Historian Kay Atwood and Jackson County Surveyor Roger Roberts demonstrate a vintage piece of surveying equipment. Atwood has written a book on early-day surveyors called “Chaining Oregon: Surveying the Public Lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855.” - Bob Pennell


Gold Hill widow Amanda Hardin had a question only the Oregon Territory's surveyor general could answer.

"On the 26th day of June 1853 said John R. Hardin and myself were married and on the next day we moved and went to live on the Claim ... until the Indian war commenced," began the letter written for the illiterate 16-year-old by her attorney, W.G. T'Vault. "We left the claim about the first week in August and on the 11th day Hardin was shot by the Indians ... and on the 13th died."

The problem now, the letter informed Surveyor General Charles Gardner in Oregon City, was that someone else had moved onto the claim since her husband's death.

"I am anxious to know whether I as the widow of said Hardin having since his death had male Issue, have any right or interest in said claim," she asked.

The poignant story is one of many by early-day settlers contained in historian Kay Atwood's latest book, "Chaining Oregon: Surveying the Public Lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855."

The 264-page book was published by McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co. of Blacksburg, Va. It is available at local bookstores for $27.95.

Atwood will give a reading and sign copies of her book from 2 to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Ashland Library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd. She also will give another signing beginning at 1 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Northwest Nature Shop, 154 Oak St., Ashland.

The book, whose title refers to the 66-foot-long Gunther's chain surveyors once used to measure the land, captures the challenges faced by early-day surveyors as they laid out the townships and sections in the wild and woolly territory.

As Amanda Hardin's anecdote demonstrates, it also reveals the difficulties settlers encountered while seeking the free land offered in the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850.

Incidentally, Gardner responded that Hardin, whose claim was on Kane Creek southeast of Gold Hill, could hold the claim for herself and child on demonstrating that improvements had been made on the property up to the day of her husband's death. She could also take another quarter section in her own right, he added.

"The promise of free land was a tremendous attraction to people who were leaving worn-out farms in the East or South," Atwood said in an interview with the Mail Tribune. "Humans being humans, there were often disagreements with their neighbors over land lines. Their land was so critical to them. That's really only what most of them had. To get it surveyed and proved up on was very important to them.

"The act was the first federal act to award women the right to own property in their own name," she added later. "It was possible, unless they were bullied or harassed off a property, for a widow to retain the property."

But the focus of much of the book is on the hardships faced by the pioneering surveyors as they slogged through mud and snow, waded rivers and climbed mountains. Surveys taken by the likes of brothers William and Butler Ives, George Hyde and James Freeman established boundaries still used today.

The Ives brothers, both surveyors in Michigan, were in part hired for the tough task because they were proficient with a solar compass, a vital tool in the Northwest where a magnetic compass could be thrown off by iron ore deposits. Unfortunately, the work with the solar compass was often rained out, thanks to Oregon's torrential downpours.

Atwood uses field notes left by the surveyors to allow the reader to look over their shoulders a century and a half later at those hardships.

"She ably places this challenging enterprise, one that remains little known to the general public and to most regional historians, into its broader historical context," noted Jeff LaLande, retired historian and archaeologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in the book's foreward.

Veteran surveyor Stuart Osmus of Terrasurvey Inc. of Ashland said those in the profession today look upon the early-day surveyors with their Gunther's chain as true pioneers.

"With the equipment we use today, we can sit there and shoot a distant point a mile away and be accurate within less than an inch," Osmus said. "The early surveyors had to take that 66-foot chain and go point-to-point under extremely difficult conditions."

Those challenges included everything from wading through thickets of poison oak to periodically running into a grizzly bear, Atwood noted. The surveyors killed a grizzly in the Ashland Creek drainage, she wrote.

A historian who has written half a dozen books on Pacific Northwest history, she became fascinated by the history of surveying during visits to the Jackson County Surveyor's Office, which has copies of the early donation land claim maps as well as other documents left by the early surveyors.

To further acquaint herself with the technical aspects of the work, Atwood tapped the wisdom of current County Surveyor Roger Roberts and former County Surveyor Mark Boyden. She also made visits to the Seattle branch of the National Archives.

In the book, she skillfully balances the technical aspect of surveying with personal anecdotes of surveyors and those with land claims.

"My effort was to try to make it of an interest to surveyors as well to general readers," she said. "These surveyors were an important part of the big picture of settling Oregon."

She and her husband, David, live in Ashland on property whose boundaries are based on those original 1850s surveys.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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