Meandering: A View of Instructions

Instructions to surveyors at different times often yield very different results when surveying the same land or lands adjacent to each other. Early instructions called for surveys to be of "sufficient correctness" and were very often vague as to specific information. Meandering a navigable waterway, never exactly defining what was the determination of "navigable," made the discretion of early surveyors an important quality to look for in those given such heavy responsibility. In public land states where the lands under the navigable rivers belong to the state, be it either a "high water" or "low water" determination, this discretion is an important element. Meandering such waterbodies, therefore, takes on a very significant dimension when a state like Florida contains more than 7,700 waterways or lakes. For the surveyor in the field the most important information was the definition of navigable and what size waterbody should be meandered.


Special Instructions
For Florida, as an example, instructions were given between 1819 and 1973 that differed greatly as to the size of a waterbody to be meandered. Each new set of instructions from the Surveyor General or the General Land Office appear to have set new guidelines for the field surveyor. It is crucial to understanding the survey of any particular place to know what set of instructions an individual surveyor was operating under at the time of his survey. This is true for "special instructions" to surveyors also. The linking of field notes, plats, and instructions gives a much more thorough understanding of the nature of the survey under consideration and why it was done in a specific manner.

A brief glimpse at the historical instructions issued to surveyors in Florida will be instructive as to the nature of this problem. The 1819 instructions, adopted from neighboring Louisiana (read West Florida), do not even mention the word meander in them. Lines were directed to be run across the river, lake, or bayou "as if such water courses had not intersected." These instructions continue: "At the termination of Section lines on the Margin of Water Courses a Post with two reference trees must be established to Identify the points and correct the Survey of the margin of the waters courses uniting these points must be taken to ascertain the contents of the fraction." Concern here was with the establishment of fractional sections along such water courses and the points referred to appear to hint at a meander line but they never call it such, even though the principle of meandering had long been established.

Significant Magnitude
The first actual notation of meandering regular sections along water courses comes with the instructions of 1831. In the third part of these instructions, non-navigable streams, whatever they were, were to be generally indicated in the notes and on the plats submitted to the draughtsman. "The courses and distances of the meanders of navigable streams are to be truly delineated and also represented by figures on the plat, opposite the delineation wherever it is practicable to do so, … The width of all water courses, rivers, creeks, etc., is to be represented in figures on the plat." The fourth section of these instructions clearly states: "All lakes or ponds of significant magnitude to justify such expenses are to be meandered and platted agreeably to courses and distances, which are also to be exhibited by figures." The legal definition of "significant magnitude" has never been determined to the author's knowledge. Significantly, the meandering must be sufficient to justify the expense of running these lines. Again, this is at the discretion of the surveyor in the field.

No Clear Definition
Because navigable streams were declared public highways in the great act of 1796, the meandering of such water courses must have been deemed important. But as C. Albert White has pointed out, no definition of navigability was given. None of the instructions given in Florida have ever defined the term either and this has led to countless litigations and problems for the state and its citizens. The 1845 instructions given to the Surveyor General of Florida did, however, set a limit to lake or pond sizes to be meandered. "When you are subdividing townships into sections you will meander all navigable streams, all lakes, all deep ponds, exceeding half a section in area, and all Islands suitable for cultivation." (White's A History of the Rectangular Survey System, page 81, notes that these islands had to be very large or the costs of surveying them was too prohibitive for the monetary returns expected of land sales.) What is significant here is the notation of an actual, measurable size of the lake or ponds to be meandered. Also within these instructions is the methodology to be used when such a lake or pond was entirely within a section. No line was to be marked, simply run from the nearest section corner to a point on the lake or pond from which to begin the meander line.

The Swamp and Overflowed Land Act of 1850, notorious in public land surveying as the worst administered land act every passed by Congress, added additional confusion to the already vague concept of meandering. "Where swamp or overflowed lands are on the borders of a stream or lake, the stream or lake could be meandered and ordinates surveyed at suitable intervals from the borders of the stream or lake to the margin of the swamp and overflowed lands, and by connecting the ends of those ordinates, next to that margin by straight lines, the boundaries of the swamp or overflowed lands can be ascertained with sufficient accuracy." This is the best of 19th century bureaucratic speak. It says nothing in reality and leaves all of the determinations to the discretion of the Deputy Surveyor without offering him a definition of navigable, margin of the swamp or suitable interval. Because no marks were to be left in the field to show how this newly created line was run, instead of precluding litigation it invited it instead.

Only five years later, another set of General Instructions were given to Florida's surveyors. This new set of instructions set forth the definition of a meander corner that is common to everyone. Simply put, it was where a section, range or township line intersects a water body. By setting these corners, the sinuosity of a river or stream could be geometrically followed and noted between these corners. But section 3 of these new instructions added something a little different for lakes and deep ponds. All lakes, deep ponds, or bayous measuring 25 acres or more were now required to be meandered. Where this figure came from is anyone's guess and was seldom followed in practice by Florida surveyors.

The Civil War ended the office of Surveyor General in Florida for more than nine years. When it was reconstituted in 1869, it was sent the new instructions written and issued to other states in 1864. These called for a "one-bank" meander of "non-navigable" streams which, however, were well-defined natural arteries of internal communication possessing a near uniform width throughout. In this case, as experience has shown, the concept of navigability is that of Federal law regulating intrastate or international commerce. It may not be, and is not in Florida, the concept of navigability in fact. Also included in this new package was another new acreage for lakes and deep ponds. This time the General Land Office set the guideline at any lake or pond less than forty acres would not be meandered. Yet, just a year and a half later, in 1871, the 25 acre limitation reappears. Also, again modifying the previous instructions, the GLO required witness trees or mounds to be established when lines were run to the lakes or ponds lying totally within a section. Such a constant stream of changes must have been a nuisance to anyone with experience in the field.

Adding to the Confusion
The year 1881 saw even more clarification and change in the instructions for this year. Section 3 noted: "You are to meander, in manner aforesaid, all lakes, bayous and deep ponds, which may serve as public highways of commerce. Shallow lakes or ponds, readily to be drained or likely to dry up, are not to be meandered. Lakes, bayous, and ponds lying entirely within a section are not to be meandered." These changes mark a departure from previous instructions and attempt to give new clarity to surveyors in the field. Further on in these instructions, the attempt was made to segregate swamp and overflowed lands along the water courses. Here the GLO manual offered the concept of surveying the "ordinary low water mark of the actual margin of rivers or lakes on which such swamp or overflowed lands border." The operative word, margin, is once more left undefined. In Florida, where almost every survey was run a low water, during the dry season, this instruction actually added to the confusion. This was so because most of the surveyors who worked in Florida after the Civil War were from the North and had little familiarity with surveying done prior to the conflict in this state. The lack of continuum added to the political charge of fraudulent surveys relative to earlier selections of swamp or overflowed lands.

Luckily, little change occurred in the 1890 instructions however, only four years later, the new General Instructions again changed the requirements. In these instructions the concept of a right-angle width of three chains became an important determinant in the surveys. They also added: "Rivers not classed as navigable will not be meandered above the point where the average right-angle width is less than three chains." If the instruction is to meander only navigable streams, what does this mean? Further change came with the dictate that meander lines will not establish the segregation between swamp or overflowed lands but that the "ordinary high water mark" of the actual margin of the river will be used. The change between the "low water mark" and the determination of the "ordinary high water mark" is significant, given the current controversy concerning the establishment of this line. The 1894 Instructions also note that meander corners must be established where the surveys intersect the water body at its "high water mark" and requires that all meander lines follow this new line.

25 Acre Rule
There is no need to belabor the points stressed above. The history of meandering, via the instructions, is quite varied. The most consistent rule, maintained by the 1930 and 1947 Manuals of Instruction is the 25 acre rule for lakes and deep ponds. Even this was changed in the 1973 Manual of Instruction to 50 acres. Changes from low water to ordinary high water marks are also very important. All of these changes reflect the General Land Offices attempts to clarify the rules for surveyors and make the purchaser of land more comfortable with the establishment of his boundary lines. The consistent fact that the rules were constantly changing could not have reassured too many who were aware of the many vague definitions found in these instructions.

For our day, these old manuals and general instructions are very significant. As each survey of a property is done, it is very important for each surveyor to understand and demand to know under which rules that particular land was surveyed. What was the understanding of the surveyor doing the work? Were there later questions regarding the earlier work that may or may not impact a new survey? What has been the impact of erosion or accretion on the property? "Getting into the head" of the earlier surveyor is a trait most surveyors of experience have cultivated however, each of us could benefit from just a little more knowledge about rules under which the earlier surveyors worked and how they laid out the lines we are attempting to recreate.

[Final note: One curiosity has been found in Florida in the early years. It is called a "compound meander" and was attempted only once. We know little or nothing about it. Have any of you ever heard of such a thing? We are always looking for answers.]

About the Author

  • Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe holds a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University and, since 1987, has been the historian for the Division of State Lands, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (working in the Bureau of Survey Mapping). He has authored more than 35 articles on the history of surveying and teaches the course on the history of surveys and surveying in Florida for recertification purposes in the state of Florida. He is also a contributing writer for the magazine.

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