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Survey. The act of surveying; the operation of finding the contour, dimensions, position, or other particulars of, as any part of the earth’s surface, whether land or water; also, a measured plan and description of any line or portion of country.

Surveying. That branch of applied mathematics which teaches the art of determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface, the lengths and directions of the bounding lines, the contour of the surface, &c., with an accurate delineation of the whole on paper.

Surveyor. One who views and examines for the purpose of ascertaining the condition, quantity, or quality of any thing; as, a surveyor of highways; surveyors of ordinance. One who measures land, or practices the art of surveying. – Webster, 1882

“Spring came, and with it the surveyors. Father used to go with them and one day he came home and said the town was all located. After dinner I went to the top of the hill, east of where the court house is, to see the town, and all I saw was a lot of stakes in the ground. I went back and told Mother there was nothing but a lot of sticks stuck in the ground and she told me that where they were would be houses, stores, a schoolhouse and a church.” – Carrie Ingalls Swanzey to Aubrey Sherwood, 1930

Surveyors are mentioned in By the Shores of Silver Lake, but not the job they do, which was an important one to the Ingalls family throughout the Little House books. From the Big Woods to the Dakota prairies, Charles Ingalls knew the boundaries of the farms he purchased, the claims he filed on, and the town lots he purchased because they had been surveyed. It was only when the Ingallses acted in advance of the original survey and squatted on land on the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas that they got into trouble.

There are no named surveyors in Pioneer Girl or the Little House books, but the Ingallses and Wilders knew one surveyor well: Samuel O. Masters. Trained in New York as a civil engineer, Masters was county surveyor both in Redwood County, Minnesota, and Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory (a position he held until his death). His job included administration over the county land records, review of property boundaries, and maintenance of permanent survey monuments. Masters laid out and surveyed some later additions to the original town of De Smet, including Brown’s First Addition, where the graded schoolhouse was built.

Although Wilder doesn’t differentiate between railroad surveyors and town lot surveyors in By the Shores of Silver Lake, these were separate groups of men working under the jurisdiction of different branches of the Chicago and North-Western (the hyphen was later removed). Both the railroad surveyors and town lot surveyors had access to the original surveys of more than fifty townships the railroad impacted, surveys made anywhere from days to years prior to their own work.

An original survey refers to the first created, marked, and documented record of the boundary of land grants made by the United States government. Public lands acquired by the federal government from states, a foreign country, or by the cession of Indian lands by treaty or purchase were legally designated according to the “Rectangular System” or the “Section, Township, Range” system. They were laid out in a large grid broken down by Section, Township, and Range (or fractional part thereof) identified by their distance from a particular Baseline and Principal Meridian, two lines which were at right angles to each other at a specific point on the earth. These two lines form the foundation for the surveys of all lands within the territory they control. Other land surveys, such as in Burr Oak, typically used a system of “metes and bounds,” which referred to descriptions of local vegetation and obvious physical features of the land (mountains, bodies of water, trees, rocks, proximity of buildings) for location of property boundaries. Original township survey maps are available online at the Bureau of Land Management website HERE. You can see all 24 survey maps available for “Kingsbury County, South Dakota” by entering the state and county only. If you know other details (such as township and range), you can narrow your search. De Smet was platted in Section 27, Township 111 North, Range 56 West of the 5th Principal Meridian. HERE is that township map.

Survey maps weren’t meant to be topographic maps recording the earth’s contours and changes in elevation, they were cadastral surveys showing government boundaries. However, major monumental features were typically included, such as buttes, sloughs, lakes, and rivers. You can easily spot Silver Lake on the 111-56 (Kingsbury D.T.) survey. Survey maps also record who conducted the surveys, the name of the Surveyor-General at the time of the survey, and when surveys were conducted. Note that there are no railroads shown on the 111-56 survey map, nor are there towns with lots/blocks indicated. Survey maps sometimes showed old exploration or Indian trails: the survey that includes the land in Walnut Grove and the Ingallses’ preemption claim in Redwood County, Minnesota, includes part of the 1859 trail made by Col. William H. Nobles through Minnesota into Canada. Walnut Grove is in Redwood County, Minnesota, in Township 109 North, Range 38 West of the 5th Principal Meridian. Can you find that original survey on the BLM website?

Portion of site plan and elevation survey maps for the Winona & St. Peter Railroad through Lake Benton, Minnesota, in 1879. Drawings were sent to the Chicago & North-Western offices in Chicago. – Papers of Charles Wood Irish. Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

RAILROAD SURVEYORS. The pioneer head railroad surveyor was typically a civil engineer with a sense of adventure. He was trained to make complex calculations in solid geometry but also had to have a working knowledge of geography, history, land laws, and the railroad engine itself. He located the railroad track on ground that could support the weight of a fully-loaded boxcar, calculated curves and inclines based on what the train could handle, and selected the best route to avoid seasonal floods while being close enough to water needed at regular intervals for the steam engine to function. He and his crew dealt with all types of problems, from wild weather to wild animals. Multiple maps were drawn in plan (as if looking down from above to the layout below) as well as elevation (to record the rise and fall of the land, with the track elevation showing areas to be cut or filled).

Charles Wood Irish (1834-1904) was born in New York City to Quaker parents. The family moved to Tama County, Iowa, when Charles was a boy. Educated as a civil engineer and surveyor, he worked to survey the first rail line across Iowa. Hired by the Winona and St. Peter Railroad to locate and survey a line west of Tracy, Irish began preparations for his work in January 1879, traveling to Chicago for instructions, rail passes, and $150 with which to make purchases. Irish was in charge of a crew that included a chainman, leveler, transit-man, teamsters, and cook. They had extra saddle horses, shotguns, and ammunition. Irish He made a month-long exploration trip from Mankato into Dakota Territory, criss-crossing the area and recording and mapping his preliminary observations. After a week at home, his work began in earnest. In Winona on March 17th, met John Blunt (chief engineer for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad) and some of the men who would make up his surveying party. It was cold and snowy and Irish was sick with what he called lung fever, but by the following week, they were in Tracy and already running multiple lines west (in order to determine the best route to take), even though there was several inches of snow on the ground.

The surveyors slept in tents, two to a hay bed, but with buffalo robes and layers of blankets for warmth. Irish collected feathers from the ducks and geese they ate, sending them back to his daughter. Because they were working in settled country, they could send and receive letters and packages, although he also recorded problems with Indians when on the open prairie. Evenings, Irish worked on calculations and drawings. He also made numerous sketches of interesting features of the land and the layout of their camp.

Around mid-April, Irish’s team began surveying in Dakota Territory, soon completing their survey to the Big Sioux River in Brookings County. In early May, railroad officials came to Tracy on a special train and announced that grading work would soon begin on the road west of Tracy to the Missouri River. The surveyors worked about four months ahead of the grading crew. When the Ingallses reached the railroad camp just east of the Big Sioux River in September, Irish and his men had already reached Pierre, where they remained at work through February 1880.

Although he traveled all over the west locating railroads, Charles Irish’s home was in Iowa City, where his wife and daughters lived and his brother was newspaper editor. From 1886-1893, Irish served as Surveyor General of Nevada; he then served as head of the irrigation board in Washington, D.C. Later moving to Reno, Irish became involved in mining. He was also an avid astronomer, botanist, and outdoors-man his whole life. In 1904, Charles Irish died near Elko, Nevada; he was buried in Iowa City.

TOWN LOTS SURVEYORS. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder implies that the railroad surveyors left their tools and equipment in the surveyors’ house over the winter and returned for them in the spring, this was not the case as they were still working and using them along the line months after the Ingallses moved in the house. As what Wilder called the surveyors’ house was the railroad section house, what was left there was probably tools or machinery used in connection with laying the tracks, as that activity ceased in December once the trains were running as far west as Volga. The town lot surveying team arrived in the area and laid out the town of De Smet in late March, 1880, completing their work by March 27th and filing the plat on April 6th. According to Charles Ingalls, his family moved into the “company building” (surveyors’ house) for the winter after the graders left on December 1, 1879. They moved into the first building constructed by Charles Ingalls (first used by Couse Hardware) on April 6, the same day the town plat was filed. During the summer of 1880, there were sixteen buildings put up in the town, as well as a depot. [see “The Settlement of De Smet” in Treasures from C.P. Ingalls and Laura Ingalls Wilder, compiled and published by Aubrey H. Sherwood circa 1982.]

Arthur Heinz Hartman Jacobi (1826-1888) was born in Germany and came to America in 1848, settling in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. Following his marriage and citizenship in 1854, he and his wife moved to Green Bay, where Jacobi started The Banner, a German newspaper; he also worked as a lawyer. A graduate of military school in Germany and having served as a Lieutenant in the German Army at age 22, Jacobi organized a regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War they were mustered into the 9th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Jacobi was rapidly promoted to colonel of the regiment, which saw action in Missouri and Arkansas.

Following the war, Jacobi worked as a Civil Engineer, serving as Green Bay’s city engineer. He was hired by the Chicago and North-Western as a draftsman, moving to Chicago in 1871. Jacobi’s work was lauded for its precision and accuracy. At the request of Marvin Hewitt, Jacobi staked out and surveyed the town of De Smet for Western Town Lots Company into “lots and blocks, streets and alleys,” also designating warehouse lots and depot grounds north of town. Jacobi laid two stones as northernmost corner markers, one of which is still in place at the corner of Joliet Avenue and First Street. Although some buildings were put on the townsite prior to survey, the sale of town lots by the railroad began in May, with Royal Wilder signing the first contract.

Jacobi surveyed a number of towns and additions along the Winona & St. Peter and Dakota Central lines, including a railroad addition for Marshall (1879), Balaton townsite (1879). Grandview (1878), Morgan (1878), Paxton (1878), and De Smet (1880). A copy of the survey from the De Smet town lots records is shown below. Jacobi worked for the railroad until his death in 1888.

surveyor (SSL 7, 10, 13-14, 26-27; LTP 24; PG)
head surveyor (SSL 13) – see writ of attachment
railroad surveyor (PG)
surveyors / surveyors’ house (SSL 10, 13-15, 17, 19; PG) – see surveyors’ house
surveyors’ office (SSL 21)
surveyors’ pantry (SSL 21)
surveyors’ stakes (SSL 7)