Surveying, Texas Style

Texas seems to have the most studied history of surveying in the Union. Certainly its large size and location make it easy to see why this is so. With its huge land mass, its position in the middle of the country, and its mix of cultures, one would expect Texas to have an involved and interesting settlement history. Oil wealth only adds to the uniqueness of the state. New Mexico its neighbor to the west, is probably the second most popular subject for scholars of surveying and settlement history. Although one might expect the state of California, with its valuable land, oil and gold, and with all of its culture clashes, to be well-documented by scholars and writers of surveying history, but ironically it is not.

Among the good books on surveying in Texas are three classic publications that are still available through the Texas Surveyor's Association. The two published by the association, One League to Each Wind and Three Dollars Per Mile, represent one of the earliest efforts of state surveying societies to gather, assess, and publish material on their state's history. Even though these books are not particularly refined in organization or presentation, they became examples for like-minded surveyors around the country and set a certain standard for this kind of work. They are fun to read and contain a wealth of information that is sure to be useful to Texas surveyors.

 

A Diverse Collection
One League to Each Wind primarily discusses boundary surveying on the frontier. It is full of tales of hardship, adventure, and hazard. The book starts with a group of modern essays that form an introduction to surveying in Texas. Two of the essays, those by Edwin Arneson and Virginia H. Taylor Houston, are very good and provide such solid information as definitions of Spanish terms and explanations of the workings of Spanish and Mexican land grants. These essays alone are practically worth the price of the book.

The second section of One League is a compilation of accounts, stories, and letters of uneven quality, as one would expect in any anthology. I wondered if some of the items were already in print elsewhere. The sources in this book are often undisclosed, which is a pity. For me, reading a history is like researching a survey—I have to know from where the information originates. A history without references is like a boundary map without a surveyor's name on it—one is never certain it can be relied upon. Also, a bibliography or consistent footnotes in a book saves future researchers time and leaves a trail for those whose appetite may be whetted by these writings.

Do not let this shortcoming detract from the enjoyment of reading the early accounts in this section. The stories are as fine as any I have seen on pioneer surveyors and are to be enjoyed by those interested in surveying anywhere. They contain not a few surprises, the first of which is the level of education of many of these men. The most prominent names of surveyors you will see in this book are O.W. Williams, W.D. Twichell, and W.S. Mabry—each of whom was a college graduate—Williams from Harvard and Mabry from Virginia Military Institute. Williams, Mabry, and Twichell wrote well of their experiences laying out new towns, working in primitive conditions, and dodging Indians. Also presented is the last will and testament of a surveyor written before he went into the field. There is also an astonishing piece about a tense situation which was aborted when the potential combatants discovered there were Masons on both sides.

The last section of the book contains biographies of Texas surveyors. Though largely of appeal to Texans, they are interesting to browse through even if you hail from another state. The patterns that develop do not necessarily support the common image of the pioneer surveyor. I was surprised to see that most of the well-known Texas surveyors were not born in Texas.

Reports, Diaries, and Memoirs
Three Dollars Per Mile is much more of a hodgepodge than One League to Each Wind. It is divided into sections containing government reports, diaries, memoirs, and another collection of biographies of Texas surveyors. It looks as if a crew of researchers fanned out across Texas to find everything they could about surveying and surveyors in libraries. The results were then gathered together between the covers of this book. The material is generally good but it is only superficially organized. Notable is the biography of José Policarpo Rodriguez who dictated his biography in Spanish to a reverend in the late 1890s. Rodriquez, born in 1829 in Mexico, was a member of many survey crews, a scout for the Army, and later in life a Protestant missionary.
It is a short but fascinating picture of the man and his time. The government reports of exploration into new lands are always intriguing. How often were the writers correct in their descriptions and speculations? These particular reports are small in scope and I think more appreciated by those who know the terrain than other readers. There are more than 400 pages of good reading in this book.

Twichell's Biography
Texas Was His Land is the biography of Willis Day Twichell. Written by his son-in-law Fred Truett, it is not a TSA publication. It is a good book in its own right but serves well as a comparison piece with the other two books. Twichell was indeed a pioneer surveyor whose surveying career started in 1882 after he graduated from college. By the time he arrived in Texas the buffalo were gone, the Indians had been forced onto reservations, and the common practice of carrying firearms on surveys had ceased. However, there remained demanding and rewarding tasks to be done. Most notable were the surveys of the 3,000,000 acre XIT ranch and the establishment of several towns. W.D. Twichell comes across in this book as admirable and accomplished. He was the kind of steady and hard-working person that forms the backbone of successful communities everywhere, even if the community is unaware of them.
Twichell took care to maintain high professional standards. He took care of his family and he took care of his community by participating in its service organizations. This book describes all of these aspects of his life, complete with wedding pictures and photographs of a family reunion.

These three books could be considered a trilogy on the history of surveying in Texas. They begin with the first surveying and mapping of the state and end with the beginning of the modern era. It is a rich and detailed history. The books still set a standard for others to follow and, and at the price of books nowadays, they are a bargain.


 

Patrick Toscano is the City Surveyor for New Britain, Connecticut, and the Book Reviewer for the magazine.

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