While not precisely in the Middle of Nowhere, William Becknell found himself roaming the eastern slope of the southern Rockies in the fall of 1821, conducting trade with Indians in lieu of more lucrative, but forbidden, commerce with Mexico.
Encountering a group of Mexican soldiers one sun-soaked afternoon, Becknell learned that Mexico had won independence from Spain, and trade once again was possible. Seizing his opportunity, Becknell traveled directly to Santa Fe, arriving on November 16. It was a profitable decision:
After a month of trading, Becknell and his party left Santa Fe on December 13th. His investment of $300 in trading goods had returned approximately $6000 in coin. The men returned to Missouri safely in January, 1822.
Wealthier and more experienced, Becknell resolved to return to Santa Fe the following summer, but along a different route: rejecting the difficult mountain passes in favor of a diagonal dash across Kansas, through present-day Council Grove, Dodge City, and the Cimarron Desert.
[When Becknell] advertised for seventy men to “go westward,” thirty volunteered, and they left Missouri in May, 1822, with some $3,000-$5,000 in goods.
Taking wagons this time, they explored a new route. Leaving the Arkansas River near present-day Dodge City, Kansas, [they crossed] to the Cimarron River, blazing the Santa Fe Trail. Though both people and animals suffered considerable hardship, nearly dying of thirst in the parched Cimarron Desert, they arrived in Santa Fe forty-eight days later.
Becknell’s “new” route had been used by Mexican traders for decades, but his role in its reopening earned him the title “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.” An important and lucrative Old West trading route, it served merchants and other travelers well, until rail travel brought its demise in the 1870s.
Difficult as the terrain could be, life on the Santa Fe trail wasn’t without other complications. Periodic Indian raids became particularly troublesome, making a search for ways to secure the route imperative.
In 1824, thanks in part to pressure from Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Congress passed a bill approving funds for three Commissioners to oversee the surveying and marking of the route from Missouri to Santa Fe, and to secure a guarantee of safe passage from Indian tribes along the trail.
After President John Quincy Adams signed the bill on March 3, 1825, Benjamin H. Reeves of Missouri, Thomas Mather of Illinois, and George C. Sibley of Missouri were appointed Commissioners. Perhaps because of his experience as an Indian agent and factor at the trading post at Fort Osage, east of Independence, Missouri, Sibley assumed leadership of the group, and the so-called Sibley Expedition was born.
The Sibley Expedition began its survey near Ft. Osage, Missouri, on July 17, 1825. By August 10, they had traveled, according to John A. Bingham’s 1848 milage chart, 139 miles to a spot which Sibley named Council Grove: both for its large oak groves and for the so-called Council Oak under which a safe-passage treaty and the right-of-way for a public highway (the Santa Fe Trail) were negotiated with leaders of the Kansa and Osage tribes.
The treaty signed, Council Grove became the jumping off point for the hardest part of the Santa fe Trail, the last opportunity for provisioning and wagon repair before crossing the Cimarron desert, and the beginning of Sibley’s immersion into the life of a frontier surveyor.
Diplomacy is one thing; surveying quite another. Writing in The American Surveyor, Jerry Penry sketches out the qualities of competent surveyors in frontier America:
Knowledge of astronomy was crucial in establishing the important parallels and meridians.
Other tasks required the skills of a woodsman to blaze trails, and agronomist or mineralogist to document the soil structure or important minerals that were hoped to exist in the previously unknown vastness of the United States.
The surveyor needed at least some knowledge of botany to document the species of trees and determine the difference between plants that were edible and those that would kill them. Good marksmanship was necessary to obtain fresh meat for food and to defend against hostile Indian attacks.
Being far removed from civilization also required knowledge of the use of medicine, both for themselves and for the care of animals in their company.
A certain intrepid spirit didn’t hurt. In 1838, Indians killed nine surveyors on the Guadalupe River north of San Antonio, and at least seven more Texas survey parties were attacked that year. Clearly, not every tribe was as willing as the Kansa and Osage to accept surveyors on their land.
Beyond the physical and cultural challenges inherent in the work, it’s also worth remembering that early survey teams worked without tools today’s surveyors take for granted. In Sibley’s day, there were no electronic levels: no direct reading laser rods or truck-mounted GPS poles. For that matter, there weren’t any trucks.
In the mid-19th century, a basic tool of the trade was the Gunter chain — an analog tool if ever there was one.
The chain is named for its inventor, English clergyman and mathematician Edmund Gunter (1581–1626). Gunter served as Rector of St George’s Church, Southwark, and St Mary Magdalen, Oxford, until his death, but churchly duties were far from his only interest.
Writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, H.K.Higton lists several of Gunter’s notable accomplishments: particularly his 1620 publication of Canon Triangulorum, or Table of Artificial Sines and Tangents ; his introduction of the terms cosine and cotangent; and his development of a mechanical device called the Gunter’s scale or Gunter’s rule — a precursor to the slide rule.
An advocate for mathematically-based instruments for occupations like navigators and surveyors, Gunter did his part by developing his surveying chain: 100 iron links, each 7.92 inches long, totaling 66 feet in length. Five notched “tally tags” divide the chain into five sections, for measuring distances less than a full chain.
Most written descriptions I found for using the chain seemed unnecessarily complicated, so I asked a friend who’s actually used one how he would describe the process.After cautioning that things become more complicated when mountains, streams, or uneven ground are involved, he said:
It’s easy. Pin one end of the chain to the ground. Use your compass to check your bearing, then stretch out the chain in the direction you want to go, making sure it’s level and not kinked. Then, pin the second end down.
Note the measurement in your field book, then pick up the first end you secured, swing it around so it’s in front of your second pin, and do it again. And again, and again — depending on how far you’re going.”
Of course, Sibley, Surveyor Brown, and the rest of the men were going a very long way indeed. The thought of them chaining their way across Kansas, a bit of Oklahoma, and a good portion of New Mexico sixty-six feet at a time is fairly astonishing.
On the other hand, a need for scientific precision doesn’t seem to have obsessed them. In a paper titled, “747 Miles, 73 Chains: Joseph C. Brown’s Epic Traverse,” Stephen Schmidt writes:
From the Mexican Boundary to Taos in 1825… a detailed survey was not made. The distances were not measured, but were estimated by time and the travel of wagons and horses, frequently corrected by latitude.
The Field Book of the Expedition, with a map of the route on one page and a corresponding narrative description of the route and compilation of mileages on the facing page, was not a surveyor’s field notebook at all.
A surveyor’s field book would contain the distances measured along straight lines, the angle or deflection when direction of the survey was changed, astronomical observations to determine latitude, and other technical information.
In the introduction to the Field Book, Surveyor Brown says as much: “It is deemed unnecessary to annex a complete copy of the courses and distances. It is thought a map of the road in this form, with brief remarks and directions, would be useful to such as may travel it.”
Still, the question remains: how accurate were they?
The starting point of the survey seems to be a matter of surveyors’ speculation, but a location south of present-day Sibley, Missouri, 22.3 miles east of the western boundary of Missouri appears to be generally accepted. Using that point as a reference, Schmidt concludes:
Using the Sibley Expedition’s calculations, Taos is 616.1 miles west and 191.5 miles south of the beginning point of the survey, for a calculated straight line distance of 645.2 miles.
Using Google Earth, the straight line distance from the point of commencement to the square at Taos is 650.2 miles. That is a difference of 5.0 miles in 650.2 miles: an error of 0.77 percent.
If Sibley and Brown had known, they surely would have been pleased.
In September, Sibley’s group reached what they believed to be the 100th Meridian: the 1825 border with Mexico, and the current site of Dodge City. While Sibley awaited permission to enter Mexican territory, the other Commissioners returned to Missouri. Eventually, permission being granted, Sibley pushed on toward Santa Fe.
Weary and suffering from lack of water, the group finally reached Taos, where they were welcomed and given permission to survey the route in New Mexico. However, circumstances prevented the other Commissioners from rejoining them and, in August, 1826, Sibley and his men returned to Missouri. After several delays, the Commissioners submitted their report in October, 1827.
In the end, their survey had little impact on those choosing to travel the Trail. Each year traffic increased, and the constant passage of wagons created an obvious path for others to follow — a path still visible today.
Still, in the earliest days of the Santa Fe trail, Sibley and Brown’s map, with its “brief remarks and directions,” and the cairn-like mounds they constructed as they traveled between Independence and Dodge City, were as useful to the traders, travelers, and wagon-men who passed by as the natural landmarks that guided them west of the 100th Meridian.
Absent our digital devices — our GPS, our Mapquest, our smartphones, and our Google maps — Sibley and his cohorts truly were analog travelers: slower, perhaps, but possibly more observant; more aware of their surroundings; and more sensitive to the world through which they traveled.
This much is certain. They knew how to make use of some really big rocks.
(to be continued…)
Comments always are welcome. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.