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News & Press: Hoosier Surveyor

The Land Office Business: Marks on Trees

Wednesday, May 13, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jim Swift, PS
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It is well known that surveyors of yore made marks on trees. History books tell us that for Native Americans, marks on trees which were made by surveyors proved an early indication that the English settlers pushing into the Ohio River valley were there to stay. They weren’t just passing through. They were marking the trees. Claiming and measuring the land.


Federal instructions give us specific detail about how trees were to be marked as the Public Land Survey System was laid out. Pertinent to Indiana, Surveyor General Edward Tiffin made clear in 1815 exactly what marks should be placed on trees. Per Tiffin’s General Instructions for Deputy Surveyors, “All township or sectional lines which you may survey are to be marked in the manner hitherto practiced in the surveys of the United States land, viz: All those trees which your line cuts must have two notches made on each side of the tree where the line cuts; but no spot or blaze is to be made on them, and all or most of the trees on each side of the line, and near it, must be marked with two spots or blazes diagonally or quartering towards the line.”


As for witnessing the corners, which were to be marked with posts, Tiffin states, “The places of the posts are to be perpetuated in the following manner, viz: at each post, the course shall be taken and the distances measured to two or more adjacent trees in opposite directions, as nearly as may be, which trees, called bearing trees, shall be blazed on the side next the post and one notch made with an axe on the blaze, and there shall be cut with a marking iron on a bearing tree, or some other tree within and near each corner of a section, the number of the section, and over it the letter T with the number of the township, and above this the letter R with the number of the range.”


Got it. Blazes, shallow vertical marks, on the trees facing the line. Notches, deeper horizontal marks, on the trees through which the line passes. And a vertical blaze with single horizontal notch on the bearing trees, along with shallower markings made by marking irons, to identify the corner. Thank you, Mr. Tiffin. That is specific.


What about those marks on the bearing trees? How well did they survive? How long were they visible? Did future surveyors use them to positively identify the tree and provide a reliable reference point from which to find or establish the corner? Surely, the earliest settlers and surveyors could see them and held them as the reliable evidence they were. But what about later surveyors? What about the passage of time and the inevitable growth of the tree over the mark, or the death of the tree itself?


Let’s look at my favorite primary resource, the Boone County Indiana Surveyor’s Record. I have become quite familiar with this record in the years I have spent hunting for corner stones in Boone County. One feature of the record which presents itself repeatedly — again and again — is the call for a bearing tree in reestablishing corners. Among the hundreds of examples of this type of entry is a series of calls from 1863: “Reest from Oak bearing tree.” “Original corner found from stump of red oak bearing tree.” “Reest - found stone at corner and marked it. Found roots of one sugar bearing tree.”


And many more such calls:

  • 1865: “Reest from the trees – Oak green – Walnut cut down. Dug up stake at corner. Rock 14.5.2 + on side, mark on top, brick bat under it.”
  • 1868: “Reest from beech (green). Set rock 20.11.8 marked +.”
  • 1870: “Reestablished from one tree. Set a Rock 12.10 by 6 + & four small ones under it.”
  • 1880: “Reest from sugar (green) and oak stump. Set rock 19.13.9 +.”
  • 1891: “Reestablished from sugar (green yet).”
  • 1901: “Reestablished from witness trees. Found stake of original survey.”
  • 1904: “Est. from w. oak witness. Set rock (blue) 4x6x12.”

Page after page of the Boone County records call for corners established from bearing trees, or the roots thereof.


Most of these entries only mention the tree, but some of them also call for a mark. It is noted that most of the references to bearing trees date from 40-80 years after the original corner was set and tree marked. Either no longer visible or only apparent as a scar, the mark was found by chopping into the tree, as evidenced by calls such as these:

  • 1869: “Reest. from oak. Chopped & found mark.”
  • 1871: “Reestablished from trees. Boxed ash and found mark. Hickory out.”
  • 1872: “Reestablished from stump of Oak. Mark found by chopping. Set Rock 9.6.6 +.”
  • 1879: “Chopped notch out of B. Oak. … also found S.W. original stump and rock at corner.”

Many entries note that the corner was established from the stump of a bearing tree, some of which indicate that the stump was cut into to prove that it was the true bearing tree. Or perhaps that the tree had fallen, and the mark was found by chopping into the fallen tree.

  • 1870: “Reest from both trees. Elm dead cut out the notch. Set a rock 16.10.7 +.”
  • 1878: “Reest from stump of Walnut (tree cut about 1 yr) found mark.”
  • 1879: “Found from ash stump which is entire (chopped out notch).”
  • 1880: “Tree has fallen but is here and retains mark. Set rock 15.9.9 + on top.”
  • 1880: “Reestablished from Ash. Found rotten scar. Also measured lines for satisfaction. Set Rock 24x16x7 marked + on top.”
  • 1899: “Found from stumps of both trees. Mark in one. Burned out of other.”
  • 1899: “Reestablished from Oak witness. Found scar on stump.”

Or perhaps a previous surveyor had already chopped into the tree, as in this entry from 1863: “Reestablished from one original tree, had been previously blocked out, was considerably decayed, but mark still visible. Set two rocks. …” And this entry from 1881: “Reestablished from N. tree after tracing the lines meeting here to prove that it was the tree (as the tree had been boxed before). Set rock 17,13,9 +.”


Sometimes no mark or scar was found, as in an 1881 entry which includes various details of a survey leading up to the comment, “also old stump there yet, but no visible mark, which was right distance, direction & size. Set a rock 22.10.18 marked + on top.” And in 1887: “Reestablished from the stump of Elm (plain).”


On occasion, instead of referencing the bearing trees, the surveyor held the trees marking or witnessing the line. 1869: “Traced line by blazes finding the elm sight tree called for.” Or 1871: “Reestablished. Rock 15.12.5-1/2. … Boxed a blazed swamp ash that stood a little E. of cor that represented about 50 years since blazing, agreeing with date of survey.”


Clearly, the Boone County Surveyors of the late 1800s knew what they were looking for. They knew how high up on a tree or stump one would expect to find the mark, they had an idea of how deep to chop into the tree, based on the years passed since the mark was made. And they must have known for what mark they were searching. The combination blaze and notch of Tiffin’s instructions, we presume? Yes, indeed, evidently so.


In the hundreds of calls for trees or marks on trees, I have found two entries which describe the mark. Only two. But they clearly state what was found. Writing about the east quarter corner of Section 26, Township 20 North, Range 1 West of the Second Principal Meridian, Boone County Surveyor David M. Burns states, in an entry of March 3, 1860, “Reest’d from the original trees. Found blaze & notch in closest Beech and stump of the other.” And referencing the north quarter corner of Section 2, Township 17 North, Range 2 West, the same surveyor states, in an entry of July 20, 1865, “Reestablished from stump of oak bearing tree. Found blaze and notch.”


Thank you, Mr. Burns. That is specific.


Jim Swift is a Professional Surveyor who lives in Crawfordsville, Indiana, with his wife, Beth. He has devoted much of the last thirteen years to perpetuating the section corners of Boone County, Indiana. A keen student of history, Jim spends a lot of time searching for evidence of the original survey of the PLSS and thinking about the early surveyors and pioneers of Indiana.


This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of the Hoosier Surveyor.

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