See this topic discussed in person at the 2024 ASPLS Summer Conference.

The Art of Land Surveying

Bringing Common Sense to Accepting or Setting Survey Corners

By Milton Denny, PLS

Today with the common use of GPS and modern technology, science seems to be getting the upper hand in this age old struggle between the Art of Surveying and the Science of Surveying. This has resulted in surveyors setting many additional corners, in some cases next to established property corners. In some instances this has resulted in court fights and lawsuits that are totally unnecessary. The modern surveying profession needs to understand more about the art of accepting and proofing evidence of existing property boundary locations. Learning to survey properly not just based on technology or mathematical calculations.

This article will attempt to present the case for the “Art of Land Surveying”, based on long standing principles of the rights of the entryman and case law. Where the entryman is occupying property based on the good faith effort of the original surveyor,  that used different standards and technology to locate the property description on the surface of our earth. My belief is much of this information may come as a surprise to many recently licensed surveyors’ that only studied the science of surveying. Many older surveyors had a mentor that taught us as apprentices the Art of Surveying. This system is for the most part lacking today which has resulted in the multiple corner dilemma and many court cases that should never happen.

The sizing of sections dilemma was mostly the results of the Bureau of Land Management publication of the 1973 Manual of Instructions for Land Surveying along with the development of practical and cost effective GPS units. One of the problems with the BLM manuals is that they were written for governmental surveyors for new or retracement surveys and not for the private surveyor.

 In an ever changing world of technology it is sometimes very important to reflect on some basic principles and measure their importance in the modern world. Modern surveying being about three hundred years old has changed greatly is the past twenty years. The historic land surveyor took pride in placing a corner in the correct position based on their current technology. In many cases this meant a survey chain and compass.  Surveyors following in the footsteps of the original surveyor took great pride in finding the original location or replacing the corner in its original location based on collateral evidence. Most of these surveyors knew the type of evidence to look for on the ground or had access to written documents, such as survey plats and field notes of the original surveyor.

A truly American system was developed whereby the surveyor placed reference marks to the survey corners by scribing marks on trees. This system also played a major role in surveying the country west of the colonial land. The tree scribe was an important item of equipment to the colonial surveyor, many original scribes that I own have the steel parts just about filed away from being sharpened. These scribes are also called race knives and were also used in marking timbers in ship building and building half-timber houses in England and Europe.

One of the first choices a surveyor has to make is to determine if they want to be a deed line surveyor or a property line surveyor. A deed line surveyor is one that just stakes the deed on the ground, then ties the improvements to those lines. This lets someone else decide the true boundary lines of the property, in some cases the courts. GPS makes being a deed line surveyor simple and cost effective.

The property line surveyor finds all the evidence available including monuments, old surveys and occupation comparing record distances against the deed calls and presents the case for the defendable lines of the property knowing the evidence will not fit the deed calls exactly. This professional option built on evidence is defendable in court and wins most of the time. Sizing the section with modern GPS falls into the same category as the deed line surveyor. In sizing the section surveyors take existing sections corners that may or not be in the correct position and do a mathematical break down of the section; setting new corners that do not always agree with existing local evidence. I do think it is important to size a section, and compare a mathematical break down of the section against local existing corners. It is important to recognize that the breakdown of the section will never fit the local corners exactly.  In fact, the local corners may be the best evidence of determining the location of the original GLO corners. Professional judgment comes into play in the determination of the amount of difference that is acceptable between the mathematical corner and the local existing corner. This can vary between a few tenths of a foot to a number of feet. It is always important to keep in mind, would I rather defend in court a new corner based on sizing the section or local collateral evidence.

 The following information is from Chapter VI, Resurveys and Evidence from the Manual of Surveying Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States 2009, Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, United States Government.

   The Chapter VI information is provided by the Bureau of Land Management as a guide to the Non-Government surveyor in determining the best location of property corners with regard to property rights and location of real property boundaries. Keeping in mind at all times you are still working within the boundaries and guideline of the U.S Cadastral System.

The following excerpts from the manual provides an overview of the responsibility of the professional surveyor. I encourage each surveyor dealing with private lands in the GLO to acquire a copy of the manual for study and review.

6-1.  The rules for identifying the lines and corners of an approved official survey differ from those under which the survey was originally made. The purpose is not to "correct" the original survey by determining where a new or exact running of the line would locate a particular corner, but rather to determine where the corner was established in the beginning. There is no realm of the law in which there is a greater need to maintain stability and continuity than with regard to property rights and the location of real property boundaries. This requirement is -explicitly expressed in the Act of February 11  1805 (2 Stat. 313; 43 U.S.C. 752):

( I) All the corners marked in the surveys, returned by the Secretary of the Interior or such agency as he may designate, shall be established as the proper corners of sections, or subdivision of sections, which they were intended to designate;

(2) The boundary line, actually run and marked in the surveys returned by the Secretary of the

Interior or such agency as he may designate, shall be established as the proper boundary lines of the sections, or subdivisions, for which they were intended, and the length of such lines as returned, shall be held and considered as the true length thereof.

(3) Each section or subdivision of section, the contents whereof have been returned by the

Secretary of the Interior or such agency as he may designate, shall be held and considered as containing the exact quantity expressed in such return;

6-2. Surveyors with extensive experience working in the non-Federal arena are especially cautioned that the stability envisioned by this statutory scheme may be different from the concept of stability described in common law boundary cases. Stability of boundaries in the non-Federal arena is often given as the guiding principle behind boundary resolution theories such as adverse possession or acquiescence. The Federal statutory  scheme quoted here, however, does not seek to reward a landowner who merely maintains an enclosure or improvement for a long period of time. In fact, principles of "adverse possession" do not apply against the United States. Rather, stability is inherent in protecting the integrity of the lines actually run and marked in an official survey. Thus, a paramount principle is that all evidence gathered, whether direct or collateral, be analyzed with a view toward discovering the best available evidence of the official survey lines. Evidence of a private property line is valuable in this process only insofar as it can be related, by substantial evidence, to the official survey. The methods described here follow leading judicial opinions, administrative law decisions

and approved surveying practice.

6-6.  The function of the local surveyor begins when employed as an expert to identify lands that have passed into private ownership. The testimony or records of local surveyors who have identified the original monument prior to its destruction, or who have reasonably applied the good faith location rule, or who have marked the corners of legal subdivisions according to the prevailing law using the accuracy standards for the time and locale , is often considered reliable collateral evidence of the original surveyed and protracted lines and corners, particularly where those surveys are followed by use and occupancy by the landowners.

6-11.  An existent corner is one whose original position can be identified by substantial evidence of the monument or its accessories, by reference to the description in the field notes, or located by an acceptable supplemental survey record , some physical evidence , or reliable testimony.

A corner is existent (or found) if such conclusion is supported by substantial evidence. The substantial evidence standard of proof is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance of the evidence.

6-17.  An obliterated comer is an existent corner where, at the corner's original position, there are no remaining traces of the monument or its accessories but whose position has been perpetuated , or the point for which may be recovered, by substantial evidence from the acts or reliable testimony of the interested landowners, competent surveyors, other qualified local authorities, or witnesses, or by some acceptable record evidence. An obliterated corner position can be proven by substantial direct or collateral evidence. When both categories of evidence exist, direct evidence will be given more weight than collateral evidence. A position that depends upon the use of collateral evidence can be accepted only as duly supported, generally through proper relation to known corners, and agreement with the field notes regarding di stances to natural objects , stream crossings,

 line trees, and off-line tree blazes, etc., or reliable testimony. Collateral evidence must include some component that relates to the position of the original survey corner, including measurement evidence, historical record, testimony, or any reasonable tie.

Good Faith Locations

 6-35. It may be held generally that the claimant , entryman, or owner of lands has located his or her lands by the good faith location rule if such care was used indetermining the boundaries as might be expected by the exercise of ordinary intelligence under existing conditions.

A good faith location is a satisfactory location of a claim or of a local point. It is one in which it is evident that the claimant's interpretation of the record of the

 original survey as related to the nearest corners existing at the time the lands were located is indicative of such a degree of care and diligence upon their part , or that of their surveyor, in the  ascertainment of their boundaries as might be expected for that time and place. This isreferred to as the good faith location rule .

6-41.  It is not intended to disturb satisfactory local conditions with respect to roads , fences, and other evidence of use or occupancy. The surveyor has no authority to change a property right that has been acquired legally, nor accept the location of roads , fences and other use or occupancy as prima facie evidence of the original survey. Something is needed in support of these location

This will come from whatever intervening record there may be, the testimony of individuals who may

be acquainted with the facts , and the coupling of these things to the original survey.

This will come from whatever intervening record there may be, the testimony of individuals who may

be acquainted with the facts , and the coupling of these things to the original survey.

6-51.  Bona fide rights as to location may vest to an official resurvey. This is in keeping with the principle of protecting bona fide rights based on an original survey, pursuant to 43 U.s.c. 772. As the Court said in United States v. Reimann, 504 F.2d 135, 139-140 (10" Cir. 1974):

It would be inequitable to permit the government ... to accept a survey[J ... recording it with knowledge that it would be relied upon by patentees, and then gram the government the right to later correct its error, ex parte, to the detriment of those who did in fact , and in good faith , rely upon it.

What Does Evidences Look Like!

Quotes from Old Surveyors

“The highest and best evidence of the location of a tract of land is that furnished by the monuments found on the ground and which have been made for that particular tract.”

“The line originally run, fixed and marked is the true boundary line that will control irrespective of any mistakes or errors in running and marking the line.”

“The marks on the ground of an old survey, indicating the lines originally run, are the best evidence of the location of the survey.”

“The position of old fences may be considered in ascertaining disputed boundaries.  As between the old boundary fences and any survey made for the monuments after dispute, the fences are by far the better evidence of what the lines of the lot actually were.”

What Other things May I Find.

1.     Buggy Hub and Axle

      The surveyor that followed in the footsteps of the original surveyor used many different items to make the corners. Buggy axles or hubs were items found laying around many farms. When the time came to set a corner they reached for the items on hand to set for corners

       2.   Shotgun or Rifle Barrel

      While not a common corner many surveyors have found shotgun barrels;

      many times they are referenced in the deed

3.     Civil War Cannon with Barrel Down

             Not a common corner but have been known to be at all corners of a Township in a coastal area.  

             Most likely set by a local county surveyor.

4.      Upright Railroad Rail.

  Railroad rails have been used all over the United States, most set by the local county surveyor to Monument section corners. It is most likely if you fine one, there will be others in the area always   set upright and about three to four feet long. Some are light rails from narrow gauge or logging railroad.

        5.    Model “T” Ford Axle

       Before World War II millions of Model “T” Fords went to the scrap yard. This was a good source of

      Corner material. The availability of these axles stopped with the start of the World War II; most of

      these were set between 1920 and 1940. They are very different from a modern car axle and very

       unique if you know what to look for in an axle.

6.    Pinched Iron Pipe

      A pinched pipe is a piece of water pipe cut off with a medal sheer at a scrap yard,. I have waited at

      a scrap yard for the workers to cut off 30 inch lengths. These do not rust as fast as an open ended

     pipe. In a subdivision these may have been at all the original corners.

7.   Concrete Monument

      As we all know, these come in all different sizes and shapes. It is very difficult to determine the age of a concrete monument. A few ways to determine age is if any rebar is exposed and it is square not round, it may date prior to 1930. Also if it has a separate layer of concrete on the top it was made before 1920. Most surveyors never set monuments larger than 6 X 6   inches

8.     Rock Piles

      A very common corner in rural surveys is a rock pile, sometime this pile may have a key stone in the center. This may be a local accepted corner in place for many years having been set by a local surveyor using the equipment and accuracy of the time period when set. It is not hard to differ with this corner, but remember courts will almost always accept this as the corner.

9.     Fences and All Kinds of Walls

       Most surveyors don’t want to be referred to as fence surveyors, but in many cases the fences are a great piece of evidence as to location of old survey lines. Walls along property lines can be good evidence of boundary line locations, most property owners don’t build wall without having an idea of the proper boundary location. Another type wall that can be important is building walls of adjacent structures.

10.  Balks-Ridges of Earth

        Balk line are the lines formed by plowing or cultivation along property lines, while these lines may

         not give a definitive location of a boundary line it can give  a good idea of the accepted boundary.

11.     Trees Blazed on line

       Many of the original surveys had blazed tree markings. While all these original blazing's are gone,

     other surveyors have practiced the art of blazing on retracement surveys. It is a developed skill to

     be able to recognize very old markings on trees.

12.  Witness Trees

      Finding original witness trees east of the Mississippi is very difficult and they mainly exist in protected forest lands. In the westerly states, many good examples of witness trees still exist. When accepting one as original, make sure it is the correct species as recorded in the original field notes.

13.  Stump Holes

      The locating and proving of stump holes of original witness trees is a well  accepted method of locating the original location of section corners. If four witness trees are recorded in the original field notes, finding two or three is considered a successful proofing of the corner. In some cases wood fragments from the hole can be sent to the forestry department at major universities for species identification. The tree type found in the field notes should match the tree fragments found.

14.  Building Ties as Line Evidence

       A frequently overlooked piece of evidence is the building ties as shown on previous surveys. This could be on the property you are surveying or a lot down the block. Houses don’t move, which is a good way to establish old lines. This also works well on business and commercial property.

15.  Charcoal Under GLO Corners

       In the original GLO surveys in areas where tree ties were not available, two quarts of charcoal were placed under an earthen mound. If the field notes show charcoal set, in most cases it is still in the ground under the corner. This is an excellent way to prove the corner found is in the same place as the original corner. It does take some time to dig as it is one to two feet under the surface.

16. Size and length of iron pipe corners

      16. Iron Pipes

 Most surveyors set iron pipe corners between 24 and 32 inches in length, and ½  to 1 ½  inches in diameter.  I always carry a vice grip in the truck to be able to pull up a corner to evaluate the likely hood of it being set by a surveyor. If it turns out to be 5 feet long, it most likely was set by the property owner.  Sometimes a larger pipe, such as two inches in diameter, may have a surveyors pipe inside. Surveyors set corners flush to the ground. A pipe sticking up 2 feet was not set by a surveyor. Also the pipe needs to be perpendicular to the ground not leaning.

17.  Barb-Wire Evidence

       Barb-Wire evidence comes in many different forms. From the fence line  containing wire, to fragments of wire grown into a tree on the property line.

The wire comes in many different shapes and forms that allows the surveyor to date when a design was in use. Barb-wire evidence has been used in many different court cases dating back well over one hundred years. There are many different books available on how to date the wire production.

18.  Rebar with Cap

       In recent times the most popular corner set is a rebar with a cap containing

 the license number of the surveyor that set the corner.  Most state standards require

the corner to be #4 or #5 rebar 18 to 30 inches long with the surveyors cap. While it

is a great help to know who set the corner, it seems to easy to just put a new rebar

next to an existing corner. I have found these set so close to each other that the

surveyor setting the new rebar had to carve away part of the plastic cap of the

existing corner. Not the Art of Surveying!

19. WPA Section Corners

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was formed in 1935 and operated until 1943, it was a follow up to the CWA (Civil Works Administration) founded in 1933, to provide jobs for out of work people.

In some states the WPA set monuments at Section corners on some Townships during the great depression , the monuments may be stamped WPA or may have been undated at a later date by local county surveyor. Many of the original monuments were plain concrete without a cap, the courthouse may contain records of any monuments set by the WPA.

20. GLO Monuments set after the original survey.

The GLO ( BLM) has worked in many states doing a dependent or independent resurvey at a later date then the original surveys. In many cases the GLO (BLM) has to be invited into the state by another federal agency, if the title of the land has pasted into private ownership.

In the case of a dependent resurvey  the surveys may match the existing corners in a reasonable way. In the case or an independent resurvey using only the township corners  results in double corners through the Township and causes considerable disruption. This provides a great delimia for the local surveyor faced with the task of explaining the existence of double corners to local property owners.

Where Do I Find Other Evidence?

1.     Original Field Notes and Township Plats

       Copies of the original field notes should be in the local courthouse . If not, all this information is now available on the internet at the Bureau of Land Management website. The courthouse is also a good place to find old maps or plats of your property or the adjoining property.

2.     Recorded Plats and Subdivisions

      Again this information is found in the local county or parish courthouse . All states require a subdivision to be recorded to be a legal subdivision of land. The courthouse may also be a wealth of other information including other subdivisions of part of the land in question.

3.     Tax Assessor’s Office and Tax Maps

       At the tax assessor’s office we can check the tax maps to be able to see a plot of the property and gather deed reference information. A good place to determine junior and senior rights of the property.

4.     Run a Traverse Closure and plot the Deed

       Run a traverse of the deed information of parcel. If the deed does not close it may have been written by someone besides a surveyor.

5.           Local Surveyors and Engineers

       I have always shared information with other surveyors. It is in your best interest to let other licensed surveyors have the benefit of information in your files. This system works both ways. You may have information they need and their information may provide the key to solving a very difficult problem.

6.     Titles Companies and Abstractors

      Most title companies have shared information with me on survey problems. They may have extensive experience dealing in a problem area that you may have in a survey job. I find abstractors may have made comments on a disagreement of the property lines of a parcel that may affect your survey. Also check the files for copies of old surveys.

7.     Utility Companies

       Most utility companies have maps and files dealing with parcels that may be adjacent to your survey. Today many maintain a GIS system. Ask for a print of your area of interest.

8.     Highway Departments

       Highway ROW maps can be a great resource of information, including section corner and property corner ties related to taking a new right of way for construction projects. You make also acquire curve data and road widths related to your parcel. This is a very important stop for information.

9.             U.S.G.S. Quadrangle Sheets

       The quad sheets can be a very useful tools in job planning. Today the digital quads can be a great help in finding corners.  If you pull the latitude and longitude from the digital quads for section and quarter corners to two decimal places, this information can be stored in a handheld GPS unit  to take you to the corner area for a corner search. Inversing between corner locations on the digital quads using the NGS Tool Box, can provide  bearing information compared to True North. Corners used by the U.S.G.S. in making the quad maps are shown as a red cross. Most likely this corner exists in the field.

10.  Soil Conservation and Agricultural Historic Aerial Mapping

       The federal government has historic aerial maps available dating back to about 1933.  These photos can provide a wealth of information from old road locations, balk lines, and building locations. Remember the person with the best evidence in court wins!

11.  Topo Calls from the Field Notes

       While I have never been a great believer in topo calls, I had a recent survey where they were the best evidence because of very difficult terrain. This should never be all the evidence, but

      supporting other information.

12.      Neighboring Property Owners

       You have not performed a complete research effort until you contact the owners around your property. Asking for old survey plats, copies of deeds and any other information they can provide.  You may want to ask if they can show you some local known corners. Also ask if any older residents in the area may have additional information. A digital camera is an excellent way to make a copy of some old deed from a neighbor on location.

This is not the final word. I will follow up with other topics such as how to proof an original Government Corner and other important data related to the GLO surveys. If you want more of this come to the Summer Session of ASPLS in Gulf Shores, Kevin Hinkle and I will be doing a live presentation of the Art of Land Surveying [3 Hours] and a full day at the fall meeting.

                                                         Reference Material

        J. Barry Love, Ph.D. The Colonial Surveyor in Pennsylvania  ISBN 0-9701352-0-3

        Edmund R. Kiely, Surveying Instruments, Their History and Classroom Use 2nd Edition

        Catharine Van Cortlandt Mathews, Andrew Ellicott, His Life and Letters 1908

        Edward Nicholson, Men and Measure, a History of Weights and Measures 1912

        Milton Denny, Surveying the Land, Distance Measuring Devices 1620 to 1920  ISBN 1-4276-0497-5

        Andrew Lamb, Andrew Lamb’s New Method of Finding the Longitude 1754

        John Hammond, The Practical Surveyor  London 1765

        Charles F. Smart, The Makers of Surveying Instruments in America Since 1700  Regal Art Press 1962

        Nicholas B. Wainwright, Plan of Philadelphia, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography LXXX, No. 2 (1956) Pages 164-226

        Louis Karpinski, Bibliography of Mathematical Works Printed in America Through 1850  University of Michigan Press 1940

        The Surveyors Guide       B.F. Dorr         1886

        Boundaries and Landmarks     A.C. Mulford     1912

        Magnetic Surveys    Howe & Hurwitz      1964

        Government Surveying  Shobal V. Clevenger   1883

        United States Land Surveys   John B. Cleary    1936

        Methods of Land Identification   M. Gose     1941

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