Stories from the "E" File: 1832
Online-only Articles - Online-only 2009
Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS
Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs (Land of the Oxen) had served as the main transportation conduit for a series of sugar plantations in rural St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most if not all of these plantations along the bayou were established and working long before the Revolutionary War. The United States’ government land surveys that followed after the Louisiana Purchase simply recovered and reported these established boundaries of the plantations and assigned section numbers to them. Of course, the land owners ignored the assigned section numbers and continued using the colonial land record system that identified the parcels by the plantation names.
In June of 1962, the St. Bernard Parish government decided to purchase a portion of Belview Plantation adjacent to Jamis Plantation for a sewage treatment facility. My father Eugene was contracted to survey and subdivide the site. I was on my summer vacation from high school so naturally I was on the survey crew assigned to the project. It was to be my first real lesson in boundary recovery. I quickly learned that research was an important step and in fact the first step in boundary recovery.
Dad spread several plats and other papers on a drawing table. Included in the papers was the Government Land Office (GLO) plat dated February 13, 1832, associated field notes, a private survey by Pilie of Jamis Plantation dated June, 1905, and surveys of other properties that were adjacent to the two plantations.
Dad had me read aloud, as best I could, the script of the GLO field notes. Then he had me point out on the township plat the significant features reported in the field notes. Unfortunately, the field notes did not report what was used to monument the line we were interested in, nor were there any witness trees reported at the corners. The line was simply listed as “beginning at the lower front corner of Belview and on a line North 12 ¼ East, a distance of 116.36 ch to the rear corner.” Dad explained that 116.36 chains equaled 40 arpents. Congress specified that dimension as the swamp-side boundary of all the private claim plantations.
The 1905 plat by Pilie was of more help. It reported a “grate bar” at the bayou end of the line and a “pipe marked 1832” at the “40 Arpent Line.” Dad explained that a “grate bar” was a large cast iron bar. These bars were used to form a grate to support the massive sugar pots in the ovens that processed raw sugar cane. Often, the bars would break and have to be replaced. Every sugar plantation had a stock pile of these cast iron bars, six feet or more in length. Cast iron bars were perfect for marking the plantation boundaries.
Both of the plantations had been fallow for nearly a century. The line that we were attempting to recover had been without a fence or a ditch for 75 years or more. We were going to search for a grate bar at one end and an iron pipe at the other end of a line that was reported to be 7,679.76 feet long. The line ran through a dense wood.
“How are we going to find any monuments in those woods?” I asked.
Dad smiled and said, “By looking where they are. The secret in finding anything is to search for it where it is.”
An asphalt road ran along the bayou at the “front” of the plantations. The “upper” side of Belview was adjacent to a developed subdivision, and the “lower” side of Jamis was adjacent to a working farm and marked with exposed grate bars front and rear.
We chained downstream from the upper side of Belview and upstream from the lower side of Jamis to try to locate the common line between them using the reported widths of the plantations. The two measurements, which we marked by lumber crayon on the asphalt roadway, overlapped each other by 50 feet or more.
“What are we going to do now?” I asked. “The plantation plats are wrong.”
Dad just smiled. “I would have been concerned if they matched,” he said.
The field crew split up and walked up and down the edge of the roadside ditch looking for something that might indicate the boundary line. Nothing changed along the ditch.
“Let’s start looking for the boundary,” Dad said.
“I thought that was what we were doing,” I said.
“No, I mean really looking,” he said. He led me and the rest of the field crew to a spot 50 feet below the downstream mark. We then headed away from the road into the woods. Once we were about 25 feet from the clearing for the road, the brush thinned out to a heavily wooded landscape of uniform trees. Dad directed us to spread out in a line perpendicular to the road. He then had us walk in a line upstream.
“Look for an indication of a ditch line or trees that don’t belong,” he said.
After a few minutes, Dad suddenly stopped. “Stevie, come here,” he said. “Tell me what you see.”
I walked up to him and looked around. “I see trees, lots of trees,” I said.
“Do you see a ditch line?”
“No,” I answered, “just trees.”
“Don’t just see,” he said, “Look. Look at the leaves on the ground and turn in a circle.”
I followed the instructions. The dead leaves covered the ground among the tree trunks. Then I saw it! The leaves were helter-skelter in every direction but two. As I looked toward the unseen road, the leaves made an uninterrupted straight line toward the roadside brush. The same long brown line ran off in the opposite direction away from the road. I was standing on an old ditch line that was so shallow that only the collection of leaves hinted at its location. Here and there along the old ditch line were oak trees that were larger than the rest of the trees we had encountered. Now that I knew what to look for, the old line stood out like a neon sign.
Dad gave me a small, leather-covered box that he called a “dip needle.” It was a compass that had the needle on a horizontal axis. Instead of pointing north, the needle pointed at an angle toward the ground.
“Orient the box in a north-south direction,” Dad instructed. “The needle is aligned with the magnetic lines of the Earth. Any iron nearby will disrupt the lines, and the needle will dip suddenly.”
He gave another dip needle to Jean Solis, the instrument man, and directed us to move along the edges of the line of leaves while holding the box just inches off the ground. I went south toward the road and Jean went north. As I neared the brush that bordered the road, the needle suddenly spun over and pointed down at an angle. It seemed to quiver. As I moved closer to the road, the needle seemed to be riveted on a single location.
“Dad, I think I have something here,” I called out.
Everyone rushed over to me. No one could see any difference in the surface of the ground from any other spot in the woods.
“That’s a reading, all right,” Dad said. He handed me a shovel and said, “Dig.”
In just a few minutes of digging I had exposed an iron bar that was about three inches thick and eight inches wide. I could not guess how long it was. Even with two feet of the bar sticking above the bottom of the hole, it was solidly embedded in the ground.
“That’s a grate bar,” Dad said. “It was probably set sometime around 1790 when Spain was granting land to her army veterans.”
Grate bars (once used to support massive sugar pots in ovens that processed raw sugar cane) were used to mark plantation boundaries—photo by Mathew Estopinal, PLS.
Dad set the field crew to clearing a line to the road. Once that was done, he placed one range pole at the edge of the roadside ditch and then he walked along the faint ditch line for several hundred feet and placed another.
“Now the fun begins,” he said. “Let’s start cutting line.”
We had cut about a half-mile of line along the edge of an ancient ditch. The trail of leaves ended abruptly.
“Mister Gene, regard ici,” Jean called. “We have run out of ditch.”
My dad, who was examining the edges of the ditch line as the cutting progressed, came to the head of the line.
“It’s a head-land,” Dad said. “You can see the cross ditch and a little rise going off to the west. This is where the plow mules were turned around.”
We searched with the dip needles and discovered another grate bar that was buried more than two feet below the ground.
“Pilie must have missed this one in 1905,” Dad said.
On our second day of line cutting, if I looked carefully toward the road I could see a tiny speck of light peeking through the maze of tree trunks and brush. Surveyors’ ribbon graced the tree trunks and branches as far as I could see. Keeping on line was a simple matter of walking a few feet ahead, turning around, finding line, and cutting back to the head. On the rare occasion that a tree was on line, it was felled with an ax.
All that work, and we were only halfway to our goal.
“The line isn’t going to cut itself, gentlemen,” Dad said. “Let’s keep going.”
The men who were not cutting line were advancing the chain. Dad kept a tally in a field book. The chaining was to keep track of where we were along the line only. The actual hub and tack traverse would be run later with a chain and transit after the parish bulldozers had cleared a proper trail.
The tally reached 7,500 feet. The trees were much smaller and closer together now.
“Start looking around for something unusual,” Dad said. “We are nearing the 40 arpent line.”
I had “jumped ahead” to cut back to the head of the line when I noticed an odd-looking little stump just to the east of the line I was on. As I worked my way to the stump I began to realize that it wasn’t a stump after all. It was a pipe!
“Dad,” I shouted, “I’ve found a pipe!”
While I examined it, I could hear my dad and the rest of the crew busting brush toward me. The pipe was about three inches in diameter and stuck up a foot and a half above the ground. Some leaves and bits of moss were stuck on top of it.
“Clean off the top,” Dad said.
After I brushed away the leaves and moss, we could see that the end of the pipe was plugged with a lead disk. The numbers “1832” had been crudely stamped in the lead with a screwdriver.
“That’s the pipe Pilie reported in his 1905 plat,” I said.
We all speculated that the numbers must have been the year the pipe was set. Certainly the government surveyor had taken the time to report what was set or found at 166.36 chains in his 1832 work. Maybe the pipe was set as a result of that survey, or maybe it was placed afterward. The only thing we knew is that Pilie found it in 1905.
We tied ribbons high and low around every tree within 20 feet of the pipe. What a find! It made the two days of back-breaking labor worthwhile.
Dad then had Jean hold the end of the chain on the pipe, and he played out 50 feet of chain west of the pipe. He had me drive an iron rod flush with the ground at the 50-foot mark. He then did the same to the north.
“Why did we do that?” I asked.
“Insurance,” Dad replied. “That pipe is sitting up high, and a gang of bulldozers and trucks are going to descend on this corner. We haven’t tied any of these marks to our traverse yet.”
We placed similar witness marks at the two grate bars on our way out. Now the parish would clear a path from the bayou road to the 40 arpent line by following the line of ribboned trees. The dozer operator would be cautioned to stay at least ten feet east of the line of ribbons.
In about two weeks the path was reported to have been completed. We could now run our traverse to the 40 arpent line and across to the east to tie into the adjacent farm. We would develop a subdivision plan carving out ten acres in the northwest corner of Jamis Plantation along with a 40-foot wide ingress/egress easement along the upper line.
Every leg of the traverse was double chained. If the spread between readings was more than Dad thought reasonable, it was double chained again. The angles were turned in sets of six with a 20-second gun. Each set was accomplished by “building the reading.” The instrument man would lock on the backsight, loosen the upper motion, and lock on the farsight. The angle was read and recorded. The lower motion was released and the instrument turned and locked on the backsight. The action was repeated five more times. The resulting reading on the transit was then divided by six and checked against the first reading.
If it deviated more than Dad thought it should, the set was repeated. Traverse points were set an even 15 feet from each of the grate bars so that they could be tied to the traverse by side shots that were doubled from backsight and farsight.
When we reached the 40 arpent line we were dismayed to discover that the dozer operator had cleared away any trace of the pipe.
“Well, we can reset it from the witness points,” Dad said philosophically.
We set a new two-inch diameter pipe from the witness marks, but it just wasn’t the same. The old pipe and the lead insert stamped “1832” were gone. Human hands had stamped a message that had bridged more than a century to reach us. Now that link was broken. History had been hauled off to a landfill with the rest of the clearing debris.
I often think of that day in 1962. I don’t know if the hands that stamped that date were those of a man or a woman, freeborn or slave, young or old. I regret not having a photograph or even a rubbing to show someone. The chain had been broken. The men (and one boy) of that small survey crew who witnessed the recovery of that mark and touched the crude inscription are all gone now, save me.
About the Author
Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLSStephen Estopinal, PE, PLS is assistant division manager and senior project manager at SJB Group, LLC in Louisiana. He has been involved in the practice of land surveying for more than 30 years and is the author of "A Guide to Understanding Land Surveys 3rd ed." John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.
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