FACES OF THE FRONTIER
FLORIDA SURVEYORS AND DEVELOPERS IN THE 19TH
BOOK REVIEW: The Florida Surveyor, December
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
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,
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
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,
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”
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.
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
James M. Denham,
"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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
all their perseverance, they are unsung heroes. Their names and their
feats, Knetsch decries, are "without exception" absent from traditional
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.
meantime, the book is a joy to read and an example to follow.
Professional Surveyors Magazine, April