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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

Initial Point of Montana Print E-mail
Written by Stewart Nash, PS   
Saturday, 01 February 2014

A 2.850Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

One hundred and two years before Montana became the 41st State, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance established the rectangular survey system to make possible the transfer of Federal Lands to private citizens. That ordinance established the precedents by which the United States would expand westward across North America by the admission of new states rather than by the expansion of existing states. The extension of the newly formed rectangular system of surveys over the public domain has been in progress since that time.

The encompassing area of the Big Sky state was at one time mostly within the Missouri Territory, the lesser portion in the Oregon Territory of 1848. Then in 1863 it was entirely within the Idaho Territory, finally becoming Montana Territory in 1864. Throughout this period the lands were inhabited by Native Americans, tribes including Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventres in the central and northern area, and the Kootenai and Salish in the western portion, with the Flathead and Kalispel occupying the western mountains. Fur trappers and traders were the first white men to frequent the area of the Rocky Mountains, the beaver being the prominent fur for trade. Then Roman Catholic missionaries followed the trappers into Montana. They established Saint Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley, thought to be the first permanent settlement in the state. There and other places the missionaries went, they also promoted agriculture and built sawmills.

Then in 1853 Colonel Isaac Stevens was selected to conduct a survey to locate a route for a railroad line to the west coast. His command performed surveys up the Missouri River by steamboat, while he and others crossed the plains, meeting at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Continuing westward and entering the Bitterroot Valley at Fort Owen, Stevens instructed Lt. John Mullan to remain in the western Montana valley to conduct surveys: south to Fort Hall near Pocatello, Idaho; north to the Canadian border; and west to Walla Walla, Washington. Stevens was named the first governor of Washington Territory and had made treaties with the native Indians he encountered, particularly with the Blackfeet whom were ill thought of by all other tribes they encountered. Mullan located the most practical route for a railroad and in 1859-60, surveyed and built a military road from Fort Benton, Montana on the Missouri River to Walla Walla. Mullan also surveyed for a railroad grade along the nearby Columbia River to Fort Dalles, now the Dalles, Oregon. Interestingly while researching to write a historical book on the building of the military road and referencing the Bitterroot missionary work, Mullan described how an encampment of Flathead, Pend d'Oreilles, and Kalispel Indians surprised him. "When they had all assembled, by signal from their chief they offered up a prayer. This astonished me; it was something for which I had not been prepared. Every man was upon his knees, and in the most solemn and reverential manner offered up a prayer to God. For a moment I asked myself, was I among Indians? Was I among those termed by everyone, savages? I could scarcely realize it. To think that these men should be thus imbued, and so deeply too, with the principles of religion, was to me overwhelming."

The discovery of gold brought many prospectors into the area in the 1860's. The rapid influx of people led to boomtowns that grew rapidly and declined just as quickly when the gold ran out. Miners weren't the only early settlers in Montana. Cattle ranches began flourishing in western valleys as demand for beef in the new mining communities increased. As more and more white people came into the area, Indians lost access to their traditional hunting grounds and conflicts grew. By the mid 1880's the Montana Territory had a population of nearly 20,000. Sidney Edgerton was appointed as the first governor of the territory. It became necessary that a survey system be established as had taken place in other territories and established states. Solomon Meredith was appointed the first Surveyor General of Montana. He had been a Brigadier General in the Civil War, badly injured at the battle of Gettysburg and with a commanding presence standing at six feet seven inches tall, became an accomplished speaker.

When Meredith was summoned by Governor Edgerton to take the offered position, Meredith took with him a man he knew from his hometown in Indiana, Mr. Benjamin F. Marsh, chairman of the mathematic department of two different universities. Marsh was to receive the first contract for surveys and to handle the technical aspects of the proposed rectangular survey system in the Montana Territory.

A third important individual who would assist and conduct actual field surveys was Colonel Walter W. de Lacy, who had been engaged as a draftsman under General Meredith. Mr. de Lacy had been privately instructed by the head of the West Point Academy in surveying and related studies. He performed surveys in the east as well as in the Puget Sound area and surveyed out a military road there with compass and axes. He was also employed by Lt. John Mullan in building the military road across the Rocky Mountains. After the road was completed he became a prospector, his travels taking him up the Snake River and into the lower geyser basin in present Yellowstone Park, resulting in the first authentic but undocumented reports of the natural wonders of the park. He laid out the townsite of Fort Benton, Montana in 1864, and Deer Lodge and Argenta a year later. He was commissioned by the territorial legislature to prepare the first map of the territory in 1865 used to establish counties, and a second map two years later.

Surveyor General Meredith received his twenty-six itemized instructions for the proposed surveys from the General Land Office on May 9, 1867. The third item of the twenty-six said, "Your first duty will be to determine the initial point of surveys, or the point for the Principal Base with the Principal Meridian line to govern all the public surveys in Montana. It is desired that `Beaver Head Rock', a remarkable landmark overhanging the river of that name be selected, unless a more prominent and suitable point exists. . . ." (This prominent abrupt end of a south running ridge with the Beaverhead River at its base lies 30 miles north of Dillon, Montana. It was a point recognized by Sacajawea in the 1805-06 Lewis and Clark exploration, now a state park.) The fourth item said, "The surveys must be made in accordance with the printed Manual of Instructions herewith marked "B" dated February 22d 1855 and the supplement of June 1, 1864. . . . ." The sixth item instructed that the first surveys after the Base and Meridian lines were surveyed out were to extend the lines of public surveys to areas of the mining regions and to survey the claims in strict conformity to the law. Additional instructions ordered the deputy surveyors to indicate coal beds and fields that might affect the smallest legal subdivisions and the draughtsman was to represent them on the official plats in dark purple dotted color.

Meredith, Marsh, and de Lacy left Helena sometime after July 29, 1867 to examine the Beaver Head Rock as the initial point. On their journey Marsh was awarded the contract to perform the surveys, but when that was reported to the GLO they chastised Meredith and wouldn't approve the contract because the point on the Beaver Head Rock was not definitely established. They demanded an immediate answer as to why it was not established and if not, what were the reasons. It wasn't until November that Meredith wrote out his reasons for not establishing the point, offering six particular items, as well as stating his understanding of the initial orders regarding his position in awarding the contract. Mr. de Lacy also wrote his own letter to Meredith regarding their entire efforts, which accompanied Meredith's letter to the GLO. De Lacy reported the problem of encountering high, rugged mountains in all four directions from the Beaver Head point, a highly impractical solution. The group next traveled eastward to the Madison Valley ten miles east of Virginia City and the Alder Gulch gold diggings, and then went seventeen miles north to the head of Warm Springs Creek near the present town of Norris. At a point two miles to the south they could see forty miles south and rolling hills to the north, which de Lacy was familiar with and knew the line extended north would not encounter major obstacles. However, to the east was along the southern end of two major mountain ranges, and west was over tops of two major ranges. At this point, they believed the more ideal location was some fifteen miles north, an area they had seriously considered on their way to the Beaver Head site. But they did try one other area from which they ran lines, also finding it insufficient.

Traveling to the considered area to the north, they climbed a limestone hill 200 feet above the surrounding farm and prairie lands and three miles south of the Jefferson River. Being much acquainted now with the terrain in all four directions, particularly from Mr. de Lacy's previous travels, they concurred that this was going to be the final point of beginning of all future surveys in the Montana Territory. Here they chiseled a 24 inch long cross in the solid limestone and piled a monument of stone near the point. At noon the latitude was obtained by Marsh and de Lacy. De Lacy finished his written report of their efforts by saying, "I would here remark that I have been in this Territory since 1859, when I came as Civil Engineer with Lieutenant Mullan's Military Wagon Road Expedition, and that I have since visited and explored many parts of the Territory from the Bitter Root to the Big Horn River, and I can conscientiously say that there is no other part of the Territory where the same uninterrupted length of the Meridian and Base Line could have been secured." He also noted that the four lines will accommodate a larger scope of the agricultural and mineral interests than could be done in any other part of the country. He also gave high remarks concerning Marsh's abilities in performing the required surveys.

Meredith and de Lacy's reports were sent by telegram and on Nov. 8 the GLO Commissioner got his next licks in: "Mr. Marsh's Contract received with your letter of the 27th September last for the survey of the principal Base and Meridian Line will remain unapproved by this office until explanation alluded to in your telegram as having been dispatched on the 13th of August and 26th October last shall have been received and found justifiable. In future lettings of surveying contracts you will not send out deputies in the field until you shall have received from this office approval of same." The contract No's 1 and 2 with B.F. Marsh Deputy Surveyor was finally approved on Nov. 19 for $2160 and $5570 respectively. In total, the lines would entail 307 miles for the Meridian Line and 507 for the Base Line, although the extent of these two contracts is unknown. At the initial point, Marsh determined the latitude of 45°46'01" using Burts Solar Compass. In 1922 the U.S.C. & G.S surveyors determined it to be 45°47'13.08". At this time they remonumented the initial point by drilling a hole and placing a three inch brass cap flush with the solid limestone rock. The Base and Meridian lines had several surveyors over several years of survey work to run the actual lines to their terminus. Meanwhile township surveys were taking place in areas as needed.

Meredith resigned the Surveyor General position in April of 1869 and died in 1875. His son Henry noted in his diary that his father's funeral was attended by thousands of people. Marsh continued to serve as Montana Deputy Surveyor and a county surveyor for many years. He retired in 1889 and died four years later. W.W. de Lacy held a number of positions in Montana. He was employed by the Surveyor General until 1871, and then performed surveys in the Smith River Valley near White Sulphur Springs and a railroad survey in the Salmon River valley of Idaho. De Lacy also performed a number of township surveys, of which I have personally used his notes several times and note that he did very good work. He was a professor of civil engineering and the Helena city engineer for two years. In 1885 he was appointed chief mineral clerk and later was chief clerk to the Surveyor General. He was an active member of the Montana Historical Society and the Society of Montana Pioneers, until his death in 1892.

The hill on which the initial point lies is 2.8 miles south and 0.6 miles west of the small town of Willow Creek along Yellowstone Trail Road. Willow Creek is six miles southwest of town of Three Forks and ten miles southwest of the actual three forks of the Missouri River, the three branches named by Lewis and Clark, each one a blue ribbon trout stream. Permission is needed to access the initial point from private property owners. In 1989 the Montana Association of Registered Land Surveyors commissioned a brass cap replica of the monument made into a belt buckle. I own No. 14 of 250 of the limited edition. I have also been to the site on two occasions over my survey years in Montana. Since the first visit I have wondered about the story behind the selection of this particular spot. With the efforts of Mr. Charles R. Swart, PLS, CE, and his well researched article titled `Solomon Meredith and the Initial Point of Montana,' from which I have gleaned its history, I credit him for the use of his work. You may find his public domain article and others at, http://landsurveyor.info/initial_point.htm.

Montana resident Stewart Nash received his first survey license in 1972 and is licensed in several western states. He has contributed several articles to the Montana Surveyors Assoc. quarterly magazine, and currently has four historical novels available for downloading to e-readers, primarily through smashwords.com. A fifth novel was published in Canada, under G. Stewart Nash, and is available on Amazon. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

A 2.850Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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