The Life and Work of Surveyors

The Work of a Surveyor

A surveyor is someone whose job it is to measure land areas in order to determine boundaries, elevations and dimensions. Without the work of surveyors, how would you know where your yard ends and your neighbor’s begins?

In the early 1800s the United States government was following through on a plan to divide up the large areas of land acquired from Britain following the American Revolution. Because the government needed an orderly system to sell and settle the land, a system was created to clearly record boundaries of land ownership. The system, called "the rectangular survey", helped settle and prevent boundary disputes. It also caused the checkerboard appearance that much of our nation, states and counties have today. In order for this system to work, surveyors were needed to mark boundaries for the lands that settlers wanted to purchase. This had to be done as rapidly as possible and completed before the settlers arrived. Then the new owner could properly record the purchased land at the courthouse.

The Life of a Surveyor: Sam Durham

In Iowa the first rectangular survey started in 1836. By that time more than 10,000 people lived in the area. The surveyors eventually caught up with and moved ahead of the settlers. The surveying crews finished their work about 1858. Among them was Samuel William Durham.

Sam Durham was 24 years old when he first visited Iowa in 1840. He liked what he saw and moved from Indiana to Linn County the next year. Sam was a surveyor and got a job surveying parts of the Iowa Territory for the government. He worked as a surveyor for 14 years.

In 1853 Sam led a survey crew to Cerro Gordo County near Clear Lake. Supplies for their trip included cloth for tents and wagon covers, bags, twine and cord. The men also took paper, one dozen pens, two bottles of ink, a bucket, iron spoons, a set of knives and forks, 18 pounds of candles and tallow for shoes and harnesses. Their provisions included 100 pounds of sugar, 60 pounds of coffee, 399 pounds of corn, two bushels of apples, 70 pounds of beans and 1,097 pounds of flour. With just two horses along on the expedition, the surveying crew usually walked.

Ira Cook's Cold Journey Home

A surveyor's life was full of hardships. There were no roads, and they tramped through marshes and forded streams to do their important work. Because their work took them away from settlements, they had to carry their supplies and provisions with them. If someone became ill, there was rarely a doctor nearby. The report of Ira Cook tells about his wintertime experience.

"Our work was hard, our days long: in winter or summer we were at work in the morning as soon as we could see, worked as long as we could see at night, and then tramped to camp by moonlight or starlight, often for many miles. We lived on bread, salt pork, beans and coffee. Occasionally we would vary it by the capture of wild game. On this trip I remember one of the boys shot a deer, and once we found a "bee-tree" containing several gallons of honey.

We completed our work in January, 1850, broke camp and started for home. In order to have the benefit of the settlements in Missouri we travelled directly south, and on the first night of our homeward journey... we reached Platte River at nightfall, but found no timber in which to camp, only some scattering trees for firewood, and the ground frozen so hard that we could not put up our tent. We built a good, big fire, got supper, drew the wagon up so as to form a wind break and camped down between it and the fire. We were painfully aware that it was cold, very cold, but just how cold we could not tell. Next day before noon we reached a settlement in Missouri and were informed that the thermometer that morning had registered 31 degrees below zero!"


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Surveyors Go to Work,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 3 (February 1983): 14.