The Surveyor and the General Land Office

Too far from the frontier?

President Grover Cleveland once remarked that the history of the General Land Office (GLO) could be seen as “a contest waged on the one hand by wealth, represented by the most capable and accomplished lawyers, overflowing with precedents and arguments, and an overcrowded office, almost buried under accumulated work and ill-supplied with men to bring the delayed cases to a conclusion.” The inadequate pay scale, both in the GLO offices and in the field offices of the registers, receivers, and surveyors general, made the GLO an excellent target for the unscrupulous manipulators on the frontier and in the halls of the bureaucracy and Congress. The tremendous responsibilities of the office often made it, against its own wishes, judge, jury, police force, and demi-god all in one. From adjudicating land claims based upon treaties with foreign nations to administrating hundreds of land laws and rulings, the GLO has been constantly swamped (pun intended) from its inception.

Many of the difficulties experienced by settlers under the various land laws came from the GLO’s interpretation of congressional acts, most of which were too vague to be administrated properly. The problems for the surveyors in the field were also directly related to interpretations of the laws rendered by the GLO through the office of the surveyor general of the various states and territories. Viewed from various perspectives, the observation of Abram S. Hewitt still stands: the commissioner of the General Land Office was “the most important law officer of the Government if measured by the money involved in his decisions.”

GLO’s Early History

The General Land Office was not created until 1812, after a number of “experiments” with surveyors general and governors of the territories attempting to administer congressional actions. Prior to its creation the responsibilities for surveying, land sales, and administration were divided among the Treasury, the War Department, and, to some extent, the secretary of state.

The secretary of war managed the numerous bounty warrants given to veterans of the revolution, the secretary of the treasury managed the sales and receipts, and the secretary of state issued the patents. The creation of pre-emption rights in certain areas, the establishment of a credit system for land purchases, the experiments with the famed “7 Ranges,” and the perfection of the rectangular system of surveying helped to create an administrative chaos in the first years of the Republic.

The national office of surveyor general was created by Washington, and the president appointed his friend and former Massachusetts state surveyor, Rufus Putnam, to fulfill that position. He served until 1803, when President Jefferson appointed the capable Jared Mansfield to the post. Mansfield further developed the rectangular system by using “certain scientific improvements in the way of base lines, principal meridians, and the laying out of townships.” This was just in time for the Louisiana Purchase and the congressional mandate to survey lands into quarter sections for greater ease of sale. Many lands were still held by various states, and land speculation ran high on the brink of the War of 1812. Congress, normally too slow to act on any land or military matters, passed the act in 1812 that finally created a consolidated GLO answerable to the secretary of the treasury.

Corrupt Commissioners

The office of commissioner of the General Land Office, serving under the secretary of the treasury, was a purely political appointment. When William Crawford of Georgia took the office in 1817, the Creek Concessions in Alabama were just opening up to settlement. Crawford’s numerous appointments indicated just how political the office could be. Many of the appointments recommended to president James Monroe by Crawford were made without much question, and Crawford rewarded his many Georgia friends with offices such as the register and receivers, deputy surveyors, and surveyors general.

Most of these men were backers of Crawford who would soon be working for the secretary as he geared up for a run at the presidency.

Crawford’s commissioner, Josiah Meigs, like those before him and most afterward, pushed for the surveys to be done rapidly so the best-available, till able lands could be placed on the market first. The political pressure to get this done was heavy. Many of the appointees were investors in lands themselves, even though there was a prohibition against such conflicts of interests.

Many office holders were purchasers of property in Alabama and most had “insider information” at their disposal. Surveyor general John Coffee, Arthur P. Hayne, William Wyatt Bibb, and Crawford himself are listed as purchasers in the Milledgeville-Cahawba and St. Stephens land offices.

Meigs also was an innovator in that he inserted into the instructions to the surveyors general the need to include botanical, zoological, and some meteorological data into the survey notes as additional guides to buyers and the government. This innovation was carried out without congressional approval but with the complicity of his staff. Congress never investigated this breach of protocol. After all, surveyors were required to note the existence of lead deposits, springs, water courses suitable for mill-sites, cedar and live oak stands useable by the navy, and numerous other special needs in addition to laying out the land in the rectangular fashion required by law.

The sale of land in quarter sections put additional pressure on the commissioner and his staff. This was especially true since the office of surveyor general was more or less separate from that of the commissioner, and conflict soon developed after this 1820 enactment. Commissioner Hayward, in 1830 and in 1832, urged Congress to reform the office of the commissioner with responsibility for the surveys falling into his purview.

Speculator versus Homesteader

Problems grew as the frontier advanced far more rapidly than anticipated west of the Mississippi River and land surveys lagged considerably behind settlement. This meant that the number of squatters was growing, anticipating government protection of their pre-emptive rights.

Finally, in 1836 the consolidation took place, and, although still greatly understaffed and underpaid, the GLO ran more smoothly even while falling further behind the demand for land and surveys. The secretary of the treasury soon realized that Congress was more interested in satisfying the needs of the frontiersman than in raising revenue and actually recommended that Congress create a new department to handle the land business.

In 1849, the Department of the Interior was created, but instead of being the directing force in land issues, it became a catch-all government agency that handled Indian affairs, the patent office, pensions, and a number of local hospitals, and government institutions in and around Washington. In many instances the secretary of the interior was so deluged with work from the other bureaus under his control that the GLO practically ran itself and made many decisions on land law interpretation that needed to be made. The final decision, however, always remained with the secretary of the interior, if he so desired.

Congressional neglect of the needs of the GLO continued, with law after law being passed with no funding for their administration. When viewed from the perspective of the GLO, the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850, the numerous military bounty warrants that needed location and surveys, the pre-emption laws, the grants for internal improvements (beginning in 1850 with the Illinois Central Railroad), the various and numerous “donations” made to states and individuals, the segregation of private claims stemming from Spanish, Mexican, French, and English land grants from the public domain, etc. made it nearly impossible for the GLO to function efficiently and in the timely manner always insisted upon by Congress and the public.

And commissioner after commissioner fought the issue of the speculator verses the homesteaders, or at least argued that way.

As commissioner Henry Moore Teller noted, “The homestead and pre-emption laws, designed to secure to the actual settler lands at a reasonable price, have become agencies by which the capitalist secures large and valuable areas of the public land at little expense.”

By passing the Timber Culture Act, the Desert Land Act, and other such give-aways readily taken advantage of by unscrupulous speculators, Congress did the GLO no positive service. It was just more of the same. Each one of these enactments required surveyors in the field to use their best judgment and tact in dealing with the settler and speculator, and this was not easy.


One of the most important offices within GLO was that of the chief clerk. It was under the office of the chief clerk that the department was organized into various divisions that, to this day, remain important for surveyors to know—at least the basic ones.

Division A, the actual office of the chief clerk, included materials related to personnel, equipment, and expenditures. Since 1907 it also included the Board of Law Review: technically only advisory, but in reality it prepared the final decisions for review by the secretary of the interior.

Division B handled the correspondence and land patent, under the direction of the office of the recorder. Division C dealt mostly with the adjudication of most of the homestead laws.

Most important to all surveyors was Division E that supervised all public surveys and resurveys. Almost all special instructions came from this office. Directions from this division are often noted on GLO plats as, e.g., “See Letter E for April 15, 1889,” or something similar.

Division G handled all of the adjustments and adjudication of land grants, especially those to railroads, by far the most controversial and politically dangerous.

The division with perhaps the most difficult task, relative to public perceptions, was Divison H, the “Contest Division” that handled conflicting claims and other ex parte cases.

After 1910, the Field Surveying Service became responsible for all sorts of odd surveys, including Indian reservations, resurveys, fragmentary surveys, etc. Special Agents’ Field Service offered those who wanted a sense of adventure and danger the chance to investigate fraudulent patents, wrongly enclosed lands, timber trespasses, and depredations. All of these offices came under the office of the chief clerk and answerable to the commissioner at any time. (Note that this is not the total number of offices, just those of particular interest for surveyors today.)

The highly complex nature of the GLO’s function and its history of under-staffing, under-funding, and congressional interference have made the agency a target for many historians. However, if one takes into account the sheer volume of work done under its auspices, the GLO has had a very useful and vital role in the history of the country.

Consider that when Milton Conover wrote his The General Land Office: Its History, Activities and Organization in 1923, the GLO was responsible for overseeing the surveying of 1,276,086,856 acres of the public lands, and it still had 544,279,224 left to go, not including Hawaii. This is a remarkable accomplishment even with all of the political pressures, poorly funded mandates, sometimes-incompetent leadership (and a few wayward deputy surveyors), and constant scrutiny. Overall the commissioners of the GLO and their harried staffs have done yeoman’s service to the nation.

About the Author

  • Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe Knetsch, Ph.D.
    Joe holds a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University and, since 1987, has been the historian for the Division of State Lands, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (working in the Bureau of Survey Mapping). He has authored more than 35 articles on the history of surveying and teaches the course on the history of surveys and surveying in Florida for recertification purposes in the state of Florida. He is also a contributing writer for the magazine.

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