General Land Office Surveys as a Source for Arkansas History: The Example of Ashley County

By Bragg, Don C. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

General Land Office Surveys as a Source for Arkansas History: The Example of Ashley County


Bragg, Don C., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


ON LOOKING AROUND AT THIS COR[NER] I cannot but observe the wild & desolate looking appearance of the place. The forest trees are large & blackened by the overflow, long grape vines & rattan vines hung in disorder on all sides. Huge trunks of trees lie on the ground blackened by the fire & broken into fragments by their fall. Nothing indicated the presence of man. We have seen no sign of life, Save that exhibited by the black mosquito, the Rattlesnake & the Bear.1

Deputy surveyor Caleb Langtree's rather bleak assessment of a landscape in southern Arkansas captures the struggle that was the General Land Office (GLO) survey. Charged with laying the foundation for settlement of territories ceded to the nation, the surveyors that traversed the public domain of the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries toiled under adverse and outright dangerous conditions.2 In addition to establishing the basis of land subdivision used to this day in most of the U.S., this pioneering effort was critical to regional and national development. The work of the GLO mapped previously uncharted territories, evaluated settlement potential, and propelled vast numbers of people to remote and wild sections of America.3

GLO surveyors also played an unwitting role in creating sources that advance our understanding of the past. Ecologists, foresters, and archeologists have long used GLO survey notes to assist them in reconstructing presettlement vegetation.4 The notes left by the surveyors also include many observations of historical interest, especially since they traversed the countryside at the very beginning of American settlement. Thus, the GLO represents an important but underutilized source of evidence that predates most other written accounts.5 Information collected from the Ashley County area in southeastern Arkansas illustrates the potential of these records for historical research.6

GLO surveys were often the work of skilled observers. Well-regarded and relatively educated individuals, government surveyors had mastered technical tasks requiring considerable precision. Many prominent American leaders, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, had been professional land surveyors at some point in their lives, and other surveyors were of considerable local renown.7 For instance, Nicholas Rightor, one of the more productive GLO surveyors in Arkansas, co-founded and platted the city of Helena before exploring and mapping parts of the Texas Gulf Coast for Stephen F. Austin.8 His colorful surveying narratives have provided an abundance of historical and ecological information for contemporary researchers. Another deputy surveyor, John R. Conway, was a member of an early Arkansas political dynasty, with his father and brothers serving as governors, congressmen, or in other high-level positions in the territorial and state governments.9

Not all GLO employees were reputable individuals, however. Some took advantage of their positions to identify prime lands and used this knowledge for personal gain. Land speculation helped drive the establishment of the Government Land Office because people needed clear and unequivocal title to property if they were to profit.10 William Rector, the surveyor general of the Missouri Territory from 1812 until 1824, was dismissed for nepotism and concerns over the quality of the work of his contractors.11 Surveyors were sometimes guilty of poor technique, sloppiness, and even fraud. The Arkansas GLO records contain numerous "resurveys" conducted to clarify questionable efforts. An 1826 letter from William McRee to George Graham, the commissioner of the General Land Office, reported,

The whole of Mr. Rightors [survey work] lying South of the Arkansas River was rejected: And it consists principally of the Exterior boundaries of Townships, about 11 of which have been subdivided by other Surveyors, whose work is consequently affected by the errors of Mr. …

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General Land Office Surveys as a Source for Arkansas History: The Example of Ashley County
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