Virginia resident and Butler Ives descendent Ken Ives said this is “the only known (to me) photograph of Butler Ives. Butler is the one with the penciled ‘X’ over his head.”

He was a 'vagabond pioneer ... singled out for difficult jobs'

The day after Christmas in 1871, the body of a well-dressed man was found floating among the tules near Napa Creek, four miles north of Vallejo, Calif.

Vallejo Justice of the Peace Charles Riley immed-iately sent men to retrieve the body.

The man was just a few hundred yards away from a small railroad bridge that crossed over the water. Perhaps accidently, the man had stepped off a railroad car and was killed either by the fall or by drowning. No one was ever sure.

This was no railroad tramp. He was carrying surveying equipment. He had gold studs on his white shirt and wore a diamond ring. In the pockets of his black dress coat were a silver watch on a gold chain, a check for $1,500, $15 in coin, and two letters that identified him as Butler Ives, a 41-year-old engineer.

Ives had worked for the Central Pacific Railroad and surveyed the company's portion of the transcontinental railroad from California to Utah.

"They keep me out in these infernal regions of salt and desolation because I am familiar with the country and I am not afraid of the Indians," Ives wrote to his brother, William, in 1868. "I am a sort of vagabond pioneer of the R.R. Co., singled out for difficult jobs."

Born in Massachusetts, the youngest child of 10, in 1830, Ives grew up in Michigan and learned surveying while working with his brother William, a U.S. deputy surveyor who was nearly 13 years older than Butler.

With the passage of the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which offered acres of free land in the Oregon Territory, settlers poured into the Willamette Valley, with some eventually moving on to settle in Southern Oregon. The federal government wanted the land surveyed, and William saw opportunity.

Accompanying his brother as an assistant, Butler sailed with William around the horn of South America, arriving in Portland on May 11, 1851.

Within a few days, William had established the Willamette Meridian, a north-south line that is the primary basis for all subsequent land surveys in Washington and Oregon.

While William went north to survey in Washington, brother Butler Ives took his first surveying contract in August 1851 and slowly moved south.

Surveying was a young man's game. Long days, walking through rugged landscapes, soaked and chilled by wind, snow and rain, but Butler Ives apparently enjoyed it.

"Have been caught out in five snowstorms this fall, one lasting three days," Butler wrote to his brother. "These are the romances of the business."

Within two years, William returned to Michigan, but except for a brief few years there in the late 1850s and early '60s, Butler remained in the West.

In January 1854, Butler Ives and George Hyde, a fellow surveyor, signed a contract to survey southwest Oregon, arriving in the Rogue Valley in May. For nearly five months, they explored the land, walked along the Rogue River and into the Siskiyou Mountains, making notes, marking the land with posts, and gathering the data to create maps that outline the valley world we live in today.

When they reached the California border, their work in Oregon was done and they moved on.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

Share This Story