Witness Tree

I got, somewhat unexpectedly, help from readers about the “old government trees” in Monday’s post. Loyal reader Mike Ross chimed in in the comments section and then I received a wonderful email from  another Rice alumnus, this one with personal experience:

My name is Julian Ward (ChE1959). During my 40 years at B&R and associated companies I looked at many old Louisiana maps. My granddad was a surveyor in the early 1900’s for the timber industry in East Texas and Louisiana and I helped him find Government witness trees during summers as a teenager.

“Government trees in these old surveys are “witness trees” which the government surveyors used to mark section corners. The one mile square section contain 640 acres.
There were normally 4 trees near the section corner which were blazed with witness marks facing the corner monument. Before 1900 or so the corner monument could be a simple stake driven in the soil or a piece of stone if available. The surveyors also blazed the side of major trees along the section lines between corners. The size and type of tree were recorded in the survey notes. There was a federal fine for cutting a witness tree without replacing it with “permanent monument”.

I have personally seen copies of some old Louisiana Land and Exploration surveys and seen the same type of notes on the actual maps as you mention. These notes were transcribed from the surveyors field notes entered into a bound journal.

I hope this helps you with these maps.

It does indeed help and I am, as always, exceedingly grateful for the kindness that Mr. Ward and so many others of you have shown me. It is a daunting thing to so publicly display my weaknesses and ignorance and I don’t believe I could do it without the warmth and support of my readers. I can’t thank you enough.

Bonus: It happens that on my bookshelf there sits a copy of Robert Frost’s 1942 volume titled A Witness Tree. The first poem in it is “Beech,” a reminder of the markers and boundaries that exist whether we acknowledge them or not.
Where my imaginary line
Bends square in woods, an iron spine
And pile of real rocks have been founded.
And off this corner in the wild,
Where these are driven in and piled,
One tree, by being deeply wounded,
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.
This truth’s established and borne out,
Though circumstanced with dark and doubt—
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.

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7 Responses to Witness Tree

  1. Barney L. McCoy says:

    From the 1930s till 1957, my grandfather was the County Surveyor of Milam Co. Texas. When I was little I used to run chains for him when was surveying. He had cans of chain marked in feet and varas (a Spanish unit of measurement approximately 33 1/3 inches). My job was to lug the chains around. help him sight the metes and bounds and to find the witness tree (almost always some ancient hardwood). I learned at an early age to tell the difference between a blackjack oak and a white oak.
    Barney L. McCoy, Hanszen 67

  2. “Chain” is a unit of measure for surveyors. It is 66 feet. Ten square chains is an acre. I learned about that in Forestry merit badge in Boy Scouts.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chain_(unit)

  3. Barney L. McCoy says:

    In my grandfather’s case, that “chain” was actually a 100 link chain (each link of a specific length) 66 feet long. Using colored clips, he marked 5 vara and 10 foot lengths along the chain. The point of origin of the chain was marked with a red clip. You can imagine the work that went into surveying a large tract this way. Modern equipment using GPS and laser beams has certainly simplified it. When my daughter was at Davidson, she went on an archaeological dig in the Yucatan jungle and spent the summer surveying grids and elevations after only a short training period. The computers built into the equipment do all the geometric calculations for you.
    Barney L. McCoy, Hanszen

  4. The Vara was based on the average pace of a Spanish soldier. I’ve always wondered if “Vara” and “variable” share a common linguistic root.

    • George Webb says:

      Similarly, the mile (from the Latin “mille passus”, or 1000 paces) was originally based on the pace of the Roman soldier. One pace (two steps) was 5 Roman feet, so the Roman mile was 5000 Roman feet.

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