trunk. Each mile line was then summarized regarding its terrain, fitness for cultivation, and dominant timber trees and undergrowth.

Right: Excerpt of original GLO notes from 1839 from an area just south of present-day Dumas in Desha County, Arkansas. The surveyor explains the bad luck that befell one of his crew hands, noting that "heare [sic] Charles Penow, biten [sic] by a rattle snake, 6 feet in lenth [sic] and 4 inches in dia. and quite [sic] work, and Joseph Ambow suckseed [sic] him."

Bottom middle: A scan of an 1845 plat map from GLO records for a township in present-day Sevier County in southwestern Arkansas. The map shows the section and subsection divisions of the township as well as their acreages. It also shows major rivers and streams, roads, as well as locations of some buildings and farm fields in proximity to the section lines. 

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