"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


Map Showing First Plan for Nebraska Survey 1854.
(Drawing by Miss Martha Turner.)

The first settlers in Nebraska found no corners nor lines marking the limits of their land. The early Indian traders, like Manuel Lisa and Henry Fontenelle, built their cabins and put in their crops wherever it pleased them, for all land lay open to their use. The early territorial pioneer of 1854 and 1855 staked out his own land, claiming what suited him best, and put up signs telling all who came that way what he claimed.

The first Nebraska surveyor was Rev. Isaac McCoy, a Baptist missionary who, in 1837, surveyed a line across the southeast corner of the state from the Little Nemaha River to the Great Nemaha River in what is now Richardson County. The land between this line and the Missouri River was called the Half Breed Strip. It was to be the home of those who were part white and part Indian. In later years there were many disputes over the location of this first Nebraska survey. Surveyors were needed as soon as Nebraska became a territory to divide the land into blocks marked with permanent corners, so that each settler might know just where his land lay and the whole country might be made easy to map and easy to describe. The regular permanent survey of Nebraska into square blocks of land for people's homes began in November, 1854. First a base line was measured west from the Missouri River 108 miles, with corner posts marking each mile. This line was ordered to be exactly on the 40th degree of latitude north from the equator, the dividing line between Nebraska and Kansas, but the first surveyor did not know his business and the line was crooked, sometimes on one side of the 40th degree and sometimes on the other. So the next year this base line had to be re-surveyed, the first corners torn out and new ones put in. This new survey was made by Mr. Charles A. Manners. With the help of Captain Thomas J. Lee of the United States Army and the best instruments obtainable, very careful observations were made of the sun and the stars in order to find where the 40th degree of latitude fell on the west bank of the Missouri River. On this spot, on May 8, 1855, the surveyors put up a tall iron monument with the word "Nebraska" on one side and "Kansas" on the opposite side. This monument stands to-day on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri valley and is the starting point of all the Nebraska surveys.

Nebraska-Kansas Monument, Starting Point of Nebraska Surveys.
(Drawing by Miss Martha Turner.)

From this iron monument the base line was surveyed due west 108 miles. At this point another monument was put up. The line surveyed due north from here is called the sixth principal meridian of the United States surveys and is the "naming line" of all the land in Nebraska, for all deeds and patents to Nebraska land mention it. This line forms the western boundary of Jefferson, Saline, Seward, Butler, Colfax, Stanton and Wayne counties and extends through Cedar County to the northern boundary of the state.

The orders for the survey of Nebraska called for a division of the land into blocks six miles square called townships. Each township was divided into blocks one mile square called sections. All the townships in Nebraska are numbered, beginning with number one at the base line and ending with number thirty-five at the northern boundary. Each row of townships stretching across the state from south to north is called a range. The ranges are counted from the sixth principal meridian, the first range of townships east being called range one east, the first range west being called range one west and so on. There are nineteen ranges east and fifty-nine ranges west in Nebraska.

At distances forty-eight miles east and west from the sixth principal meridian guide meridians were laid off. This was necessary because the surface of the earth is curved instead of flat. If you will take a ball and lay off its surface into square blocks of uniform size, as the surveyors laid off the surface of the earth, you will see why these guide meridians were needed. In a similar way standard parallels were run at each interval of twenty-four miles north from the base line. The surveyors made the survey by running a line due north from the base line twenty-four miles, then due east forty-eight miles to the meridian. The block of land thus laid off was subdivided into townships and sections by marking the corners of each township and each section with stakes or stones set in a mound of earth and four holes dug so as to form a square figure with the mound in the center. In pioneer times, the gray wolf or the coyote sitting upon one of these mounds would howl through the long hours of the night. On the section line half-way between the section corners was placed what is called a "Quarter Stake."

Map Showing Progress of Surveys in Eastern Nebraska, 1856.
(Drawing by Miss Martha Turner.)

Beginning thus in the southeast corner of the state, the surveys were each year pushed a little farther west and north, in the direction most likely to be taken by the settlers as they came in, until all the state was surveyed. The last survey thus made was the "Gates of Sheridan" reservation in Sheridan County, which was finished in 1910, fifty-six years after the first survey was made.

Each surveying party kept a book called a field notebook in which was to be written down each day the distances measured, a description of the surface of the country, all prominent natural objects seen, the quality of the land, the corners marked and how they were marked, in a word the entire story of things done and seen each day. From these field notes maps were made, showing all the streams, hills, valleys, smooth and rough land, and copies of these maps were kept at the land offices where the settlers went to file their claims upon land. Some of the surveys were dishonestly made, the corners not marked as required by law and the field notes not truthfully kept, so that settlers in some cases lost their homes or located on the wrong piece of land or were unable to find the government corners.

Robert Harvey, an Early Surveyor and Outfit.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

Great dangers and hardships were braved by the pioneer surveyors. The Indians everywhere understood when they saw the surveying parties making mounds, driving stakes and digging holes, that the white men were coming to take their land. In many cases they pulled up their stakes, tore down the mounds and drove off the surveyors. Great storms swept down upon the surveyors living in tents, and men and horses were frozen to death. Fever and ague was common in the surveying camps. In surveying the islands of the Platte River the men waded through water for weeks. Upon the high plains of western Nebraska they were tortured with thirst. Mosquitoes, gnats and green-headed flies pursued them, eager for blood by day and by night. Sometimes the Indians set fire to the prairie and drove the surveying parties in because their horses found no grass to eat. The saddest day in all the surveys of Nebraska was August 20, 1869, when a band of Sioux Indians under Pawnee Killer and Whistler attacked the Nelson Buck surveying party of ten men in the Republican Valley and killed the entire party. There was not a single season from 1863 until 1877 when the surveyors did not have to fight the Indians, and for many years later all surveying parties carried rifles along with their instruments and often saved their lives thereby.

The United States surveys of Nebraska are ended. All the field notebooks and the township maps of the surveys are turned over to the State of Nebraska and kept in a fireproof vault by the state surveyor in the Capitol building. The letters written by the surveyors in the field, telling the story of their trials and dangers are there bound in volumes for future Nebraskans to read. All the titles to all the lands and lots in Nebraska rest finally upon the record of these surveys. Land in Nebraska grows more valuable from year to year and these records are called for so that surveyors to-day may follow the field notes of these first surveyors, retrace their lines and locate the true corners where land is in dispute. So long as men live and occupy the land, so long will the surveys of Nebraska and the records of them be first in importance to them.


  1. What are the numbers of the land where you live and how do you know?
  2. Find all the government corners in the section where you live and tell how they are marked? Are the marks you find the ones put there by the United States surveyors?
  3. How do surveyors to-day retrace the work of the first United States surveyors and settle disputes over land?