A Close Look at the Original Survey of
Newton County, Mississippi
By: Ricky Harrison
Surveying Instructor, East Central Community College
Mississippi Professional Surveyor No. 02810
During the Fall semester of 2004 at East Central Community College, the question arose among students as to what kind of assignment and how much work would be required for the Special Project course. As with all students, young and old, the question about certain requirements and the amount of time needed are frequently asked questions. This does not guarantee that the work will be started and completed on time, but serves as a guide to the instructor. This particular course had me, as the instructor, searching for the ultimate problem to challenge the students, not only complete the project, but to get involved to the point of having a passion for the understanding of the assignment.
As I entered my twenty-third year teaching Drafting and Design at East Central Community College, it was a challenge to design a problem for the special project course that would gain student interest. I wanted to involve the entire class in having an interest in both history and surveying and the idea came to mind to examine the original survey of Newton County.
To research facts of the early survey of Newton County it is imperative to understand and know the system of surveying used during the early settlement of the state of Mississippi. As our country began to expand and grow toward the south and west the government realized a uniform system of surveying was needed. There are four distinct systems of land surveys in the United States:
(1) The system of Metes and Bounds in which each parcel of land is individually described and bound. This is the system that is used in the thirteen original colonies and parts of Texas and Ohio. Each parcel of land varies in size, is described independently, and is not tied in to any system of basic lines. This system has been in place for a long time; however, many surveyors have scratched their heads trying to find the post oak tree beside the mule pen the original survey refers to in the 1700s.
(2) The system of rectangular surveys has land divided basically into equal-sized townships, sections and fractions of sections. This is the system used in Mississippi and researched by the students enrolled in this special project.
(3) The system of arpents used in land once under French influence including the earliest plantation lands of Mississippi and Louisiana. One arpent equals approximately .85 of an acre. The French crown, in addition to awarding land grants based on the arpent system also tried to ensure that each land owner had river frontage. Based on this practice, land grants were often given in narrow slivers emanating at the river front. As a by-product, the landowners in New Orleans often built shotgun houses because they had sufficient depth but limited width on which to build their houses.
(4) A system of caballerias employed on lands once under Spanish influence, and most notably Texas. One caballeria equals 108 acres.
UNITED STATES PUBLIC LAND SURVEY RECTANGULAR SYSTEM
The system of rectangular surveys was inaugurated in 1784 and the laws governing its establishment have, with various modifications, been applied to all of the United States with the exception of some of the states listed above. Under this system the lands are divided into townships six miles square, which are related to basic lines established by the federal government. The base lines running north and south are known as Principal Meridians, while the east and west lines are called simply Base Lines. The township numbers east or west of the Principal Meridians are designated as ranges whereas the numbers north and south of the Base Line are tiers. Thus the description of a township, for example, Township 8 North, Range 13 East would mean that the township is situated 8 tiers north of the Base Line for the Principal Meridian and 13 ranges East of that Meridian. Guide Meridians, at intervals of 24 miles east and or west of the Principal Meridian, are extended north and or south from the Base Line; Standard Lines extend east and or west from the Principal Meridian.
A township is 6 miles square. It is divided into 36 square-mile sections of 640 acres each which may be divided and subdivided as desired. Irregular tracts of land are, of course, described by metes and bounds with the rectangular survey system. These are, however, tied to established rectangular corners (section, quarter sections, and one-sixteenth sections.)
More detailed information on the public land survey system in the United States can be found in the Manual of Instruction for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States issued by Bureau of Land Management (General Land Office) of the Department of the Interior.
THE GENERAL LAND OFFICE
From the time of the signing of the United States constitution to the final settling of the West, the size of the United States grew rapidly due to the acquisition of large tracts of land, most from Indian tribes, but in cases like the Louisiana Purchase, from other nations. The land business had grown so large that the House of Representatives appointed a standing committee in December 1805 (and followed shortly by the Senate) to oversee the management of public lands. Congress passed an act on April 25, 1812, creating the General Land Office (GLO) within the Department of Treasury. In this office, Deputy Surveyors were appointed to subdivide the new territories that were being acquired. Their responsibility was to oversee the surveying and the well-being of our nations public lands. This office remained intact until July of 1946 when the General Land Office was abolished, permitting the newly organized Bureau of Land Management to assume its duties.
INDIAN BOUNDARIES OF MISSISSIPPI
The area that includes Newton County was part of a large territory that was made available for surveying and for subsequent sale in 1830. This land was acquired through negotiations with the Choctaw Indian tribe in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek signed on September 27, 1830. Tensions were high among the Choctaw Indians during this time of negotiation. President Andrew Jackson sent two close friends, Major John H. Eaton, Secretary of War, and John Coffee, a Brigadier General during the Creek and Indian War, to Mississippi to establish a treaty with the Choctaws. Greenwood Leflore, head chieftain of all the Choctaws, and David Folson, also an Indian Chief, were largely responsible for the decision by the Indians to sign, many of whom were opposed to giving up their land.
The actual survey encompassing Newton County began in 1832 and concluded in 1836. The Deputy Surveyor during this time was Gideon Fitz. Fitz prepared a comprehensive set of instructions for surveying in the state of Mississippi in 1832. Unfortunately, most of Mississippi had been surveyed before Fitzs manual had been printed; therefore, all of Mississippi was not surveyed uniformly.
Once the land was surveyed, it was made ready for purchase, and federal offices were set up at Columbus and other towns in the area. For information on an individual patent holder, consult Craft, Mytis S., George Mason, and Melvin Tingle, Book of Original Entries, Land Records of Newton County, Mississippi, Pioneer Publishing Company, Carrollton, Mississippi, 1998, or on the Internet, click on http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/
CLASS RESEARCH AND FINDINGS
One of the standards that Fitz incorporated was that each field surveyor would draw a township plat and record survey notes of the survey of each section within a township. Special instructions were handed down by Fitz on the correct way to display plats and notes. Today, these plats and notes can be found in the vault of the Chancery Clerks office in each county court house.
The goal of our project was to draw a map using the original survey of 1832-36 with all the measurements and acreage. Our desire was to carry this one step further and actually locate the occupied corners of the present-day county with the understanding that this was not an actual survey for verifying land titles, but was a survey for information purposes only. While it is a well-known fact that the early surveyors measurements were not without error, the laws of the land state that the original corners as established were the true and correct corners and should not be removed or changed.
Historically, we understand that hardships were faced by these early surveyors including climate, terrain, heavy foliage, snakes and dangerous animals, hostile Indians and navigation of the land itself. Most of the land was covered in woods or small brush, and within Newton County, the many creeks and rivers were swampy and dangerous areas. The equipment used in that day in no way compares to modern day equipment. Think for a minute about surveying all 576 sections in Newton County with a 66-foot Gunters Chain or clearing right-of-way with a bush axe or cross-cut saw. It was a hardship living outdoors for days on end until you reached the Alabama line or until your township was completed.
With all the hindrances before them, the early surveyors did a remarkable job of surveying the new lands. Of interest was the comparison of the original survey data to what we found to be the actual occupied four corners of the county. To discover this, an extensive research had to be conducted by using the township plats and notes from the court house.
Newton County consists of 4 townships and 4 ranges and a total of 576 sections. Each student was required to recopy a township and range that consisted of 36 sections and then draw on CAD (computer aided drafting) a map showing the correct footage (in chains and feet) and total acreage for each section and township. Information was gathered from the surveyors field notes as to the exact size of each section and if bearings were present on section lines. In the process we obtained the cost for each township. The fees were established by the federal government at a rate of $4-6 per mile for township lines and $3 for interior section lines. From each township plat we calculated the total cost of surveying Newton County to the unbelievable low cost of $3,843.33. From all this information the class plotted a map of Newton County, with original GLO data, showing the true size and acreage of the county. This map can be seen on display at the Newton County Historical and Genealogical Society Building in Decatur.
The exciting part of this project was the field work. The class and I had the opportunity to traverse to the four corners of the county. The first attempt was the northeast corner. We found some interesting monuments on-site. Keep in mind we were looking for the occupied corners and not actually surveying to determine if it was indeed the true and exact corner. At the northeast corner we found an old iron buggy axle and a pine post. According to the land owner, Mr. Carl Stephens, the axle and post have been in the same location since the 1950s and had been used by many surveyors as a starting point. From the field notes, we searched for the stumps of witness trees marked during the 1830s. We believe a stump hole may have been found, verifying the exact location of the buggy axle.
Shown left is a picture of the northeast corner.
The southeast corner was the most accessible. We traveled I-20 through Chunky, then followed winding dirt roads until we found our destination. The land owner, Billy Snowden, was most helpful as were all those encountered. He led us to the corner of his property beside a huge pine where we found a 1 round iron pipe marking the southeast corner of Newton County. As with all corners we had a handheld GPS unit and recorded the latitude and longitude at each point. Again we looked for witness trees (stumps), but none were found.
After finding well defined monuments on the east side of the county, our luck ran out on the west side. The northwest corner was easy to find but no real monumentation was found. The approximate location of the corner is on the northwest side of Highway 21 north of Sebastopol. According to Mr. Gilmer, the land owner, the fence corner was all he was aware of. He stated, If you find the corner, please mark and flag it good.
The southwest corner was by far the most challenging to find. With all the maps and GPS coordinates we could find, we started our journey. This corner is actually located in the Bienville National Forest. As fortune would have it, the United States Forestry Service had been in the process of control burning in the forest. We tracked about one-half mile deep into the forest to only find a tree with 3 painted stripes. Finding only this tree and having black soot covering our shoes and pants we found our way out and determined that no real monument marked the southwest corner. The picture at the left gives you an idea of what we found.
The occupied corners of the county of 2004 are within a few hundred feet of the original lengths and bearing, recorded on the township plats. This is considered to be good accuracy because of the distance between corners (24 miles). A more precise survey could be conducted and the findings may vary some, but for the most part this was an excellent project for the students enrolled in Special Project DDT-2913.
Special thanks should go Newton Countys Chancery Clerk, George Hayes, for allowing the students access to the township plats and field notes. Also a thank you to the land owners for permission to access their land and locate the corners. Please view the map at the Historical office located in Decatur. Actual footage and acreage for the county is available on the map, also latitude and longitude can be found of the four occupied corners of Newton County. Finally, a thanks to the students who participated in the project: Brant Winstead, Kim Smitteran, Faith Hessessiuns, Brent Nance, Andre Coleman, Talon Terrell, Zan Tillman, Jeffery Mitchell, Rayshund Boyd, Josh Benson, Jerrod Street, and Thomas Reed.
In the fall of 2005 another Special Project class will began planning toward another search and find mission. In conversation with some of the officers of the Society, several options are available. We will be discussing some of these in future meeting. I think you will find some of the projects very interesting and informative.
- General Land Office Township Plat Book and Original Field Notes, 1832-1836.
- Roffie Burt, The Survey Of Mississippis State, Indian, and Township Boundaries, PE &LS Department of Civil Engineering, Mississippi State University. Reprinted 1992 by Mississippi Association of Professional Surveyors.
- Gideon Fitz, Instructions For Surveying in the State of Mississippi, Surveyor of the Lands of the United States South of the State of Tennessee Originally printed 1832, Natchez, Mississippi, by R. Semple for the Surveyor General, Reprinted 1992 by Mississippi Association of Professional Surveyors.