From Champlain firing his arquebus in 1609 to Colvin’s ascent of Seward in 1870 to Forever Wild in 1894 to the Olympics and acid rain, history gives us a long list of worthy possibilities. There being no single correct answer, one candidate high on my list would be Archibald Campbell’s aborted and errant 1772 survey of the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield purchase.
The northern line, which began at “…the long sought for corner, the great pivotal point on which all the land titles of nearly five millions of acres depended…” as Verplanck Colvin wrote in rediscovering it more than a century after it was first run, was crucial to the evolution of the park in so many ways. Campbell surveyed part of it, but for reasons not entirely clear he quit the survey just south of Tupper Lake, leaving the remainder to guesswork and future surveyors. Campbell’s corner was repeatedly accepted as an accurate anchor by surveyors throughout the history of the region but the true position of the northern line itself, with its county boundaries and townships and multiple gores, was not fixed until early in the twentieth century.
The fact that the northern line was both critical and problematic fired my imagination to go find the great corner and follow the line myself. I was increasingly curious to understand what it was like for Archibald Campbell to do the work. I made a plan to go for the line in person sometime in the upcoming year, but in the mean time I went digging to learn all I could of his survey.
Then last week I hit the jackpot. I happened upon a certified copy of all of Campbell’s field notes and maps from his survey. The field notes contained his chaining measures and descriptions of notable features, plus occasional added comments on landmarks and terrain. I already had in my possession a large-format map of the park issued in 1911 by the State of New York Forest, Fish and Game Commission and Clifford R. Pettis, the State’s venerable Superintendent of Forests. Being that this map was based largely upon surveys done between 1880 and 1903, this map shows the region before substantial changes wrought by the twentieth century permanently changed it; thus it makes an excellent bridge between Campbell’s time and our own time.
Armed with these documents I spent many hours over this past weekend engaged in a happy pursuit that only a true Adirondack nerd would find compelling. I digitized the scale on the 1911 map, calibrated it with both the current USGS topographical maps and with Campbell’s 1772 chaining measurements and reconstructed his survey. It was a glorious weekend. To which my wife Amy might say, “Hand’s off ladies, I saw him first.”
Campbell recorded fifty-nine chain measures along the nearly twenty-seven miles he surveyed, plus a few side trips. What excited and surprised me was that despite the on-the-ground challenges he faced in accurately chaining, the inaccuracies in his bearings caused by the foibles of using a magnetic compass in the Adirondacks and nearly two-and-a-half centuries of changes to the terrain and water courses, I was able to identify every feature he described save for one; not only that, each feature was right where current topographical maps say it should be (or would be if it still existed). In other words, you can still follow his route through the woods almost exactly.
Let us set the picture before we take the journey. When Campbell began his work he brought with him a team to assist him and transport the various tools and devices needed to conduct the survey. His notes do not detail the team but we know that among them was the same Mr. Crane (spelled “Crain” by Campbell) who assisted Ebenezer Jessup in surveying the “line of mile trees” I described two weeks ago, the diagonal line first marked through the heart of the purchase which Campbell intersected just before he stopped his survey. His companions also included a delegation of Indians who came with him to ensure a fair survey. These were listed by Campbell as Brant, Nicholas, Powlas, Peter, Isaac, Lowrance, Jacob and Thomas.
The team carried clothing, personal effects, provisions and gear for living in the woods for many days. It would be fascinating to compare a modern back country camper with someone from Verplanck Colvin’s era and then with Campbell’s team a century earlier. Colvin wrote extensively about equipment and provisioning so we can make a detailed comparison with his time; no such luck with Campbell. Whatever the specifics of his supplies and equipment, there was plenty to carry in order to sustain a journey of such distance and effort. Early Adirondack surveyors did not use horses or mules unlike elsewhere in the colonies, so the party had to carry everything themselves.
Then there was the equipment for the survey itself. Assuming the team was outfitted like other colonial surveyors of the time we can make an educated guess about their equipment. They carried some kind of pole or poles upon which to mount instruments for sighting and plotting; it may have been a tripod but more likely it was a Jacob’s staff, a single pole with a steel end upon which instruments could be mounted. They had a leveling device of some sort and plumb bobs so as to be able to set true horizontal and vertical lines. Probably they had a plane table, a smooth board with graduated markings and sighting bars upon which a map could be mounted and and lined up so that the surveyor could draw accurate renderings of his work. They brought various papers and journals for plotting and field notes. They carried axes, saws and digging tools, both to hack their way through the forest and to blaze and memorialize trees in order to mark the line. They had a collection of stakes which could be used to straighten chains, mark the ends of distance runs, sight ahead or mark corners.
All of this equipment was supportive of or incidental to the two tools that were essential to Campbell’s work. First, for determining bearings he had a magnetic compass, plus another for backup. According to my research it was likely a local variety popular with surveyors of the time, made in New England. A classic product of Yankee innovation and quite unique, it was made with wood, not brass, and housed in a wooden case. This was because until the dawn of the 19th century, even though the colonies had been inhabited for more than a hundred and fifty years, brass was not yet made in America. All brass was imported from England which was the undisputed master of brass making. Imported brass or brass instruments were very expensive, thus little used. I was so surprised to learn this that I had to dig into it a little. Multiple sources describe early 19th-century American brass makers as having to sneak out experts from England with a variety of devious methods including hiding them in boxes and coffins, so jealously guarded was England’s dominance!
Finally, for determining distance Campbell’s team carried a Gunter’s chain, forged with links of wrought iron drawn as thinly as possible and connected with loops. As detailed last week this chain had one hundred links and it measured 66 feet in length. Eighty chains made a mile. Plots of ten chains by one chain made an acre.
What Campbell and team would do would be to take compass bearings (always more than once so as to average out errors), then run the chain repeatedly along the determined bearing, marking trees every mile as they went. This process was called chaining, a term still used in surveying even though the Gunter’s chain has passed into history. As they went they would check and recheck their bearings; however lacking triangulation in their arsenal there was no way to be certain the bearings were correct. The accuracy problems with magnetic compasses which I have mentioned before guaranteed some level of error. Nonetheless they would follow a line wherever it took them, carefully determining and describing distances in chains and miles.
Consider for a moment how challenging it would be even today, equipped with a good measuring tape, to measure straight-line distances through the Adirondack wilderness for miles upon miles with any kind of accuracy. Suppose you just had to accurately measure one chain, 66 feet, in the correct direction over uneven ground, to within a half-inch of accuracy. That was roughly Campbell’s standard for error (which by the way would be unacceptable to the modern surveyor by a several orders of magnitude). Would your direction be perfect? Would the tape be perfectly straight? Would it be perfectly level? (all land survey measures are made level regardless of the terrain being surveyed… more on that in a future Dispatch). Would you pull it with the correct tension so as to stretch it as calibrated and not too much or too little? Would you account for sag? Would you adjust for temperature, which affects the length of the tape?
Campbell had to deal with all of these things and more, with an iron chain instead of a tape. Chaining, then as now, took patience, skill and discipline. In Campbell’s time an error of one link in 3 to 5 chains – an error rate of between a half and a third of a percent, was considered normal. Some of these errors were cumulative and some were random and evened out. If we took a ballpark that Campbell’s distance measurements were off by a cumulative quarter of a percent, then after twenty-seven miles on the northern line, his distance calculations would be off by a grand total of about a football field. My reconstruction shows that he was certainly off by less than that on this survey. To me that seems pretty good.
Now that we have a picture of how Archibald Campbell began his survey of the northern line of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase we are ready to keep him company along the way. Next week I’ll take you through the reconstruction I did of his journey and hit the highlights of what he found during his pioneering work.
Photo: Early Map of Totten and Crossfield Purchase, showing Campbell’s northern line