Des Moines Sunday Register
October 6, 1996, page 11-D
Outdoor Iowa--In the Open
by Larry Stone
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Who else would be gathered on the banks of Indian Creek in 1841?
Deputy surveyor N.E. Whiteside admonished the startled settlers to visit the land office so they could buy the site "right and proper like."
And "Whiteside" -- also known as Rob Nurre, a landscape historian from Stevens Point, Wisconsin -- recently gave time travelers at the Indian Creek Nature Center a lesson on how Iowa was surveyed.
With a deputy surveyor, two chainmen, an axeman, a teamster and a cook, the party used a compass and a 66-foot chain to mark off the wilderness into mile-square blocks. Thirty-six of the sections made a township, which took up to a month to put on a map.
From the first surveys in 1832 until the job was completed in 1859, at least 187 deputy surveyors worked to create more than 1,600 townships in Iowa.
"It was an incredible undertaking," Nurre said. Surveyors faced roadless areas, dense woods, uncooperative squatters, swamps, severe weather and loneliness.
Marking section corners with mounds of dirt or wooden posts they had cut nearby, the surveyors routinely came within a few feet of exact measurements.
"But when you think of going through that type of landscape with that kind of accuracy, it is incredible," Nurre said.
Property owners may owe a debt of gratitude to the surveyors--but naturalists also have found a treasure in the survey records. Maps and field notes show 38 vegetation types, from barrens and bayoues to timber and wetlands.
Paul F. Anderson, associate professor of agronomy and landscape architecture at Iowa State University, headed a project to catalog those records.
Anderson and his students studied copies of original survey maps and surveyors' field notes. Then, in a technological leap, they entered 150-year old data into computers.
Researchers already may have access to the information, Anderson said.
His goal is to make it available on the Internet and compact disk for home computers.
The four-year, $30, 000 project, sponsored by the Iowa State Preserves Advisory Board and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, produced an invaluable tool for resource managers.
"This gives us an excellent record of what the vegetation was like at a time when Iowa was still in a relatively natural condition," said John Pearson, an ecologist of the resources department.
"It gives us some idea of what we should be managing for" as park and preserve managers strive to maintain natural ecosystems, Pearson said.
The surveyors' written observations also may intrigue historians, Anderson said.
In 1855 in Kossuth County, deputy surveyor G. Temple described a barren prairie: "There is not wood enough in the whole of it to make a fire to bake a loaf of bread, nor is there in all enough of spring water that is palatable to make a cup of coffee . . ."
In 1845, Hugh Treynor foresaw the transformation that would come to Fayette County, and all of Iowa: "But now the scene is changed . . . the rifle of the Indian hunter and the axe of the dusky maiden no longer resound through the forest . . . His comrades are gone to distant lands and he now sleeps on the soil of the white man, soon perhaps to be disturbed by the ploughshare of the adventurous American."
Sidebar text: For more information
Copies of surveyors' maps and field notes are available on microfilm at the Iowa State Historical Building, 600 E. Locust Ave., in Des Moines. The hours are 9:00 am to 4:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday. For details, call 515-281-6200.
Paul Anderson's home page
Last revision: 1 December 97