Knetsch, Joe






BOOK REVIEW:  The Florida Surveyor, December 2006

By Arthur A. Mastronicola, Jr.

    The author, Dr. Joe Knetsch, has written yet another book about surveyors and their history.  He is not only a writer, but has been a practicing surveyor for many years.  He has a deep desire to convey the survey history that can be easily lost to future generations and to remind them from whence they came.

    Dr. Knetsch is Historian for the Division of State Lands and works in the Bureau of Survey and Mapping.  He has access to records that bring early land development to life with a sharp focus about the way things really were.  He has assembled a collection of narratives that speak about the early Surveyors General, several famous and infamous surveyors in Florida's history, and a few of the notorious developers, Gilchrist for one, who helped shape early Florida.

    Knetsch says, "Far too much of it (Florida history) is based on myths and only the easily accessible records."  As a sampling of the material, he compares Disney's land acquisitions in the 1960s to that of Flagler's in the 1800s.

    Another note talks about John Westcott, known as the "Father of the Intracoastal Waterway," who served as Surveyor General.  Westcott was an active inventor and patented the first "saddle-bag railroad" or monorail.  He was a founder of the St. Johns Railroad that connect St. Augustine to the St. Johns River.  Later he, as a state representative from Madison County, authored the state's first plan for education and a university system.

    These and other early historic persons helped create the Florida we live in today.  Joe Knetsch's research gives fresh insights into our history, how and why our predecessors did what they did and aids in reminding us of our roots.

    I would recommend all surveyors at least read, if not add, this book to their library.

BOOK REVIEW:  The Florida Historical Quarterly, December 2006

    The process by which federal land was surveyed and sold constituted the most pressing concern to the vast majority of early settlers on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. No other issue came close—not politics, not religion—not even war

and peace. While some historians have recognized the importance of the issue, it is remarkable that relatively few historians have written on the subject. Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Paul Gates, and others have contributed much to our understanding of surveying and selling of public lands in American history. But no one has studied the subject in Florida more thoroughly or comprehensively than Joe Knetsch, historian for the Division of State Lands, Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Much of his painstaking research in Florida’s public land records is brought together in this readable and engaging book.

    According to Knetsch, Florida’s “numerous swamps, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, bayous . . . all were expensive to survey. But the settlers wanted the land, the government needed the money and Florida got surveyed in spite of itself” (1). Florida’s diverse and difficult terrain, its oppressive climate, its hostile Indians, recalcitrant squatters—all made the surveyor’s job extremely difficult, if not physically dangerous. Particularly vexing for surveyors were Spanish land grants such as the Forbes Purchase and the Arredondo Grant that continued unsettled long into the territorial period.

    Faces on the Frontier is a history of surveying public lands in Florida as experienced through surveyors general, surveyors, and developers. Knetsch puts a human face on the subject by using biographical sketches on practitioners of the surveyors’ craft. Few of Knetsch’s subjects are known today, but he argues persuasively for their importance for a fuller understanding of the state’s past. Essays on surveyors general Robert Butler, Benjamin Putnam, John Westcott, and Francis Littleberry Dancy make up the first part of the book; surveyors Sam Reid, John Jackson, D. A. Spaulding, Marcellus Stearns, Benjamin Clements, R. W. B. Hodgson, and Charles H. Goldsborough make up the second part. A final section on developers Sam Hope, Albert Gilchrist, and Hamilton

Disston round out the book. While most of these essays have been previously published as essays in Florida Surveyor, Sunland Tribune, El Escribano, and other periodicals, they work well as an interesting introduction to the process by which the Florida Peninsula was surveyed and developed in the nineteenth century.

    Knetsch reminds his readers of the close connection of state and national politics to the appointment and work of the surveyors.  Surveyors held federal appointment, and thus political connections as well as surveying skills were necessary attributes to obtaining the position. Florida’s first Surveyor General Robert Butler owed his appointment to his close personal relationship to Andrew Jackson. So did Benjamin Clements. Nearly all of Florida’s early surveyors had military backgrounds. Some like John Westcott, Francis Littleberry Dancy, and Albert Gilchrist attended West Point. Others such as Benjamin Putnam and Charles Goldsborough were assisted in their aspirations for office by their links to prominent families. Ties to wealth were important for early Florida surveyors, because, as Knetsch explains, there were “substantial up-front overhead costs which had to be borne by the surveyor. This meant that most of the early surveyors had to have some wealth to perform their contracts or be backed by those who did, most often indicated by those who backed the surveyor’s bond” (154).

    Florida surveying followed the natural settlement patterns of the state and Knetsch turns last to the surveying and development

of the lower peninsula as seen through the experiences of Sam Hope, Albert Gilchrist, and Hamilton Disston. Hope surveyed

the region east of the Peace River in the years preceding the Civil War before becoming a politician-developer in the Anclote River area. Gilchrist surveyed the Charlotte Harbor region near the turn of the century before becoming governor in 1908. Knetsch’s last essay covers Philadelphia tool and dye manufacturer Hamilton Disston’s scheme to transform four million acres of swamp land north of Lake Okeechobee into farm land.  Controversial at the time, the project foundered but as Knetsch reminds us, it did transform lower Florida. Knetsch’s coverage of the Disston project’s impact on settlement, town formation, and the introduction of new agricultural crops in lower Florida is the best in print. Knetsch uses primary documents to both chronicle the project and explode a number of the long-held myths associated with Disston, especially Disston’s purported suicide which he seriously questions.

    The author’s slightly heroic language, a number of typographical errors, and the lack of a bibliography, are a few shortcomings; but these caveats are more than made up by the depth of Knetsch’s original research. For those seeking an accessible, engaging introduction to surveying on the Florida frontier in the nineteenth century Faces on the Frontier is the place to start.


James M. Denham, Florida Southern College


When we think "frontier," we tend to think of the West. But there once was another frontier to thesouth: that sunlit peninsula to which East Coast northerners now flock to escape the winter blues or retirement blahs. The Spanish called it Florida.

    Back in 1821 when it became a territory of the United States, Florida was sparsely settled. To pioneering northerners and southerners, it was for that very reason a land of opportunity, But it was public land and had to be surveyed before it could be occupied.  And surveyed it was, "despite itself."

    Therein lies the germ of a book--or at least a series of essays with a common theme that lend themselves to compilation into a book. Joe Knetsch has written those essays and arranged them in historical sequence. Most of the essays (the first and the final seven) are dedicated to one personage, or "face." The eighth essay commemorates many surveyors who worked in the southwestern part of the state. Each of the other essays is as detailed a biographical sketch of one of the men as Knetsch's research to date permits. Some are about the first four surveyors general, and others are mostly about deputy surveyors who did the actual surveying. The last three are about "developers" who built on the work of the surveyors. Since most of these characters filled all three positions at one time or another, the distinction is a matter of emphasis. Together, these essays give a sweeping portrayal of the talent and the energy that spurred the growth of the territory and, after 1845, the state of Florida.

    The subjects are intriguing partly because they were more than just surveyors; they were all prominent civic leaders. One was a doctor. Many were lawyers. Almost all of them were elected to legislative positions, state and national, and to executive positions, from mayor to governor.  Many became militia or regular military officers and fought in the Seminole wars and in the Civil War. On the whole, they were anything they needed to be on that frontier. Almost all of them came from other states and had been educated in the north, including such prominent institutions as Harvard and West Point. Some had previously surveyed public lands in other states. Since they were appointed, they had to have the necessary connections in addition to the proper credentials.

    But they are included in this book because they were surveyors. Knetsch traces their successes and failures primarily in this capacity. The work, he shows, took all their physical and moral strength. Many lost their health doing it, and some their wealth. Only two assistants, it appears, lost their lives. Almost all of them did their work competently and conscientiously. The few that did not unfortunately gave the rest a bad name.

    Knetsch's essays cannot help being a catalogue of the difficulties the surveyors encountered. These difficulties were most directly the obstacles presented by the terrain. The land was not easily traversed. Every state has a typical feature, and Florida's is water. Except for the hilly central part, it has "numerous swamps [cypress and mangrove], rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, bayous etc." But the problem is not just the water. It is the plants and animals that thrive in it and pose a danger to intruders. The surveyors had to deal on occasion with brush fires and for part of the year with unbearable heat and humidity and miasma. They also suffered deadly bites from animals. And need we mention exposure to the force of hurricane winds! The combination of these elements slowed them down, but did not deter them.

    The surveyors were, in fact, expected to take note of the physical features of the land. Sometimes, they were expected to provide a "complete topographical description," "all the works of art," in addition to nature's meandering designs.  At the very least, they had to report the soil types and their suitability for cultivation and, after the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850, the level of inundation. Since the surveyors were the "first non-native Americans" (sometimes probably the very first humans) to set foot on the land, the settlers relied entirely on their reports to choose the land they would occupy.

    The difficulties of the surveys, however, did not spring from the terrain alone. They also sprang from the inherited land tenure. Spain had given grants and recognized claims, and the United States had created Indian reservations and military fortifications.  These had to be surveyed prior to the imposition of the rectangular system.  The grants were described in Spanish or, in the western part of the state,  French units of measure (varas and arpents) that nearly defied conversion.  The claims often lacked sufficient  documentation. The reservations and forts lacked precise boundaries.  Sometimes, the problem was simply  the sheer size of one of these tracts. 

    The core of these difficulties, however, was the administration of the public land system. The General Land Office  (GLO) in Washington D.C. appointed  the surveyors general. They in turn hired deputy surveyors who made the surveys and turned in their field notes.  On the basis of the notes, the survey was mapped and a report of it made to  the GLO. If the survey was acceptable to the GLO, payment tended to be made promptly. If it was not, the validity of the survey had to be proven in court. Meanwhile, the surveyor, having spent years of his life and his own money to pay for the survey, was left hanging. And still, the surveyors persisted.

    For all their perseverance, they are unsung heroes. Their names and their feats, Knetsch decries, are "without exception" absent from traditional history

books, and he tries to remedy the oversight. His interest in them is infectious. In addition to reading their saga, I pulled out my atlas to look up the locations in which they worked and to acquaint myself with the physical features of the state that were the setting of and the impediment to their work. In this way, Floridian history came to life for me.

    If the book has a shortcoming, it is that it is not an outright history of surveying, but it is not meant to be. The essays do give rise to questions in outsiders like me, however. They have to do with the location of the capital of the state way up in the panhandle, with the choice of the position of the reference monument, with the piecemeal extension of the grid across the state, and with the development of cities and towns within the grid. I would also like to see a complete list of the surveyors general and the deputies that worked under them.

    I'm sure Joe Knetsch could enlighten me in all these matters. I suspect, however, that the first thing he would say is that his work is history in progress. This book is one step in the process of pulling an untold amount of material together, a lot of it yet to be discovered. Where it will end no one knows.

    In the meantime, the book is a joy to read and an example to follow.


Wilhelm Schmidt

Professional Surveyors Magazine, April 2007