Surveying Public Land 1859

Survey crew at work near Arbourville, Chaffee County, Colorado - photo by William Henry Jackson about 1879

After the Revolutionary War, the United States government wanted to reward soldiers for their service by giving them land in the areas west of the thirteen colonies. First, the government had to identify the specific piece of land each soldier would receive. 
          The General Land Office sent teams of surveyors out to map available land. The Public Land Survey System, proposed by Thomas Jefferson and defined by law in 1785, was used.
          In addition to offering land for war service, the government was eager to sell land. Between July 1, 1859 and June 30, 1860, land sales in 14 states and 5 territories generated $1,776,493 for the United States Treasury (Source:
          The surveys sometimes generated complaints, particularly in Indian country. In an 1859 letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, J.L. Collins, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for New Mexico Territory, expressed concerns about government land surveys being conducted in Indian territory:

          “I mentioned, in a letter to you…my doubt about the propriety of pushing the surveys of the public lands so far into the Indian country. I am now still more strongly convinced of its impropriety. These surveys have been extended very nearly to the Texas line, on our eastern limits, and lands have been surveyed in that section that will not sell in the next half century; and, among them, were those that were being surveyed by Colonel Clements at the time he was driven in by the Indians. If it is, indeed, proper that the fund of the government shall be thus used, let it be done where there is less exposure. The country may not be so beautiful and open in other places for ‘running lines’ [surveyor’s measurements], but localities can certainly be found that will be much more likely to sell, and where there will be no risk of bringing on a collision with the Indians.”

Photo Courtesy Denver Public Libary, Western History Collection

Quoted text from Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs 1859


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