Duck Duck Book

58 – chaining oregon
12.1.2008, 8:00 pm
Filed under: history & geography

Chaining Oregon : surveying the public lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855 / by Kay Atwood.
Blacksburg, VA : McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, 2008.
[MCL call number: 917.9504 A887c 2008; one copy, no holds; one copy reference only at Central Library]

When the United States expanded west, it was a major element of public policy to encourage settlers to go out there and carve their names into the land. Farming, ranching, and even mining all marked the territory as belonging to settlers — and land controlled by settlers was more American, in a cultural sense as well as a political one. Measuring the land, marking boundaries, and drawing maps showing what was there and who controlled each piece were important foundational steps that helped transform what was seen as wild space into a civilized, productive, and law-abiding nation. The first U.S. maps elucidating land ownership were drawn by draftsmen working for the General Land Office (later absorbed by the Bureau of Land Management), and they worked from measurements and notes taken by surveyors. The first surveyors in what is now Oregon and Washington began their work in 1851 after the passage of the Oregon Donation Land Act.

Land surveyors in the 1850s did much the same sort of work surveyors do now — except that these first surveyors in the Oregon and Washington territories were the pioneers of mapping in our region. If you look at a modern map showing land use and ownership in any part of Oregon or Washington, you’ll see properties measured with lines that were originally drawn by General Land Office surveyors in the 1850s. And here’s how they did it: they took basic (though often delicate) mechanical measuring equipment out into the valleys and the wilderness and measured. Teams of about five to eight men surveyed by hand, mostly in the rain and mud, often working from dawn till dusk. They walked survey lines in an area twelve to sixty miles wide from the southern end of the Puget Sound south to the California border in the space of five years. Chaining Oregon is a history of this project. Kay Atwood carefully and clearly explains the scientific and institutional history of the first surveys of the Oregon Territory — the bureaucracy, the technical challenges, local and national politics, the difficulties of weather and staffing and getting paid, and interactions between settlers and Oregon’s Surveyor General — while at the same time sharing relevant pieces of the broader history of Oregon.

In addition to their work of measuring and describing the land, surveyors kept detailed journals of their field work. These journals included notes about the weather, names of people they met or lodged with, conversations they had, meals they ate, and so on, as well as subjects more germane to the work, like where fences were, the quality of the soils, and the prevailing species of timber in forested areas. The bits more clearly connected to the work of surveying often show up on the maps — for example, a great swath of what is now east Portland is described on the map of Township 1N Range 1E Willamette Meridian as: “Land gently rolling soil good rate clay loam / Timber Fir a little Maple Cedar and Hemlock.” Atwood uses the whole range of information in the surveyor’s field notes (not just the businesslike parts), as well as the first survey maps and the correspondence and other records of the office of Oregon’s Surveyor General to build the core of a riveting history of a specific part of the Pacific Northwest’s past. She connects her basic source material to other documentation of life and civilization in early Oregon, and to secondary histories of the region and its people, but her most remarkable achievement is that she has made a largely technical story read like a completely human one.

The men who did the actual work, and those who administered it, are Atwood’s chief characters. The places they traveled and the land they described are also important to her story. Atwood did not set out to relate any of the many other interesting stories that are secondary to this central thread — the development of urban centers in Oregon, for example, or the struggles settlers faced when their individual situations did not neatly line up with federal land claim regulations. But she does make modest reflection on many of these other stories an important part of her narrative. Her descriptions of daily life in the towns of Oregon City, Portland, and Jacksonville are vivid. She clearly explains local and national party politics (normally an exceedingly confusing topic) in so far as they affected the project of surveying Oregon. And Atwood’s quotes from surveyors’ field notes about physical features of a specific spot are often followed by a brief but careful discussion of how white settlers had already irrevocably changed that piece land, and how this affected the lifeways and future prospects of the Indians who already lived there.

Many readers, even those interested in Oregon’s history, might expect a history of the state’s first land surveys to be dry and uninteresting. Perhaps other histories of surveying projects are indeed dry, but Chaining Oregon is engaging and clear, and reading it invites further study of many interesting facets of our region’s past and the people and events that shaped it.

Chaining Oregon is supplemented by extensive endnotes, a thorough if somewhat dry bibliography, and an index. As usual, I think the index is only minimally useful — it has almost no entries for surveying equipment and techniques, and neglects to provide access points for memorable subjects that are secondary to the narrative but which are so often the parts readers will remember later. However, the index provides adequate access to proper nouns and it is better than nothing.

* * *

The University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library has a lovely collection of General Land Office maps of Oregon on its website. You can’t view the maps online; instead you have to download them. But they’re pretty small files and it doesn’t take too long for them to download.

The Portland Planning Bureau has the two earliest General Land Office maps showing the townships were central Portland is now, in pdf form, as a part of its collection of online historic resources. Township 1N Range 1E is the map I quoted from above; Township 1S Range 1E shows the area south of what is now SE Stark St. (which used to be called Baseline Road, because it follows the Willamette Baseline!).


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