Published On: Tue, May 2nd, 2017

Historian looks at surveying the Nebraska Territory

After Nebraska became a U.S. Territory and the Indians were packed off to reservations, land could be acquired by settlers for  $1.25 an acre. Before legal title could be conveyed, however, the land had to be surveyed. People who claimed land before it was surveyed were called squatters. Although squatting was frowned upon by the federal government, the Nebraska Territorial Legislature encouraged it by permitting settlers to preempt 320 acres — double the federal limit of 160 — and hold it until the land was surveyed.

The first surveying contract in Nebraska was awarded to J.P. Johnson on Nov. 2, 1854. The contract provided for surveying a base line along the 40th parallel of latitude which forms the Kansas-Nebraska border. Johnson’s survey was done incorrectly, however, and had to be repeated by Charles A. Manners in 1855.

The starting point was marked by an iron column which stands today on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River in the southeastern corner of the state.

From the iron column, Manners surveyed a baseline 108 miles west at which point he marked the 6th Principal Meridian of longitude with a limestone block.

This initial point forms the basis for all surveys in Nebraska, Kansas and parts of Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. In 1987 the stone set by Manners was found buried beneath a dirt road on the Kansas-Nebraska state line. It was marked with a brass disk and reburied. A commemorative monument was erected nearby.

After marking the initial point, Manners went back 48 miles and set another stone marking the First Guide Meridian. From this point, Manners’ team began surveying north to the Missouri River in what is now Dakota County. This was completed in 1856. The stone set by Manners on June 24, 1855, was unearthed in 2005 and also marked with a commemorative brass disk.

After finishing the Guide Meridian, Manners surveyed the 6th Principal Meridian from the initial point on the Kansas-Nebraska border to the south bank of the Missouri River in what is now Cedar County. On July 22, 1857, Manners marked the spot with a post.

But the river channel changed and the post washed away. The site would be in the river channel roughly a mile north of the intersection of 558th Avenue and 898th Road. On April 20, 2007, a commemorative monument was erected on the bank south of Manner’s original post.

After the Principal Meridian was established. Manners surveyed standard parallels east to the Guide Meridian. Also known as correction lines, standard parallels were placed 24 miles apart to adjust for the curvature of the earth.

The Seventh Standard Parallel is just north of Laurel on what is now 870 Road. This survey was completed in July 1857. The Eighth Standard Parallel is 894 Road. (North-south county roads jog slightly to the east at correction lines.)

The land enclosed by the principal meridian, the guide meridian, and the standard parallels were then divided into townships six miles square. The townships were then subdivided into square mile sections containing 640 acres and quarter-sections of 160 acres.

Measurements were made by surveying teams of eight or ten men. On Manner’s team was at least one deputy surveyor to help determine the direction and record the measurements, two chainmen to do the measuring, two moundsmen to mark the corners, and two men to handle the mules and equipment. Measurements were made with a 66-foot chain that had to be held parallel to the ground and stretched tight. Eighty chains equaled one mile. On rough or hilly ground a 33-link chain often was used.

Township corners were marked with mounds six feet square and three-feet high. Section corners were marked with mounds 2.5 feet square and 2.5 feet high. Quarter-section corners were marked with smaller mounds. Each mound also was marked with an inscribed stake or rock. Few, if any, of the original survey mounds can be found today.

Most were destroyed when roads were put in along section lines.

Laurel is located in Section Four, Township Twenty-eight North, Range Three East of the Sixth Principal Meridian. This legal description means that the township containing Laurel is located at the intersection of the twenty-eighth ROW of townships north of Kansas-Nebraska border, and the third COLUMN of townships east of the 6th Principal Meridian. Section four is in the top row of sections in the township.

The Township containing Laurel was surveyed between August 1857 and November 1858. The township lines were laid out by Charles W. Pierce and G.A. Dunn. The section and quarter-section lines were surveyed by Lauchlan Maclean. The survey was completed in November 1858.

Surveyors were required to take notes describing each corner and how it was marked. The notes also contained a description of the land including any water, timber, prairies and mineral deposits.

The soil also was classified as first, second, or third rate. The following information was taken from the actual field notes of the surveyor who ran the section lines near the future site of Laurel in November 1858:

GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF LAND — Upland in this township is mostly gently rolling prairie with second rate soil. The bottom lands are wet and subject to overflow. The township has an abundant supply of water, but does not contain any timber or stone.

Between sections 4 and 5. Chains 40.00–Drove charred stake and set post in mound as per instructions for quarter-section corner. Chains 41.00 — Leave upland and enter creek bottom. Bears southeast and northwest. Intersected seventh standard parallel north at 9.13 chains west of standard corner to sections 32 and 33 at which point I drove a charred stake and set post in mound as per instructions to closing corners to sections 4 and 5. Land, first 41 chains, rolling prairie.

Soil second rate. Balance wet bottom, soil first rate. — Dated November 1858.

The quarter-section stake and mound would have been set near what is now the intersection of West First Street and Highway Twenty. The second charred stake and mound would have been located somewhere near the Logan Creek bridge. The highway curves north of town and is not on the section line. The surveyor also drew a map which shows the Logan Creek running north to south through the exact center of Section 4. If accurately drawn, this would have the Logan bisecting Main Street somewhere between Oak and Cedar. On Feb. 12, 1859,  the map and notes were placed on file in the Surveyor General’s office in Nebraska City. The land around the future site of Laurel was now legally available to purchase.

Postscript: Charles A. Manners, one of the first white men to set foot on the future site of Laurel, died at his home in Taylorville, IL, Jan. 31, 1888. Charles W. Pierce died in Nebraska City Feb. 23, 1908. Lauchlan Maclean rose to the rank of Colonel in the Confederate Army. He was stabbed to death on Dec. 23, 1864, during an altercation with another Confederate officer.