Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches:
The Totten and Crossfield Purchase Northern Line

Totten Crossfield Lot Map Version 2Denizens of all things Adirondack can have robust debates about which historical events have had the greatest impact on the Adirondack park.

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

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

19 Responses

  1. Phil Terrie says:

    Terrific series of articles. I’m eager to read the next one!

    • rob verner says:

      Great read. I’m not surprised Professor Terrie agrees– it’s not unlike the kind of thing he is so good at writing. I, too, look forward to the next installment.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Phil:

      That is high praise coming from you. It makes me glad that I committed to writing regularly, a task to which I do not always feel adequate. Thank you so much for it.

      I have just been having a ball with this, melding my love of mathematics and my limitless love affair with the Adirondacks. Exploring my own little piece of heaven and trying to survey its lines is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever done.

      Rob, thank you for your kind comments as well.

  2. Thatcher says:

    Thanks for linking the column’s map image to a larger version. 1772… I would have enjoyed seeing those woods.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      As next week will describe, or as Jim Frenette could relate, or members of the Colvin Crew, the woods are almost all still there, some regrown and some swaths that were never significantly disturbed.

  3. Howard Jackson says:

    “Hand’s off ladies…” had me choking on my morning coffee!
    At first I thought ‘gore’ was a typo but my computer’s dictionary came up with “a small, triangular piece of land, esp. one lying in the fork of a road”. Takes care of my ‘learn something new’ for the day. Thanks for having interesting obsessions!

  4. George says:

    Would you please label the bodies of water shown on the map?


  5. Jim Frenette says:

    A number of years ago after reading about Campbell’s survey and the great corner monument wife Wife and I decided to try and locate the monument. We drove to the former Schuler estate and rode our bikes as far as Basset Creek and hiked from there,following the guide book and found the collapsed camp. I began the search trying to follow the bearings given in the guide book with nosuccess. I then began to look for the blue marker near the stump os an upturned tree with no success. I then realized that my wifehad wandered off. I began to call her name and she answered “come on over here” I finally located her. I began to laugh and took a picture of her hugging the monument with that look that wives can give husbands that say “what happened, lose your compass? My wife passed away a year ago and whenever I climb Coney Mtn. where Campbell ended his survey,I’m reminded of her hugging the monument and that special look she gave me.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I am very moved that you would share such a lovely and intimate story. The romance and wonder of this history – our Adirondack history – could have no better illustration than through such a deeply personal experience. Thank you.

      As it happens, I will end this series at a point of synergy with your beautiful contribution. My first great historical passion, about which I will surely write yet another long series, was Adirondac and the McIntyre mines. Years before the OSI purchase I plunged into every detail I could learn about it, in the process hunting for various artifacts and remnants. Eventually my wife Amy joined me on these traipses and always her eye would discover things before I did; her shouts of joy coming through the thick woods are cherished experiences.

      Then when we went to find Lost Brook Tract’s eastern corner posts it was me who took bearings, ran lines, ran cross lines, calculated and repeatedly recalculated, flailed around in thick fir stands and slipped and stumbled unnecessarily and errantly on the sides of steep ridges, and it was Amy, almost casually, who found both of them.

      Jim, here is a promise: when next we climb Coney Mountain we will do so with a flask and we will raise a toast to your wife, her laughter and her special look. I understand that look intimately.


  6. Teresa Rozycki says:

    We at the Goodsell Museum (in Old Forge, NY) are truely glad that you are doing this series of article on surveying. They correspond with our current exhibit of maps dating from 1775-1912. We did not delve into the Totten-Crossfield maps. We jump from 1775 to 1792 and Macomb. Thank you for filling in the gap. I do hope you will continue these articles. They are so interesting and helpful to me (a novice) and to our visitors.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Thank you, Teresa. There are several more to come before I end the series. I very much look forward to seeing your exhibit.


  7. George says:

    I am unclear how the Great Corner itself was found or selected, i.e. the NW corner.

    It seems that the N/S line was run through present-day Five Ponds

    Who did it, and when?

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Thanks for the good question. When the Jessups decided to try to gain control of a big chunk of this unknown northern forest land, they anchored it to the south with properties that had existing patents, thus a providing a known base with which to start. In particular the eastern side was partially determined by land already owned by the Jessups themselves and the southernmost point of the purchase was anchored against a tract of land owned by one John Bergen to the southwest. This formed the point of a huge inverted triangle they laid out that spread up and across the northern territory to an imaginary northern boundary line starting a few miles above Crown Point. Here is an excerpt from the actual original petition. I added the bold emphasis:

      “The humble petition of Joseph Totten and Stephen Crossfield, in behalf of themselves and their associates, humbly sheweth: That your petitioners have discovered that there is a certain tract of land lying and being in the county of Albany, on the west side of the most northerly branch of Hudson’s river, beginning at the northeast corner of a tract of forty-six thousand acres of land petitioned for by Thomas Palmer and his associates; thence running south, 60 degrees west, to the northwest corner of a tract of land petitioned for by John Bergen and his associates; thence running north 30 deg. West, till it shall intersect a line coining west from ten miles north of Crown Point; thence east to Hudson’s river; thence down the said river to the north bounds of a tract of land, petitioned for by Edward Jessup and Ebenezer Jessup and their associates, of forty thousand acres; thence westerly and southerly round the said tract of land until it shall come to the northeast bounds of said tract of land petitioned for by the said Thomas Palmer and his associates, being the place of beginning.”

      As you can see from the bolded sections, they chose boundary lines that were angled, thus making a triangle shape. Why they did this appears to be unknown; later reports from the State Surveyor refer to speculation on this question but I have seen nothing that explains it. No doubt the extent and shape of the contemplated parcel was affected by known places, by input given and limitations required by the Mohawk sellers and by the Jessups’ resources. In any case, a triangle it was, with the sole horizontal or vertical line being the northern boundary.

      So when Campbell surveyed the western line, traveling north, he angled 30 degrees west by design and, based upon calculations on paper from the original prospectus, ran that line the correct distance so that it would intersect the proposed northern boundary from ten miles north of Crown Point. That fixed the great corner. From this perspective he did not so much determine the great corner as he discovered it by accurate measure, its position having been virtually determined by the petition.

      Any north-south line you see on a map is unrelated to the purchase or Campbell’s survey. All the lines running from south to north ran at that 30 degree angle. County lines running more traditionally north-south were established later.

  8. George says:

    Very fine explanation. Thank you.

    Did Campbell actually go to the Great Corner, or just calculate its position with survey lines from the south and east?

    Is the Campbell survey the insert one sees in many subsequent NYS maps, pre and post-Revolutionary War, that show northernmost Herkimer County?

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Oh yes, Campbell actually went there, the first Euro American to do so. He memorialized the corner and went on to run part of the northern line. This coming Saturday you’ll get all the details. He had to calculate beforehand how far north to go along that diagonal western line, based upon the buyers’ petition. Then he chained, or measured, through the forest as well as he could and stopped where the calculations told him to.

      The line delineating Herkimer County’s northern boundary was originally Campbell’s line but it was resurveyed many times in an effort to make it more accurate, this task not completely accomplished until early in the 20th century. So the boundary you see on any map depends upon when the map was issued. No matter which version though, it started with Archibald Campbell.


  9. Leslie Campbell says:

    Hi Pete:

    Thank you for your interest in my 4th great grandfather Archibald Campbell. It has been wonderful reading the details and feeling your enthusiasm for and appreciation of his work. My sister jan and I have been researching this Archibald for years now, and have not yet determined where he was born, or exactly when he came to Albany. We think he came from East New Jersey, and that he inherited land from his father in New Jersey.

    Can you tell me where you found his field notes? Are they available online? And, is there anything else you know about him?

    Thanks again. Great article!!

    Leslie Campbell

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Leslie:

      How gratifying to have an actual Campbell write in. I do admire Archibald’s work; these were people of skill, courage and fortitude. They played a largely unheralded but essential role in the development of our nation.

      it has been a pleasure to write about him.


  10. Cal Welch says:

    I am reading about your research with interest. I have purchased two British documents on parchment that have been signed in 1792 by members of the Markham family, most notably by William Markham, the Archbishop of York. they both deal with ownership of Township 20 (Markham on the the Sauthier map) in the Totten and Crossfield purchase. I am trying to get the background of the family’s original transaction in 1772. I think I am OK with the Markham’s reason for executing the documents in 1792 when they no longer had any ownership rights.

    Cal Welch

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