Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: Campbell’s Corner

Snowy Mountain from the Jessup River Wild ForestIt was the summer of 1771.  The province of New York was part of the British Empire and all lands not in private hands belonged either to Native American nations, principally the Haudenosaunee, or to His Majesty King George III.

To the north and west of Albany a great wild forest stretched to the Saint Lawrence.  European control of this territory had been in dispute for many decades but the recently ended French and Indian War had settled the matter in favor of the British and the area was now considered safe enough for agriculture, industry and settlement.

But no one knew what was there.  Newly arrived Royal Governor William Tryon had just been given a map of his province, presumably so he could see what he was supposed to be governing.  The wild region to the northwest was a blank: no mountains, no lakes indicated.  There was only a notation that said the land in question “still belongs to the Mohawks.”    Considering that Henry Hudson had anchored near present-day Albany in 1609, more than one hundred and seventy years before and Samuel de Champlain had explored his namesake lake on the eastern border that very same year, this lack of knowledge is a remarkable testament to the ruggedness and relative inaccessibility of the Adirondack region.  Certainly Europeans had made forays into the area along rivers, whether or not in the company of the Native Americans who hunted and trapped in the region.  However no European had explored it; if anyone did they had not documented it.  Certainly no one had surveyed it.

Yet at about the same time Governor Tryon was perusing his new map with its prodigious blank spot another gentlemen, one Archibald Campbell, was standing literally in the middle of that void, atop a lofty unnamed summit, overlooking hundreds of square miles of wild, mountainous territory and in the process becoming, so far as we know, the first European to stand on a high Adirondack peak.   I am not aware of any notes from this trip that survive; without them there is much we do not know.  We do not know how many were in his party and we do not know if he was led into the interior by Mohawk guides, though it seems likely to me that he was.  It is probable that he began his foray from Sir William Johnson’s headquarters, Johnson Hall, and proceeded north into the wilderness along the Sacandaga River following a well-used Mohawk trail that is approximated by present-day Route 30.  This trail went into the West Canada Lakes area, northwest to the Raquette River and on to the Saint Lawrence (this same route was the one used by Sir John Johnson for his Revolutionary War retreat from the Americans as chronicled in a previous Dispatch).   But to get to the mountain upon which he stood would have required a significant divergence from that trail.  Furthermore this mountain, though hardly visible from the deep woods, was the tallest in the region and would have afforded the best view of the surroundings.   One can, I think, infer that he was led to it by someone who knew it was there.

The mountain from which Archibald Campbell beheld the Adirondacks nearly seventy years before they were so named, was Snowy Mountain, west of Indian Lake.  What he was doing there and what he did next makes for a good story.

Not many people had interest in the unexplored northern wilderness in 1771 but a few more adventurous souls recognized the potential value of the timber on the land and were hot to speculate, especially when there was every likelihood that the land could be had for cheap from the Indian Nations who claimed it.  Two of the most prominent regional speculators, brothers Edward and Ebenezer Jessup, had already secured several thousand acres in the area of present-day Luzerne along the Hudson River.  Now they were dreaming on a much bigger scale.

The Jessups had moved to Albany in 1764 and filed their first patent for 4,100 acres of land in the northern wilderness in 1767.  Over time they built sawmills on the Hudson, established their own community called Jessup’s Landing, setup a ferry and began lumbering, becoming the forerunners of the great lumber barons of the following century.  They had a lot of cachet, being as they were on intimate terms with Sir William Johnson and his small circle of influential and wealthy Mohawk Valley citizens.  Like Sir William they were staunch loyalists; like Sir William they fancied themselves to be some version of back country royalty.  A local historian describes their spacious, opulent log homes, appointed with fine furniture and art, where they entertained all the important officials of the day.  To say they were inside players is fairly on the mark.

In early 1771 the Jessups initiated an ambitious plan to purchase a huge swath of wilderness extending north and west from their holdings on the Hudson River.  Apparently wary of the possibility that their existing speculations might cause the Crown to look unfavorably upon one party owning so much land, they approached two shipwrights from New York City, Joseph Totten and Stephen Crossfield, to act as front men.  Totten and Crossfield signed a contract with the Jessups giving them a patent on some of the land to be acquired and the scheme was on.  In April of 1771 Totten and Crossfield petitioned the Royal Governor to approve the acquisition of a massive triangle of land from the Mohawk and Caughnawaga Indians , estimated to be 800,000 acres. The petition was approved in June.

Presumably the Jessups decided that they needed someone to look over the land before they concluded such a sizable deal, so they approached Archibald Campbell and engaged him to make an initial exploration.  Campbell was the same age as older brother Edward and had moved to Albany at roughly the same time as had the Jessups.  Like them he was a man of business who became prominent in the Albany area.  There is evidence that he was a veteran of the French and Indian War; undoubtedly he knew how to handle himself in the wilderness.  But of particular interest to the Jessups – certainly the reason they selected him -was that he was also a surveyor.

It was not uncommon in colonial times that a person of many talents would number surveying among them.  Coming from a culture where property ownership was the basis of a person’s rights, not to mention wealth and power, the accurate determination of property lines and divisions from virgin territory was of critical importance.  Surveying was therefore an essential skill.  In the absence of a cadre of available professional surveyors on the frontier it often fell to property owners to do their own surveying.  So it was that this mathematical magic was in the possession of many learned colonists of the day.  Archibald Campbell is in good historical company: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were all frontier land surveyors before assuming more important positions.

Sometime during the summer of 1771 Campbell made his way to the summit of Snowy Mountain and returned with his report.  It must have been a favorable report for in March of 1772 it was decided that negotiations with the Indians would commence.   One can only speculate at the key role Sir William Johnson played in obtaining their agreement to sell such a large tract.

Meanwhile in the spring of 1772 Ebenezer Jessup, who was himself a surveyor of some ability, set out to run a line into heart of the property in order have a solid base with which to anchor their patent and lay out lots.  Working with a man named Crane he surveyed a line starting at the bank of Hudson on his 4,100 acre parcel and extending 55 miles on a bearing north and thirty degrees west, deep into the Adirondack Mountains (why he chose a diagonal route for this line remains a mystery but it left a legacy of diagonal townships in the Adirondacks that exists to this day).  This “line of mile trees “ was laid out with magnetic compass and measuring chain, relying exclusively upon accurate bearings and measurements of distance, no triangulation involved.  It is little known or appreciated, but Ebenezer Jessup gets the credit for conducting the first actual survey into the Adirondack interior.

In July of 1772 the Mohawks and Caughnawagas sold the proposed tract to the Crown in a formal and grand ceremony presided over by Sir William.  The Crown then sold it to the shipwrights for a hefty fee, thereby immortalizing the Totten and Crossfield Purchase in Adirondack history.

The Jessups now needed to know their property lines.  Some of the jagged eastern border adjoined previous land patents and the southern border was nothing but the tip of a triangle, but the western and northern borders were nonexistent, situated somewhere in middle of territory completely unknown.   Archibald Campbell was hired to conduct the survey to fix the western and northern lines of the purchase, accompanied by Mohawk and Caughnawaga representatives who wanted to be sure that the survey was accurate and did not claim land that was not part of the deal.

The big prize was to locate the northwest corner.  Since it marked the intersection of the western and northern lines, if it were properly placed then the dimensions of the property could be completely mapped.  Not only that, but this corner known and fixed could then establish the boundaries of more territories north and west as the great wilderness was further explored.  Therefore upon this great corner relied much of the future determination of Adirondack territory.  It truly was the anchor for the layout of the park as we know it today.

Archibald Campbell’s field notes describe the very beginning of his survey.  It makes for an interesting context.  He described his starting point as:

“a certain tree standing on the west bank of the Sackendaga River oposite to a Small Island in said River & from thence West 46 chains to a Beech Tree mark’d for the N W corner of Northampton and from said beech tree run N 30 W 1040 chains to a maple and beech tree mkd T.P. by Mr. Thomas Palmer and A.C. by myself 1772, this is mark’d  W corner of John Bergen’s Tract & alls for the S W corner of Messrs. Joseph Totten & Stephen Crossfield and their associates this is the beginning of the first Township as will appear on a map of said land.”

Reading these notes with all their marked trees gives one a newfound appreciation for  the efforts of  of subsequent surveyors to find old lines amidst crumbling maples, beeches and various other fallen trunks.

As can be gleaned from this excerpt, Campbell’s method, like that of Ebenezer Jessup and other colonial surveyors, was to begin from a known point and proceed along compass bearings, measuring distances as he went.   We shall explore how he did this in some detail next week.  But suffice it to say that this method, executed without the benefit of triangulation, was rife with opportunities for mistakes and miscalculations.  Imagine that a compass bearing might be off a little bit due to flaws in the instrument or perhaps magnetic rocks that pull it off direction.  Suppose that the aggregate error is but a single degree.  After fifty seven miles of distance through the woods your course would be off by more than a mile.  Campbell’s western line was longer than that. When property lines are in dispute a mile error either way is obviously gigantic.  Unfortunately the Adirondacks have plenty of iron ore with magnetic properties and these deposits and other problems with magnetic compasses make errors in bearings unavoidable (in fact at the end of the nineteenth century magnetic compasses were banished from the professional surveyor’s arsenal because of their inaccuracy).  Campbell’s lines suffered from these problems.

Working as meticulously as they could and blazing trees along the way Campbell and party did run the western line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase more than 4,700 chains to its northwest corner.  There, in dense woods in what is now the Five Ponds Wilderness , they fixed the great corner, marking a spruce, setting a corner post amidst some stones and blazing witness trees.  From there they turned due east to blaze the northern line.

Whatever inaccuracies Campbell had introduced on the western line due to compass error, he compounded them with his work on the northern line.  He proceeded east for 2,138 chains, just slightly past today’s Route 30 south of Tupper Lake.  There he came upon Jessup’s “line of mile trees” arriving from the southeast and he called a halt.  He was still many miles from the northeastern corner of the property but for reasons unknown he decided to stop the survey.  He took his Indian companions to the top of a “high hill,” as he wrote in his journal, which is today’s Coney Mountain.  From the summit the party had a clear view of the High Peaks to the east.  Satisfied that the direction they were traveling was correct and the boundary position fair, the Indians left for home.  Campbell quit too and the remainder of the northern line remained unsurveyed for many years, leaving the actual boundary in dispute as well as leaving unrevealed the fact that the purchase estimate for the Totten and Crossfield transaction had actually been low by a whopping thirty percent!  The total land area was not 800,000 acres as had been assumed, but 1,150,000 acres.  Had Campbell been able to use triangulation from the top of Coney Mountain this gross error would have been discovered then and there.

It is commonly thought that Verplanck Colvin, greatest of Adirondack surveyors, finally corrected this line later in the 19th century.  After all, he explicitly referred to his plan to survey using triangulation in order to correct the foundational errors made in previous surveys that had relied upon magnetic compasses.  But for all the great accomplishments he had, including rediscovering and resetting the great northwest corner, he never did fix that northern line.

The report of the State Surveyor for New York of 1904, submitted more than 130 years after Campbell’s survey, makes for interesting reading.  There were so many problems with this boundary line over the intervening decades and so many legal actions initiated as a result that the New York State Legislature was compelled to appropriate funds for the State Surveyor to finally position the line accurately.  Consider that in 1903, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the first skyscraper was going up in New York City, automobiles were proliferating, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was preparing to discover the South Pole, the discovery of the headwaters of the Nile was old news, yet the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase was still not accurately known and with it the true dimensions and boundaries of most of the counties in the North Country, not to mention townships, private land holdings and gores.

Yet lest we reflect too poorly upon the work of Archibald Campbell let us remember that he did in fact fix the great corner, the critical lynch pin in the mapped tapestry that has dictated so much of the fate of the Adirondacks.  The corner is associated more in people’s minds with Colvin whose work to rediscover and memorialize it was rendered in his typically beautiful prose and published many times, including in the venerable Adirondack Reader.  But the “elusive corner,” as Colvin called it, belonged not to him.  Truly, it was – and is – Campbell’s Corner,  a monument to the power, toil and importance of surveying and to the challenges of surveying by bearing and distance.

You may notice in this Dispatch and in Campbell’s own notes a constant reference to distance being measured in chains and you may wonder what that is.  Therein lies another, even greater story and a chance to delve deeper into the world of Adirondack surveying.  Until next week!

Photo: Snowy Mountain from the Jessup River Wild Forest, Totten and Crossfield Purchase.  Photo courtesy of Andy Arthur.

Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson has been a lover of the Adirondacks since his family discovered Blue Mountain Lake in 1954 and made it a family summer destination. As the years have passed, his love for unspoiled territory has changed his focus to wilder areas in the Central and Western Adirondacks and the High Peaks.

Pete recently purchased an Adirondack in-holding and writes about his adventures exploring it.

When not in the Adirondacks Pete is a college math teacher, musician and professional stilt walker in Madison, Wisconsin.



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6 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Pete, aren’t the “chains” ten yards?! Good piece.

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    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      No, they are not ten yards. A little over twenty. All the math is coming next week and it’s an interesting story. Stay tuned!

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      • Paul says:

        Pete, try and explain that to all those NFL fans out there. I am not sure you got the joke. Looking forward to it.

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  2. Albie Mctavish says:

    I follow the lost brook – this is a cool story!

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  3. Paul says:

    I know a chain is 4 rods but I hope you tell us what the heck a rod is. I have read some of these books on surveying in the Adirondacks but I always forget that stuff pretty quickly.

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  4. Paul says:

    “It was the summer of 1771.  The province of New York was part of the British Empire and all lands not in private hands belonged either to Native American nations, principally the Haudenosaunee, or to His Majesty King George III.”

    Isn’t the king’s land private?

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