Analog Traveling, Part I ~ Mr. Sibley’s Chain Gang

sibley1Crossing the Cimarron desert

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.

sibleyportraitGeorge C. Sibley

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. 
sibleychaingang U.S. Geological Survey chainmen measure a New Mexico baseline  ~ 1883  (Library of Congress)

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.

sibleygunterA Gunter chain, showing tally tags

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 cotangentand 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.

sibleyswalesMowed Stanta Fe trail ruts ~ Baldwin, Kansas

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.


sibley100 Sibley led his group south, along what would come to be known as the Cimarron Cutoff: crossing the Cimarron desert and  bisecting the corner of today’s Oklahoma Panhandle.

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.

sibleyrutsWest of Council Grove, Kansas

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.


123 thoughts on “Analog Traveling, Part I ~ Mr. Sibley’s Chain Gang

  1. A highly interesting and instructive post, Linda. Now I know where the English term ‘chain’ comes from.
    The Imperial methods of measurements, weights, including distances, areas never failed to confuse those brought up on a metric system.
    A foot is twelve inches but a yard is not twelve feet , no, three feet. There are no three shillings in a pound sterling, no there are twenty, yet the shilling has twelve pennies and so on. No wonder the English own Monty Python.
    I am amazed that the earlier measurements were only out by a mere 5 miles over such a long distance.

    In Australia it were the Afghan cameleers that contributed enormously to the opening of the outback.

    1. Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they achieved such accurate results.

      In the Topographical Bureau, there’s one map from the full survey (which actually covered three years) which notes: “This survey was made with a chain and compass, corrected by observations for latitude with a good sextant. The longitudes were referred to the meridian of Fort Osage, which was taken at 93º 51′ 03″.”

      Their use of a sextant certainly helped. I did a little more reading, and discovered some other facts that could have accounted for them being “off” a bit. For instance, chains apparently will stretch over time, and accuracy depends on them being compared to a standard, then adjusted by means of a nut that lies within the chain itself — much like a clock pendulum can be lengthened or shortened.

      And there’s this: Gunter’s 100-link chain actually is a decimal system: an area 1 chain by 10 chains was an acre, and measurements always are given in chains, not in inches. But here’s an interesting tidbit: in Ireland, the hundred links in a Gunter’s chain were 10.08 inches, to adapt the chain to the size of the Irish acre.

      I remember reading about the camels and the outback when I was researching our Texas camels. Of course, when the Santa Fe Trail was being opened, the camels hadn’t arrived yet in Texas, so that wasn’t a transportation option for them.

  2. Loved the pics of the desert and of the trails. Incredible how the folks back when… could make do with so little yet, achieve so much. I must say that Sibley and his crew were extremely talented and astute. I can’t imagine how they managed to estimate the mileage and be only 5 miles off the true distance. I know you did a lot of home work to write this post. Wonderful geography and history lesson all in one post. You are incredible, Linda.

    1. What I can’t find, Yvonne — although the information probably is out there — is whether they had the latitude and longitude of Santa Fe when they started. I’m sure they probably did, and that would have contributed to their accuracy. Using a chain for distance and a compass for bearings, they could have trotted right along.

      What’s worth pondering is why we sometimes achieve so little, when we have so many advantages. Beyond that, our over-dependence on modern gadgets can leave us without a clue how to proceed when the gadgets fail. It certainly happens on the water. Button-pushing isn’t navigating, and when the electronics go out and the fog rolls in, it can get interesting.

      I learned that Sibley had quite a career as an explorer and surveyor before heading off to Santa Fe — especially in Oklahoma. He explored the Oklahoma salt plains, which he called the “grand saline.” I suspect you know there’s a city in Texas called Grand Saline. Now, I wonder if Sibley is somehow connected to that.

      1. That would be interesting to know if they had latitude and longitude and I bet they did. As you have written, instruments don’t always work and one had better have plenty of common sense and an un-wavering calmness when things go awry. Reminds me of pilot Sully that landed the plane in the Hudson River and saved everyone on board. Just one instance that comes to mind.

        I’m sure you know exactly what you’re writing about when a navigation system goes kaput on the open seas and one needs a steady hand and a good head to think things through. I just don’t want to be in any of those situations. I prefer land at all times and will not fly, sail or, go by rail. I might be missing a lot but I’ve plenty of other interesting things to do and see and don’t feel cheated for excitement. :-)

        1. When I was sailing, we rarely depended on electronic navigation aids. In fact, when I started sailing, some of them hadn’t been invented yet! Most of them, now that I think about it. We had something called LORAN, but everyone mostly used paper charts, dividers, and a compass. There were some funny stories, but no serious problems.

          I’m happy to be land-based myself at this point — partly because there’s so much in this country I’ve yet to see. Shoot — there’s a lot in Texas I’ve yet to see. Spring’s just around the corner, and I’m eager to go looking about!

    1. On the other hand, think of it this way. They were navigating across the land, rather than water, but you know how accurate watermen can be. A sextant works the same on land as on sea, and it seems they put theirs to good use.

      Determination? You bet. I was thinking about it today, and decided I’d make a good chainman. I do pretty well with repetitive work, and that certainly would fit the bill. I’m not sure I’d want it for a profession, but on the other hand — into new territory? Sure!

  3. Yet another beautifully written history, this time read at 3 am with a hot water bottle on my back because I am having trouble sleeping. Thank you for the good read to take my mind off my back.

    We are currently in south central Arizona at a BLM site near Saddle Mountain, one of the thousands of mountainous outcroppings that jut from the desert floor throughout the Southwest. I always imagine those such as Sibley and crew making the passages through the deserts and mountains available to the rest of us so long ago.

    Note: We photographed Hi Jolly’s grave the day before yesterday. Yesterday I photographed a collection of carved camels in the local coffee shop/laundromat where we washed clothes and had a cup of soup. The hostess queried me about my photographing the camels and I told her about my friend who wrote a history of Hi Jolly. I said I was taking photos to send her…(that would be you). She said, “who is Hi Jolly?” And of course I said, “you don’t know Hi Jolly? His monument is just down the road. It’s a national historic site.” I would not have given it a second thought except you mentioned it, but I was a know-it-all in that moment. She was a snowbird with a part-time job. She didn’t have time for history.

    I have not returned to your post to remember whether or not you have actually visited Quartzite. Hi Jolly and the cemetery there, the thousands of RVs scattered in and around Quartzite, and flea markets have to be its claim to fame. We hightailed it our of there.

    Will look forward at some point to see the Santa Fe trail that you describe and show here.

    1. I hope you’re feeling better, Martha. Back problems can nag, for sure.

      I haven’t been to Hi Jolly’s grave. For that matter, I haven’t been to Arizona. The times I’ve been in New Mexico, I’ve always gone north, and then west. I’d like to visit, but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy your tales. I grinned at the thought of you giving the woman a tutorial on one of my favorite camel herders, but I was just as amused at your description of your getaway from Quartzsite. You sound like me, leaving Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was a nice enough place, and the people were friendly, but I still contend being there was like being on a cruise ship that had plowed into a mountain.

      I love that you got to photograph the grave. The carved camels suggest they’re doing their best to promote their local hero. I hadn’t paid much attention to the gem and mineral shows, though. My goodness — a million people in January and February? Even if I were a rockhound, I’m not sure I could take that. I’d rather go back to Arkansas with my shovel and dig for quartz crystals.

    1. What really gets to me, GP, is that I read about 1825 and think, “That was only two hundred years ago.” Some of my younger friends hear about something that happened in 2002 and say, “Gosh, who cares? That’s old news.” They say every generation fusses, but I honestly believe the very concept of history is being hollowed out: but not if we have anything to say about it — right?

      1. I think we should though. It is our children and grandchildren that are still learning it – nothing should be left out. I got one hopeful glimpse at our kids this past weekend at the ‘Wings of Freedom’ tour – 6 bus loads of elementary kids were there along with 2 bus loads of Junior ROTC students.

        1. You’re so right about the presence of the kids being a hopeful sign. And all of us need to be involved, in one way or another. It wasn’t just our teachers who helped with our education when I was young. Everyone — family, neighbors, volunteers in various groups — all played a part. When I think back to those days, I can be fairly astounded at how much education was going on, all the time.

  4. This is so interesting, and pleasing to learn how accurate they were. After WWII my dad took his first job, surveying mountains in Alaska. He would tell me some wonderful tales from this time~I imagine they probably used some of the early tools and methods you describe here. I remember how tickled he was when a college professor of mine had us out reckoning the height of trees by triangulation. You’ve brought back happy memories :)

    1. And I used to have my math students go out and use trigonometry to measure things that couldn’t be directly measured, like the height of the school’s flagpole or the distance between two points on opposite sides of the school.

    2. Your dad must have had wonderful tales: and what a beautiful location to work in.

      I found that foresters do use some old techniques, including Gunter’s chain. It’s interesting that the chain is the preferred unit of measure on all public U.S. Government Land Survey maps (mostly west of the Mississippi River) – including millions of mapped acres charted in sections, townships and ranges.

      Another technique is pacing, which is used when time’s limited, or there isn’t someone to help carry and drop a chain. The article I read said that “pacing is more accurate on moderate terrain where a natural step can be taken but can be used in most situations with practice and the use of topographic maps or aerial photo maps.”

      It added that, “Foresters of average height and stride have a natural pace (two steps) of 12 to 13 per chain. To determine your natural two step pace, pace the 66-foot distance enough times to determine your personal average two step pace.”

      And there you have it. Go measure something!

  5. You’ve reminded us of how easy we have it today compared to people just two centuries ago. I think we underestimate the difficulty of the feats they performed. In contrast, your tale reads so easily.

    1. Sibley’s journals from the trip have been edited and published by Lindenwood University, and I’m toying with buying a copy if I can’t get one through the library.

      Lindenwood’s in St. Charles, Missouri, and they’re publishing his journals because he and his wife, Mary Easton Sibley, founded the Lindenwood School for Girls in 1827, just after he finished his Santa Fe travels.That school became Lindenwood U: the second-oldest institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River and, according to the venerable Wiki, the fastest-growing university in the Midwest (since 1990). I’ve never heard of the school, but I liked what I saw on their site.

      Beyond that, it pleased me that you said this little piece reads easily. That’s only half of the aphorism I’ve always heard atrributed to Hawthorne, but whoever said it first, they got it right.

  6. I didn’t know surveyors used astronomy but given that its been used on oceans and seas I should have guessed it. Thank you for the photo of the Gunter Chain. I knew surveyors used chains but I was picturing conventional chains and it never made sense to me how and why they’d use the chains instead of ropes or something else lighter weight.

    1. That’s right. A sextant fit as well on a prairie schooner as a sailing schooner, and changes in latitude were important long before Jimmy Buffett paired them up with attitudes!

      What surprised me about the chains is that they can stretch, like rope. Checking a chain against a standard on a regular basis is important. I came across this discussion of the problem from 1841:

      “Knowing the negligence of surveyors in checking their chains, I borrowed one that had been tried about a year before in this office, and which had been used for that period in the service of a civil engineer. Upon trying it with my standard, I found it thirteen inches too long. The person who used it said he knew twenty other chains then in use that must be just as bad. The effect of this error would be this; if I possess a square mile of land, or 640 acres, this surveyor, with the chain in question, would report the content to be 619½ acres, so that selling my land at say 30l. an acre, I should lose 615l.”

      “The chain to which I have alluded was one of the best kind. The error was chiefly caused by the stretching of the wire itself, not one of the links or rings having opened; there was nothing in its appearance to indicate that it was incorrect, except that it was a little worn, and the surveyor would have continued to use it in that state as long as it would have held together. He had never been instructed that during a survey a chain should be frequently checked and adjusted by a standard.”

      I had to giggle a bit when I saw that the information came from a report by Samuel B. Howlett, “Chief Draftsman in the Royal Engineer Department; in Report to the Inspector General of Fortifications.”
      There’s nothing like a bureaucracy.

  7. I think surveyor would be a tough job. So much repetition of routine. I wonder what thoughts prompted the chain length to be 66 ft.

    Your story brings to mind other surveying stories such as Correctionvill, IA, the 4 Corners monument location, and the Mason-Dixon Line.

    Thanks for this one. I look forward to the next part.

    1. Believe it or not, Jim, I have an answer for you. The chain has a hundred links. At 7.92 inches per link, you get 66 feet. But that’s not the beauty of it. I found this further explanation:

      “A simple calculation from chained dimensions to acres is the reason the chain was used in the initial public land survey and the reason it is still so popular today. Areas expressed in square chains can be easily converted to acres by dividing by 10: ten square chains equals one acre. Even more attractive is that if a tract of land is a mile square, or 80 chains on each side, you have 640 acres or a “section” of land, and that section can be quartered again and again to 160 acres and 40 acres.”

      I didn’t know about Correctionville. I know the town, of course, but never gave its name a second thought. The text of the explanatory historical marker I found did remind me of something sort of related when it mentioned that the round shape of the earth makes correction lines necessary. If you look in the upper right-hand corner of page 261 of this issue of “The Index (scroll down slightly), you’ll find an 1883 letter titled, “The Sun Do Move, and the Earth Do Stand Still.” It references a book titled “Zetetic Asronomy: Earth Not A Globe”. It’s one thing to read an 1883 letter. It was quite another to read the comments appended to the Amazon listing. I guess for some folks, science is a whole lot less settled than for others. Well — or differently settled.

        1. I’ve been thinking about it all morning. Every now and then, I give a listen to overnight AM radio, just so I know which aliens to expect next, or whether that humming sound over Portland is HAARP run amok. But I never imagined there could be anyone left in the world who doesn’t get the earth-around-the-sun business: at least, no one selling books on Amazon. Honestly? I always thought the flat earth society was a joke: fun for people who like to tweak others. Apparently it’s a thing.

          1. People are out there believing every thing you can imagine. We drove by this place in KY several years ago. We didn’t stop.

            I quote: “As you enter the Time Tunnel, you’ll be transported back 6,000 years to the dawn of time as you begin your walk through biblical history. You’ll encounter a realistic Garden of Eden, animatronic Noah, Flood dioramas, and stunning video displays throughout your journey. Other exhibits include a fascinating insectarium, sculpted dinosaurs of all kinds in the Dino Den, a full-size Allosaurus skeleton, and much more.”

  8. The history of early explorers is truly fascinating. A similar read that I highly recommend is “The Oregon Trail…A New American Journey” by Rinker Buck.
    Thanks for the post…looking forward to Part II.

    1. I didn’t recognize the title or author’s name, but as soon as I went over to Amazon and read the blurb, I remembered hearing about it. It looks like a wonderful tale, and I think I might agree with the reviewer who said, “Rinker Buck has convinced us that the best way to see America is from the seat of a covered wagon.” I’ve not seen a covered wagon for sale recently, but I get the premise, and agree wholeheartedly.

      Thanks for the recommend!

  9. A sextant rests in its wooden box on my desk, a short reach from my keyboard. I have used it several times to read my location in the angle between the sun and the horizon. By my reckoning, the maps are all wrong and I live in Michigan, not Minnesota.

    1. Well, see? That was your mistake. You tried to use the danged thing. You’re supposed to let it sit there, lid cracked, so people can admire the polished brass and the pretty rosewood case.

      On the other hand, it could have been worse. You could have turned yourself into Downright Iowa.

    1. I drove through Council Grove twice, and stopped once at the grocery store. With the Strong City grocery out of business, pickings were a little slim in Chase County. There were some good restaurants, but they weren’t always open, and I generally prefer my own cooking, anyway.

      Since I’d stayed in Council Grove twice, and pretty much seen what there is to be seen, I decided for some other destinations. On the other hand, I did stop to see the big stone barn again, and I found this sign. That’s almost as good as “Curb Your Dandelions!”

      I loved learning about the chain(s). One thing that intrigued me is that people mark their anchor chain or line in the same way: not using tally tags, precisely, but laying the whole length out on the dock, and then inserting colored markers along the way: every 20′ or 40′, or whatever. It’s an easy way to know how much anchor rode you’ve let out.

  10. Love your history lessons, especially since they apply to my territory. I can’t believe how ignorant I am of such noble people of the past. Linda, I noticed in the log that there were a couple days that recorded 50 miles. How was that possible? Can you account for it?

    1. The Bingham mileage chart shows only the distances between points on the trail, not the time it took to cover them. For example, this drawing shows Pawnee Rock, Ash Creek, and Pawnee Fork. From Pawnee Rock to Ash Creek, it’s five miles. From Ash Creek to Pawnee Fork, it’s another five. How long it took to cover those miles depended on a lot of factors: from weather, to Indian incursions, to broken equipment — all the usual joys of travel.

      The photo at the top of the page was taken between the Oklahoma/Kansas line and Point of Rocks, in the Cimarron grasslands. It’s one of those areas where it becomes pretty obvious why the distances between acceptable stopping points stretched out.

      I’ve got a terrific photo of the dirt road out of Elkhart that runs right on the state line. I’ll see if I can’t dig that up for you.

        1. I keep turning up interesting tidbits. Here’s a whole collection of mileage charts from the trail. I haven’t looked at them all, but of course there are some small differences among them. In the process of looking through these, I found a mention of “Oklahoma’s Tramp Poet,” named Welborn Hope. Have you heard of him?

  11. It is the time-honored right of each generation to exclaim in amazement at how the previous generations managed to get so much done and do it so well with the laughably primitive tools that were available to them. Of course the same thing was as true then as it is now: You do the best you can with the tools you have. After all, look at what the ancient Kemetu built at Giza with weights, string, sticks, rope, copper chisels and 20,000 farmers.

    1. Don’t you wonder what they’ll be saying about us and our primitive tools in fifty years (or twenty, or ten)? And of course you’re right about doing the best we can with the tools that are available to us. Our mistake may be in rejecting past tools: assuming they’re no longer useful. I still laugh at my first experience with a GPS device, which took me down precisely the right road, but failed to mention that the bridge was out. In that case, the very old practice of asking a local for directions worked just fine.

      There are some other tools that we seem to have set aside (critical thinking comes to mind), but that’s a different discussion.

  12. A fascinating story. We really have no concept at all of how difficult life was for the intrepid explorers and surveyors of those pioneering days.
    On an entirely different note the word ‘Cimarron’ immediately brought to mind ‘Rose of Cimarron’ a track (and album title) by Poco, a country rock band of my youth. I can still sing the opening line, and I am sure I have the track on a CBS sampler tape somewhere.I thought I might actually also own the vinyl album but a search through about 200 albums has failed to locate it so far.

    1. There’s no question there were difficulties. In some cases, “difficulties” seems a weak word to describe what they experienced. On the other hand, they expected life on the trail to be hard, and in some cases clearly relished it. I wonder at times if that isn’t an unhealthy aspect of our life today: the expectation that there should be no difficulties, or that, when they arise, someone else should take care of them for us.

      I didn’t realize that “Rose of Cimarron” was originally a Poco tune. I remember it from Emmylou Harris, but never knew who wrote it. Maybe I assumed it was hers. And I didn’t know until my trip that “cimarrón” means “wild, or untamed.” When I crossed the land shown in the top photo, the river had receded so much it was flowing underground, and didn’t seem at all wild. On the other hand, there were low water crossings with signs warning of flooding. It was a strange juxtaposition — all that sand, and those signs — but it was a good reminder that nature isn’t necessarily predictable.

  13. Really interesting! What a challenging job, and I was pretty stunned by the level of accuracy they achieved. These were amazing people.

    Where I live, there are “Preemption” roads and markers in almost every town and village – – marking the survey lines where Massachusetts and New York divided up Iroquois territory, to hand out as compensation to their Revolutionary War vets.
    And one reason why there’s so many roads – the original survey line was off by a full 2%, so by the time they got to Geneva, NY, the line was miles west of Seneca Lake, when it actually runs down the middle of the lake. I think something like a 100,000 acre error in NY’s favor, and there was some talk of politics & chicanery, but heck, these were New York politicians involved, so of course it was just an honest error.

    1. One of the little complexities in all this is that Gunter’s chain wasn’t used when land was measured and mapped in the original thirteen colonies. Metes and bounds — essentially, physical descriptions of trees, fences and waterways — were used by colonial surveyors and adopted by owners before the public lands system was adopted. Somewhere, I read that these have been replaced today by bearings and distances taken off permanent corners and monuments.

      I didn’t really start thinking about the parallels between ocean and land navigation until after I’d written this, but they certainly exist. On the water, a small error can put you on the rocks. On land, it could leave you dead of dehydration in the middle of the desert — motivation enough in both cases to double check your figures.

      I’ve never heard of “preemption roads.” I found this delightful article about some of the complexities involved. It concluded with this great story:

      “Pre-emption is such an unusual word, connected to geography, that even if it’s meaning isn’t known, it is often remembered. In 1967, a letter from Denmark arrived in this country addressed to Mr. Robert Jansen, Pre-emption Road, USA. Believe it or not, without the name of a city, without the name of a state, not even a ZIP code number, this letter was delivered. Some postal employee recognized the unusual word, preemption, sent the letter to Geneva, and there a carrier recognized the name of one of his customers.”

      Thanks for the introduction to another interesting bit of history.

      1. Some of the early colonists in the East did surprisingly accurate work – Captain John Smith’s map of Virginia was used, at least for the coastal areas he explored by boat, for a long time.
        Thomas Jefferson was proud to have been a surveyor, and at Monticello, they still have his theodolite and survey chain.
        40 years ago, my father worked one summer as a “rodman” for a field surveyor. (“Rodman” meaning “the guy standing there all summer holding a pole”) He said it was his best-paying summer job, and the most tedious. He remembers there were still survey link-chains, which were no longer carried into the field, which he was real happy about, but were still used to check the accuracy of large tape measures.

  14. Use those really big rocks – I loved that. People had to be really observant in so many ways to survive then. (as well as being much more hardy and willing to complain less about inconvenience and discomfort)
    Chains for prairie schooners and ropes with knots for ocean going vessels. (Did some of the tools trace back to Egypt? Some tidbit stuck about that…will have to check)
    Those trail ruts are sooo cool. I remember being little and stopping and running down the Santa Fe Trail ruts….there’s probably old film footage of that. If it was a historic area, we stopped and poses had to be taken)
    Enjoyed the story so far!

    1. Some people take photos of their babes in bluebonnets — others, in trail ruts. I laughed at that. On the other hand, one of my favorite childhood photos is of my dad and me atop the Continental Divide. I do wish I still had the box of rocks from that trip. One was a baked-potato shaped chunk of basalt. I still can see it. Honestly, I think Mom sold that box of rocks in one of her garage sales in Iowa. She never was much impressed with rocks: big or little.

      Your use of the word “hardy” reminded me of how little I hear it now. “Sturdy” is another one. I can remember when coming from “sturdy stock” was considered a compliment. I’d bet anything that your image of a “sturdy woman” is much like mine — starting with the cotton house dress and full-length apron. Still, those sturdy women helped build a new world, too.

    1. thanks, Sheryl. There are more stories to come, too. I think a couple of them are even more interesting, and fun, as well.

      By the way, I’ve seen the photo of that new grandbaby. She is beautiful. I’m anxious to read about where her name came from — I saw that you included a bit of the history.

  15. Very interesting look into our history! I was particularly interested in the Gunter Chain. On a hike in July of 2008 into the high country not far from here, at a trail junction I saw a very weathered and old sign (I would guess from the very early 1900’s) that read “WATER 36 CH” with an arrow pointing down the trail. I took me quite a while to find out what the CH meant, but the water was in fact almost a half mile down that trail.

    1. Terry, I love your anecdote. It’s wonderful not just because it’s about chaining, but also because you found the sign in a place so different from the prairies and grasslands. I couldn’t believe I remembered there are 5,280 feet in a mile. That means your 36 CH would have been only 264 feet short of a half-mile. My impulse was to say, as my dad and his engineer friends so often did, “That’s good enough for government work.” In the case of your sign, it very well might have been government work!

  16. We have to be grateful our forebears had more patience than we. I can see us trying to do the same thing today — every time we’d stop for measurements, somebody would whip out a cell phone to take a selfie! We may have advanced with technology, but getting up close and personal the way they did speaks volumes. And thanks for pointing out that they needed a bit of common sense as well as medical knowledge, both for one another and their animals. They certainly were a hardy lot, and I’m eager for Part Two of the story!

    1. Whether they’d take selfies, I’m not sure, but I have no doubt that Sibley’s crew would have been delighted with the tools that come with a smartphone.

      On the other hand, no matter how sophisticated the tools, patience is important. Focus, too. Forgetting to record a chain, or reading the compass wrong, could be a problem. I suspect you’re just as capable as Sibley of being patient and focused, given your work. I still remember when I first met html, and discovered that if you don’t get things just right, they’re not going to work. I still have trouble with that from time to time.

  17. As I read this I was reminded of highways in Alberta that would head due south for incredibly long stretches. From time to time, the highway would swing to a left for a quarter mile or so and then correct. I remember hearing that these were correction to keep a due south highway south since the curvature of the earth slowly “pitched” (my word) the direction of the road. Where I live now, roads never run straight for more than a few miles before they bend around creek or such. I suspect that the method you described was used on the prairies in Canada as well.

    1. In a comment up above, Jim Ruebush mentioned Correctionville, Iowa. I’ve been in the town, but had no idea that it got its name from precisely the kind of correction you’re talking about.

      I did read in some articles that the same system’s used in Canada. What surprised me is that the chain also was used in more difficult terrain. I suppose that’s why the chain was divided into parts: to make it easier to calculate the distances when you were working your way up a mountain or around some trees. Montucky, a couple of comments up, said he found a sign based on chains up the Montana high country. Compared to your territory, or his, I think Sibley had it pretty easy.

  18. Fascinating post. It’s an important part of North American history, and it reminds me that knowledge in all aspects of science is crucial to many endeavors. One cannot exist without the other. One just has to learn about everything, read, and double check.

    1. My, didn’t you make me laugh, Maria. It’s not that you’re wrong. You’re absolutely right: “one just has to learn about everything, read, and double check.” The fact-checking for this post was as time-consuming as the writing: perhaps moreso. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun. It was. But I’ve learned that when I come across something on the internet that I know nothing about — like the role Gunter played in the history of terms like “cosine” — a second and third source is important.

      I can only imagine how much time you spend in research, given that you range so widely over art, botany, history, and so on.

      1. I was also referring to what Jerry Penry wrote about the surveyor’s skill set, that astronomy was crucial in establishing the important parallels and meridians, being a woodsman, agronomist, mineralogist, and botanist to document the species of trees and determine the difference between plants that were edible and those that would kill them. Being far removed from civilization also required to gain medical knowledge. Nevertheless, as educational bloggers we also need to delve into different matters ourselves!

        1. I suspect that’s one reason the phrase “naturalist” was used more often in those days. Some time ago, there was a Lindheimer exhibit in New Braunfels. One of the most interesting parts of the displays was this list of naturalists, which put an amazing number of interests and occupations under that simple term.

          I recently heard someone say that, with botanists and others increasingly spending their time peering into microscopes, recapturing the naturalists’ perspective is important.

    1. Even before I read the second half of your sentence, I saw you face-down on your keyboard, sound asleep. The fact that you even stopped by is remarkable. I’m glad you did, and I hope that all is as well as possible there. When you can update again, we’ll be here.

  19. Your first sentence sets the scene perfectly for the whole post: dering-do and precision.

    In primary school we were tested on imperial measures and had to manipulate them. 5.5 yards = 1 rod or pole, 22 yards (the length of a cricket pitch) = 1 chain, 10 chains = 1 furlong and 8 furlongs = 1 mile.

    The origin of hands for horses and feet is apparent, and the yard measures from the tip of a man’s nose to the end of his arm and fingers stretched sideways. The biblical cubit, not actually used in England, was the length of a forearm from the elbow to the tip of the fingers.

    An acre is the land ploughed by a yoke of oxen in a day. 1 acre = 4 roods and 1 rood = 1 furlong x 1 rod.

    Those of us brought up on such measures, which could vary from place to place, were uneasy with the napoleonisation of the familiarities and found it difficult to adapt to the enforcement of scientific uniformity and loss of agricultural imagery.

    £ s d were more practical and sophisticated than imagined. They were based on a duodecimal system, rather a decimal system based on the number of fingers, and could be divided more easily: since there were a dozen pence (d) in a shilling (s), a gross d in a £ and a score s in the £, 2/6 was an eighth of a pound, 6s/8d a third and 13s/4d two-thirds. The system came into its own when, on compulsory decimalisation of our currency in the 1970s, 6d converted directly into 2.5 new pence (p) and 2/- to 10p. The sixpenny coin survived as legal tender until the half-p coin was abolished and the florin continued until gradually withdrawn. We lost the distinctive thruppeny bit (3d) on decimalistion.

    We should remember that 1 second x 60 = 1 minute x 60 = 1 hour 24 hours = 1 day is based on the Sumerian sexadecimal system, as is 60 secs = 1 minute, 60 mins = 1° and 360° = 1 circle, bearing in mind 12 x 5 = 60.

    Regrettably, to this sentimental old soul, Brexit will not bring with it a return to the “pythonesque” £ s d, which, maybe, is more akin to Pythagoras than surreal, fragmented comedy.

    1. While doing some background reading for this post, of course I stumbled into discussions of alternate ways of measuring. The oxen-acre connection was particularly interesting, and led me to ponder questions like, “What if a man had particularly lazy oxen, or was lazy himself, and took long lunch breaks?” You’ve implied an answer: in such cases, measurements could vary, which might have been part of their charm.

      As for the coins and other legal tender, the only two memories from my own life are the lyrics to “A-Soulin'” (“if you haven’t got a penny, a ha-penny will do”) and the coin I remember as a shilling: needed to get the heater in a London boarding house to work. I may be wrong about the value of the coin, but I’m not wrong about the necessity of keeping that heater going in January.

      Speaking of London, I received my copy of “London: The Biography” last week. I’ve only flipped through it, but each time I began to read, it was hard to stop. I’m looking forward to devoting some real attention to it.

  20. Where do you find this stuff? I sure don’t have the energy or brains to live in your mind — it’s fascinating, ever inquiring, relentless in research. I am always in awe of what you write but never more so than when it both tells a story and involves the deep research you share.

    That chain is really wonderful — a five mile dif? Really? I’d kill to get that accurate in an estimate of distance! I suppose I sort of measure in a similar way. I hold my elbows at my side, arms at a 90 degree angle (thumbs up) which is about 12 inches give or take. (It’s the give or take that gets you in trouble). Then I put the left hand atop the right and take a step and move the right arm to the same position. It helps in furniture stores. That said, a tape measure would be easier. But it is the same principle, I suppose, just a tad less accurate. Quite a tad.

    Honestly, Linda. I am serious when I say I am in awe of pieces like this. You introduce me to things I would have never thought to consider and it’s always interesting.

    1. The accuracy doesn’t surprise me at all, because they weren’t estimating — they were measuring. The measuring tools they had weren’t as sophisticated as ours, but it’s clear that using them with care and attention could bring remarkably accurate results.

      On uneven terrain, or in more difficult situations, like mountains, people sometimes use pacing, which is closer to an estimate. Here’s what one page said about pacing: “Foresters of average height and stride have a natural pace (two steps) of 12 to 13 per chain. To determine your natural two step pace, pace the 66-foot distance enough times to determine your personal average two step pace.”

      As for where I find this stuff: it’s all over, just laying around. As you have to do is move a rock or kick over a log, and facts start scuttling everywhere. If you start tracking them, you can learn a good bit.

  21. Another very interesting read.

    I got to the part about Senator Thomas Hart Benton and my ears perked up. I thought, “Senator? I thought he was a painter? I know his work but he couldn’t have been born that early.”

    When I think of Benton, I think of his panoramic murals. He is considered one of America’s great artists.

    So, I went looking. As it turns out, Thomas Hart Benton the painter is the namesake of his great uncle, Thomas Hart Benton the Senator.

    1. You’re exactly right, Gué. In fact, as soon as I typed Benton’s name, I thought about inserting a link, or a parenthetical statement, or a footnote, just to make the relationship clear. Then I decided that it would muddy up or slow down the flow of the story, so I left it out. But you, clever reader that you are, saw the name and made the connection anyway.

      As things happen, you’ll still be able to get an American mural fix that’s related to Benton. He and some of his students and colleagues were involved in some WPA art that I ran down while I was on my trip. Once I finish with Mr. Sibley, and write a bit about my return to first grade, I may move right on to the art. I haven’t written about art or literature recently, and I think it’s about time.

      I saw a redbud tree in full bloom yesterday, and on Monday I came across gardenia bushes that were loaded with blooms. We haven’t had much of a winter, but it has been gray and gloomy, and seeing a few flowers will be nice.

        1. Do you have pussy willows, too? If you have forsythia and pussy willows, I’m going to be jealous. Those, along with tulips and flowering almond still are “spring” for me, even though we have such beautiful wildflowers.

          1. No, no pussy willows. Our tulip trees are in full bloom. I found ‘green snow’ on the hood of my truck yesterday after work. And so it begins…..

  22. ..”Swales” – wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard (read) that word! Ditto for the word, “Sibley,” but I know it in reference to a farm south of Natchez Mississippi, Sibley Farms. I just left a comment on Hugh’s post and mentioned what they might be saying about us round the campfire in years to come.

    1. It’s interesting that you don’t hear the word “swales” often. I hear (or read) it frequently, but it’s part of the terminology used around prairies, so that explains that.

      I didn’t know about Sibley Farms, but a member of the extended Sibley clan from Louisiana, F. Ray, helped me put together the Civil War itinerary of my gr-gr-grandfather’s regiment. He’s got a couple of books out, including a classic reference on the Confederate Order of Battle, and knows as much about that particular topic as perhaps anyone in the world. How did we meet? Through a common interest in Homer Laughlin china. Go figure.

        1. But you know who’s interested in swales in Ecuador? The geologists and others who study “topographic swales,” especially ones related to previous volcanic activity. Did I know that? Of course not. But I wondered if there were places in Eucuador where swales would be of interest, and I found several articles with incomprehensible titles and lots of footnotes. It’s a confirmation of what you said — most transplants (and most people generally!) wouldn’t be using “swales” in conversation. But those geologists? They dig swales!

          1. Ha! I’m presently in Jama, so the awareness of earthquakes is at the front/thought more like instinct now… For two days I’ve been visiting and listening.. many here feel abandoned. there’s a subtle change in mood — i think basically they’re shell shocked and emotionally exhausted. There’s someone here from Spain who has been doing a water study… I’ll ask him about the word swale!

    1. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring back those early surveyors, and let them see Santa Fe and Taos today? I suspect they’d be stunned — and delighted — at what their early work helped to make possible.

      One of the side benefits of writing this post is that, when I passed some surveyors along the highway yesterday, I really saw them for the first time — and had more appreciation for the role they play in everything from laying out roads and pipelines to establishing property boundaries. They perform a service that’s so important, but perhaps not fully appreciated.

  23. It’s fascinating to learn about how the trail was surveyed. It’s amazing that the ruts are still visible a hundred and fifty years later.

  24. I thought the same thing, Sheryl. It just didn’t seem possible that the ruts still would be visible after so much time, but they can be found in many locations, and often are quite visible. When I learned how many thousands of heavy wagons were involved over a period of years, it made more sense — especially since they often traveled in mud so thick it was up to the wheel axles.

    Out in the Cimarron grasslands, you can hike for miles and miles along the trail. It’s really quite an experience. Being out there without steady supplies of water would be a first challenge — but not everyone was really “roughing it.” The wife of one trail boss had her own tent, carpets, and bed. Of course, she had the same mosquitos, snakes, and diseases as everyone else, so there’s that.

  25. Hi … had to chuckle about your frustrations with WP (not so humourous from your end though). I haven’t posted any of your comments (yes, I have moderation) … so let me know what if any of the comments you’d like me to post or I can scratch them all. I posted the first comment you made about the house finches, but none of the 4 after that.

    1. You can delete them all, except the one actually about the bird. I finally figured out the issue after some thought. A nice Happiness Engineer had told me, in error, that I could do something the system actually won’t allow. Once we sorted that, all was good, and the House Finch of Happiness was singing again!

  26. I always learn so much from your blog. I’ve lived in Kansas all my life and I love the history of my state. I’ve stood at many of the trail ruts in awe at the beauty of the vast prairie and all the hardship the pioneers endured. I try to imagine their feelings as they were heading out into such unknowns.
    Did I tell you that the Cottage House in Council closed? I think it’s for sale. I have a stay coming up in Cottonwood soon! Can’t wait!!

    1. Oh, gosh. I’m so glad I stayed there — twice! — and have some photos to remind me of how lovely it is. I hope someone buys it, and keeps it going. My first visit was in 2011, and my second in 2013. I was there for my birthday that year, too, and look what I found in my room when I checked in. There was a card, a dozen roses, and a gift certificate for the Hays House. It was quite an experience.

      Are you staying at the hotel in Cottonwood? I’ve never even been inside, but I hear it’s great, and the restaurant’s as good as you would want. As far as those early travelers, I’ve been reading the journal of Susan Shelby Magoffin, who crossed the trail in 1846-1847. It’s available here if you’re interested in dipping into it. There will be a little about her in my next entry.

      1. What a beautiful present from the Cottage House! I’ve stayed there numerous of times too, and absolutely loved it. And the Hays House, great food! I always ordered the quail. I love that they will also give you the recipes! Small town hospitality is wonderful.
        I haven’t spent the night at the Hotel in Cottonwood, but have dined there many times. (Pet friendly🐾) Wylie and I are staying at one of the Lark Inn properties. They have numerous homes for rent in Cottonwood and Strong City. I highly recommend them. The house are cozy and have everything you need. I always feel like I’m home! When you are up this way again, we really should meet up!!
        I can’t wait to read about Susan Shelby Magoffin!

        1. I have the recipe for their ham glaze in my files. It was the best glazed ham I’ve ever had, and they must get a lot of requests for the recipe, since they gave it to me on a pre-printed card. As for meeting up — of course we have to. I wouldn’t even dream of coming to Kansas without meeting you.

          1. I think I have their dill dressing recipe. I haven’t had the glazed ham, that’s an excuse to go back (like we need excuses?!?
            Looking forward to your next trip to Kansas!
            How did you insert the link to the photo into the comment? (Your beautiful birthday rose?) You are too techy!

            1. I have an ftp account that I use for serving and storing photos, rather than depending solely on WordPress. One advantage is that I can link photos in comment sections, put them in emails, and so on. There’s a small monthly charge, but it certainly was worth it some years ago, when the WordPress system used to go down regularly and everyone’s photos disappeared until they came back up. That hasn’t been a problem for many years, though. I can’t remember the last time it happened. But I still am keeping my little system — I figure you can’t back up photos too many ways.

            2. Ok, I’m impressed. I had never heard of ftp account. I looked it up, it just as well had been written in another language. I’m putting that on a “to do” list, for someone else!
              Have a great day. It’s a warm and foggy start to the day. Doesn’t feel like February, today anyway.

            3. Believe me, I’m no techie. I’m one of those who learns something new when the need arises. I still start every call with tech support with a disclaimer: “Remember. You’re dealing with an idiot, here.” It generally works!

  27. I can’t imagine how many hours you must have spent in researching for this post. What an immense source of info and lively descriptions, like a movie. Again, any thoughts of compiling your posts into a book? :)

    1. You made me smile, Arti. There were several hours of research involved: yes, indeed. I wonder if anyone ever has made a movie about the surveying of the trail? Let me go look… The answer seems to be, “No.”

      On the other hand, I came across an article titled “What Surveying and Film Have in Common.” This paragraph’s from the article, and is most interesting:

      “The film industry is looking for really detailed surface models,” Wygant says. “The animation gets so critical, and they constantly step up the pace. Things you could have gotten away with five years ago look hokey today. So they’re always trying to improve on the visual effects as they go through a movie.”

      “This creates all kinds of opportunities for people who understand where maps and data come from and how to collect data. There’s also a lot of site planning involved, and surveyors offer a tremendous amount of value as location experts.”

      So there you have it: from Sibley to Spielberg isn’t so far, after all.

  28. Fascinating. You’ve answered a question about which I’ve been long curious. The old surveys of the farms around here will often include references to “chains” and I was never sure exactly what that meant. Here is part of the first sentence in the surveyor’s description of one of the tracts on our place “BEGINNING at a stone on William’s Road near the dwelling house of Watt Guy, thence with J. F. McLaughlin line N. 44 1/2 W. 13 chains crossing Spring Branch and a larger Branch to corner, mulberry called for but not found, S. 45 W. 6 chains to double hickory, S. 8 E. 4.69 chains to white oak, S. 1 W. 4.76 chains to large red oak….”

    I realized there must be some standard measure of distance that was a “chain” and now I know. :)

    1. By the way, but as you likely know, Mr. Sibley’s nephew Henry Sibley later had grandiose plans of his own for the Santa Fe Trail. That they were never achieved was primarily because they were unrealistic, but secondarily because of Henry’s fondness for the bottle.

      1. I know about the Sibley expedition — quite an important part of Texas’s history, actually — but I didn’t know that Henry was George’s nephew. If I’d delved a little farther into the genealogy, I might have known, since the Sibley family seems to be one of the best-documented I’ve come across. Well, at least until I came upon Buster Smallwood, but he belongs in the next part.

    2. And you’ve just answered a question for me. I read in several sources that early surveyors, started from “corners and monuments.” I had a vague sense of what that meant, but hadn’t looked it up. Now, your details make clear that’s exactly what the words mean: corners, and monuments, and trees that aren’t there any more.

      Somewhere I also read that part of the problem with re-surveying lines is that old landmarks have disappeared: presumably like the mulberry. I came across another article on surveying that said the quality of the crew also could introduce error. One chainman might draw a chain tighter than another. Whoops!

      I love that I could solve a little mystery for you. This post was a little outside my comfort zone, but it surely was fun to do.

  29. Very thorough and interesting history, Linda. As you mentioned in one of your replies above, it is not surprising that they achieved relatively accurate results. I am always amazed, although I probably should not be, at what was accomplished during, as you say, analog times. While our current technology is impressive, even more so is what could be achieved with a will and some ingenuity.

    BTW, despite our technology, a chain is still used for an important measurement…First Down!!!

    1. I can’t believe I never thought of that use of chains, or the expression “moving the chains.” Neither did anyone else, for that matter. I found some interesting articles when I went looking for information on whether they check their chains against a standard. The most interesting tidbit I found is the general agreement that the biggest factor leading to inaccuracy in chain measurement isn’t the chain itself, but the officials’ eyes. If the initial spot is wrong, the final decision’s going to be wrong.

      Will and ingenuity still accomplish great things — I was thinking along those lines when I watched the video of the SpaceX landing yesterday. But the general dumbing down of our society has led to will, ingenuity, and the expertise that results being given a bad rap. One of the best books I’ve read recently is titled “The Death of Expertise”. In the article I linked, which was an early precursor to his book, I think Tom makes good and fair points, and certainly goes some way toward explaining much of what’s going on around us these days.

      1. Yep. I am sure you must have noticed the pig piles of players with the ball nowhere in sight, yet the officials somehow “know” where to place the ball. It’s a very imprecise measurement for sure in many cases. Even with replay there can be a fair amount of doubt. Maybe someday there’ll be sensors in the balls and the gridiron will be captured digitally. I’ll give the article a read…although I wasn’t excited about the embedded ads when I did a quick look.

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