Arrow-straight and topped with gravel, Olive Creek Road and South 110th Street in Lancaster County, Nebraska, intersect neatly amid rolling hayfields and sprouting crops of corn. To an untrained eye, this spot some twenty miles due south of Lincoln looks like most other rural intersections in the Midwest. But to Jerry Penry, a land surveyor for the county, treasure lurks underfoot.
He and two colleagues venture out on a scorching June morning in search of their prize: a chunk of sandstone measuring 14” x 10” x 6”. For Penry the rock holds enough value to justify digging for hours in hundred-degree heat. “It ties everything together,” he says of the buried boulder and others like it.
To understand what’s at stake for the veteran land surveyor requires a step into the past. On June 6, 1857—159 year earlier almost to the day—a United States surveyor named Jonathan P. Jones traversed this patch of prairieland with a crew of his own, using Gunter’s chains to run their section lines, and marking the corners of those sections with slabs of stone. Their work formed part of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), the grid of townships and sections conceived in the 1780s by Thomas Jefferson and others that configured how the United States grew from a collection of East Coast states to a continent-spanning behemoth. Under the system, each township measures six square miles and contains thirty-six one-square-mile sections each comprising 640 acres, typically divided into smaller units such as quarter sections (160 acres).
Chain by chain, section by section, more than a billion acres—from the Allegheny Mountains to the Pacific Ocean—became part of the expanding grid. This was capitalism and white agrarian democracy on the march, inscribing the values of private property and family farming into the very landscape, while hastening the dispossession of Native Americans, Mexicans, and other inhabitants of the land. The resulting checkerboard landscape, so apparent even today, influenced everything from where towns and farms emerged, to the location of roads and schools, to the meticulously straight rows of crops in many fields.
Running their lines and setting their section corner markers on that June day in 1857, Jones and his crew marked a new dispensation in the region. Terrain that until only a few years earlier had belonged to Otoe and Pawnee peoples now fell squarely within the U.S. public domain. Under the precise coordinates of the expanding PLSS, the surveyors were creating section lines in Township 7 North at the border of Ranges 7 and 8 East of the sixth principle meridian. Jones pinpointed the location where four section corners converged and, according to his field notes, marked the spot with a sandstone slab. As required, he also took note of salient features in the landscape, writing succinctly: “Land gently rolling, first rate soil fit for cultivation.” His words were prescient: A thriving agricultural economy quickly blossomed in the area.
Spot-on as they were, Jones’s impressions were not what gave his work its enduring worth. It was the lines he and fellow surveyors ran, and the corner markers they set, that would leave the greatest mark. To this day they remain the underlying basis for establishing property locations, lending precision to land transactions and informing everything from tax assessments to the accuracy of county maps. “Every time a piece of land gets bought and sold it has to be related back to the section, township, and range,” Penry explains. “That’s going to stay with it forever.” In jurisdictions where they are carefully maintained, the original markers (also known as “monuments”) effectively hold the grid in place. They are particularly useful when it comes to adjudicating property disputes. For example, if a farmer builds a fence that strays into a neighbor’s plot, and that neighbor cries foul, the PLSS corner stones remain the ultimate arbiter for determining the correct property lines. In essence, the foundations for private property are set in stone. Or, as Penry might say, those markers tie everything together.
For a county surveyor like Penry, a key aspect of his job is remonumentation or “corner work”—that is, making sure the original markers remain accounted for and in the proper place. That is no simple task in a county that is thirty-six miles long by twenty-four miles wide and home to approximately 2,800 section corner stones, most of which were set back in the 1850s. Fortunately for Penry and his colleagues, tracking down the stones does not entail much guesswork. For starters, Lancaster County roads, including both Olive Creek and S. 110th, must by statute run along section lines, thereby preserving the broad outlines of the original survey. Furthermore, the county has long devoted resources to corner work, periodically visiting each marker, resulting in detailed documentation about its placement and condition over many years.
Penry arrives at the site of his dig armed with a map—a color-coded schema of the PLSS grid superimposed over the county, with a dot marking the intersection in question. He also carries notes from his predecessors who visited the spot over the decades and testified to the presence of Jones’s boulder. Though originally protruding aboveground, the sandstone slab sank into the soil with the passage of time, forcing surveyors to roll up their sleeves and dig ever deeper. “I found the government stone,” reported a deputy surveyor in 1887, giving its dimensions and describing its location. In 1937 another surveyor confirmed its spot, and set an iron pipe over it—a standard practice to “double mark” a monument and make it that much harder for property lines to “migrate” by accident or design. A surveyor in 1948 set another double mark. The last account Penry has of “corner work” in this particular place was from 1991. Like pieces of a puzzle, these documents enable the crew to form a picture of the rock’s location.
Knowing that past surveyors had double-marked the spot with metal pipes, Penry plucks a magnetic locator from his truck and passes it over the center of the intersection. A high-pitched noise signals he’s in the right place. Setting construction cones around the site, he and crew members Jim Jurgens and Shawn Miller commence digging. After a few minutes, one of them strikes metal—a pipe placed there by an earlier surveyor. They use a jack to extract it. Continuing to dig, the men discover to their chagrin that there’s a second, older roadbed beneath the current one. The hole is now four feet deep, yet they’re still scraping hard gravel. “Usually we’d be in black dirt by now,” Penry notes. As a man who’s unearthed more than two hundred original stone markers during his two decades with the county, his words carry the weight of experience. That experience brings patience. Undaunted, the men press on as meadowlarks sing in the surrounding fields and temperatures rise under a punishing sun.
At last they break through the second roadbed, and not long after that they strike something solid, five-and-a-half feet down. The men are all smiles. It’s taken two hours of sweat to get here, but they’ve found their stone. The celebration is short-lived, though. The double roadbeds have driven the boulder so far beneath the surface the crew struggles to pry it loose, let alone extract it. They attempt to dislodge it a with a pry bar. They try ensnaring it with a chain. It becomes clear after an hour or so that to unearth the stone will require removing large chunks of the road.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Penry admits. An avid historian as well as a professional surveyor, Penry has written extensively on the subject of the PLSS. Corner work gives him a sense of connection to his forebears in the craft, he says, a sentiment renewed by this brush with Jones’s doggedly immobile boulder. “It’s cool to know that surveyor had it in his hands.”
Still, he and crew have to reckon with reality. They’ve spent nearly half a day searching for the stone and struggling to unearth it. It would require another day or two of work, heavy equipment, and perhaps additional personnel to dig up the road, pull out the boulder, and then put everything back together. Besides, they’ve already achieved their primary goal: locating the stone and confirming it’s where it ought to be. “We’re the first to go this far in a long time,” Penry says. With a modicum of satisfaction, the crew begins filling in the hole, double marking the site with a 30-inch steel pipe placed directly over the boulder, and topping it with an aluminum cap bearing the township, range, and section coordinates. If the past is any guide, in another decade or two, a team of surveyors will visit this very spot brandishing the field notes Penry has prepared about the work he and his team have done here today.
Blanketing vast swaths of the United States, the PLSS is both a window onto the past and a vital part of the present. It is a living document like no other. The notes of the original surveyors comprise the most complete record of what the continent looked like at the time of Euro-American settlement. Today conservation biologists use those notes to guide efforts to restore decimated ecosystems—no small irony given the vast ecological changes ushered in by a survey system that commodified the land and created uniform landscapes. The PLSS remains especially alive and well in locales like Lancaster County where successive generations of surveyors have worked to keep the original record straight, adding new layers to the living history as they go. The most eloquent document is the land itself. A veritable palimpsest, it bears testimony to the Founders’ Enlightenment-era vision of orderly national growth. If the conquest of the continent in practice brought upheaval and tragic dislocations, fidelity to the survey carried the day—a story indelibly stamped on the land.
Keeping faith with the original lines, Jerry Penry and colleagues ensure the survey will not disappear from sight, even if it is so ubiquitous we fail to see it.
Featured image: An intersection in Lancaster County, Nebraska. Photo by author, 2016.
John Suval is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. environmental and political history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on public lands and the nature of democracy, including a dissertation project that examines how squatters on western lands came to occupy a central and disruptive position in antebellum political culture. Contact.