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Chaining Oregon -Reviews

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"The literature on institutions and people contributing to the settlement of the American West is rich and voluminous. Within this corpus, however, accounts of the role of the surveyors from the General Land Office (GLO), whose legacy apears both on maps and on the landscape, are often sparse. Historian Kay Atwood's book contributes greatly to knowledge about a few of these men and their work in the Pacific Northwest.

General histories of surveying and of the GLO are available elsewhere. What concerns Atwood is how the first general surveyors dispatched to the west coast carried out the surveying. In the spring of 1851 the Oregon Surveyor General Robert Preston along with five deputy surveyors arrived in Oregon Territory, established in 1848, covering approximately 286,000 square miles, and with a population of 12,093 at the census of 1850. The intitial survey reference point (the Willamette Stone, which defined the Willamette meridian) was placed a few miles west of downtown Portland on 4 June 1851. After the primary meridian and base lines were established, lines were surveyed, at $18 a mile, in cardinal directions to form townships of 36 miles square. The labour-intensive use of the compass and Gunter's chain (vividly described by Atwood) throughout all seasons of the year resulted in nearly 670 square miles being surveyed between 1852 and 1854, extending south from Washington state nearly to the Oregon-California border. The eleven chapters of the book cover their work up to October 1855, when the last of the original surveyors left Oregon. An epilogue follows ther subsequent careers.

Atwood is interested in exploring the personal experience of these men beyond the output of their daily work. One of the strengths of the book is her copious use of archival material to develop a contextual background framing the environment of a rugged pioneer landscape. Of the terrain and climate, surveyor Butler Ives writes: '...it has been a perfect drizzle scarcely sun enough to adjust a compass and the streams are all booming with water and there is mud in plenty'. Atwood describes encounters with disease (maleria, cholera), gold mining in southern Oregon, political upheavals between Oregon Democrats and Whigs, bureaucratic haggling about pay, and the pressing inquiries of anxious claimants under the Donation Land Act of 1850 in seeking official surveys of their grants of free land and interpretation of the law. One claimant wrote, 'Mr. Wright and myself have tried to settle about the peace of Land that he proved up of mine and he will not settle with me attall and Sir I appeal to you to know what to doe ...'

Surveyors encountered increasing hostilities between Indians and settlers, and Atwood addresses the contribution of the surveyors to the continued devastation of Native American culture. One settler commented that native peoples were 'at a great loss to know how it was that the white man would take compass and chain and go around and cry stick stick and set up a few stakes and call the land their own'.

Atwood makes liberal use of images from the Atlas of Oregon as well as historical photographs and sketches. Most welcome are eighteen reproductions of GLO surveryors' plats. Compiled by clerks from field notes, these plats illustrate not only newly surveyed townships, sections and Donation Land Claims, but also towns, topographical and landscape features, buildings and institutions encountered in the field. These valuable and underappreciated records of early pioneer life in Oregon are publicly aailable and have proved to be useful to historians, archaeologists, environmentalists, and others.

The plats were used to compile annual survey maps that were issued in United States House and Senate documents to accompany the report of the Surveyor General. Among the many interesting notations on a plat drawn in 1852 of an area around Portland is the 'Academy' that was opened as a Methodist school in 1851 and that for some time was one of the most important educational institutions in Oregon. 'Indian village' and 'Indian Graves' appear on a plat including Oregon City and Clackmas City; nearby a 'Female Seminary' was partly finance by Oregon pioneer and provisional governor George Abernethy and the Hudson Bay Company's Dr John McLoughlin.

This book is intentionally narrow in scope, and forms a useful complement to the more general literature of surveying and the rectangular land survey system that many not be widely familiar. During ten years of research, Atwood has mined a large amount of manuscript and published material, as attested in her selected bibliography and copious endnotes. Access to these references will reward any future investigator. Her liberal use of illustrative GLO surveyors' plats may attract newcomers to these valuable sources. This book is most welcome and will be of value both to the researcher and to the general public wanting to learn more about the influential and previously underappreciated body of men who contributed indelibly to the settlement of the American West. - James Walker, Eugene, Oregon, Imago Mundi Vol. 61, 2009, Part 2: Book Reviews

"When the U.S. Congress first declared that the fertile lands of the Oregon Territory would be surveyed and donated to settlers with valid claims, the destiny of the Pacific Northwest was set. Author Kay Atwood describes in detail how the rectangular survey of the Territory, prescribed by the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act, became etched on maps and the land itself. Through painstaking research of the first surveyors' hand-written field notes, diaries, and correspondence, she documents the perseverance of those who meticulously measured America's new lands.

"Atwood's detailed account of the surveyors' personal, political, and physical struggles during the years from 1851 to 1855 fills a significant gap in Oregon's early cultural and environmental history. She argues: 'The surveyors' isolation and the complexity of their occupation have kept us from fully recognizing the heroic qualities that enabled them to persevere and the magnitude of their contribution to Oregon's settlement' (p. 2). The surveyors' story was waiting to be told, and Atwood has done it well.

"Chaining Oregon goes deep into the lives of the surveyors across a thin but significant slice of time in Northwest history. Atwood plumbed the depths much as the surveyors plunged deep into 'ravines choked with fallen timber' to accomplish their work (p. 36). For those interested in this aspect of Oregon's cultural and environmental history, the book has much to offer. Perhaps its best contributions for landscape reconstructionists, ecologists, and wildlife biologists are its maps and rich bibliography. General readers will find it engaging and informative, while historians will appreciate the archival research contributing to the physical and political conditions of this time. As a historian of science, I wanted more detail on the survey methods and equipment. Although the author includes fine renderings of the solar compass and theodolite, she shortchanges descriptions of their function and use.

"Why the title Chaining Oregon? It refers to the sixty-foot-long gunter's chain that was stretched along each section and township line thereby 'chaining' a 'heretofore' wild land by the superimposition of the enlightenment's Cartesian grid,' as historian and archaeologist Jeff LaLande explains in the foreword. The surveyors' lines did not follow the easy contours of established Indian trails. They followed the mathematical and astronomical dictates of the Cartesian grid--across steep canyons, acres of thick brush, and wide, marsh floodplains.

"Atwood was exceptionally thorough in her archival research--not just the surveyors' original notes and maps, which are now easily available on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management cadastral survey website, but their letters, administrative correspondence, newspaper articles, personal diaries, and family archives. She reached across the country and into Canada to find the documents that would piece together the lives of the first Oregon Surveyor General, John Preston, and his four primary deputy surveyors, William and Butler Ives, George Hyde, and James Freeman. She found that their family connections and political affiliations often intersected with awards of prime survey contracts, timely payments, and public support or admonishment of their work.

"...The first surveyors were faced with a formidable task. Their ability to do it well was extraordinary--despite clouds, rain, and trees obscuring the sun by which they established true North, the unruly vegetation their axe men relentlessly cleared, and the destruction of corner stakes and mounds by cows. But they were obliged by oath to make precise measurements for, as Surveyor General Preston proclaimed, '...on the truthfulness will depend the value of the Surveys' (p. 35). Kay Atwood brought their truth forward to our time -- demanding our respect for her work as well as the maps and land boundaries we take for granted today." - Tina K. Schweikert, Oregon State University, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2009

"Chaining Oregon: Surveying the Public Lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855 is a scholarly, in-depth history of the early federal surveyors of the Pacific Northwest, who labored for the US General Land Office between 1851 and 1855, and the impact their work had on America's overall work to settle the valleys and mountains of what would eventually become the states of Oregon and Washington. A handful of black-and-white images, including reproductions of early surveyor maps, enhance this amazing book into the lives and struggles of these unsung pioneers. Highly recommended, especially for college library American History shelves." - The Midwest Book Review: Small Press Bookwatch, August, 2008


"Your book "Chaining Oregon" arrived a few days ago, and we have just completed reading it. ...You did a great job with the text, descriptions of conditions, and references.  I am suggesting it as reading material to many friends and associates.  On behalf of the professional surveyors all over the United States and its territories, we thank you for this well-written and historically based documentary." - Norman C. Caldwell, P.S., Shiawassee County Surveyor (Michigan)