Petaluma and Napa Creeks 1861. Re-issued 1882 with Aids to Navigation corrected to 1885. Credit: NARA C&GS; Collection.

Steeped in History

This entry is part of 44 in the series Field Notes

Recently I spent a few days with my family at the remote cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where I had retraced an 1876 mining claim boundary two years prior. I wrote about that experience here.

Humoring the Old Man

During this recent visit my daughters and sons-in-law humored me by agreeing to let me show them the boundary while I shared some of the history of the area. Of course, we had to visit the Native American grinding stone that was an accessory to the first claim corner. From there we walked the perimeter of the five-acre claim. They stayed with me and appeared at least mildly interested throughout. Honestly, I thought it was more of an excuse for them to go on a hike in beautiful country than talking history and surveying with the “Old Man.”

A few hours later, my son-in-law thanked me for taking him out to show him the boundary on the ground, with the original map and field notes in hand. He said he really appreciated learning the history of the area, especially of the booming silver mining days, and me explaining how I used the historical record and the tools of the day to retrace the boundary 141 years later. Surprisingly, the rest of them chimed in too, thanking me for the experience. Needless to say, it made this old surveyor and father quite happy.

The Ultimate History Majors

Later that evening, while everyone else was inside the cabin playing a vicious game of Monopoly (I don’t have the attention span for such things), I found myself reflecting on the day of spending time with the next generation. I thought about how rewarding it was to do the original retracement, including performing the research to piece together the history. I also thought of my deceased brother, who had helped me (well, at least walked with me) as I did the retracement. I lost him less than a year later, which I wrote about here.

Petaluma and Napa Creeks 1861. Re-issued 1882 with Aids to Navigation corrected to 1885. Credit: NARA C&GS; Collection.

Petaluma and Napa Creeks 1861. Re-issued 1882 with Aids to Navigation corrected to 1885. Credit: NARA C&GS; Collection.

As my thoughts wandered under the spectacular mountain starscape, a revelation hit me: History does matter—to a surveyor.

To me, history in an academic setting always seemed like memorizing mundane facts for no relevant purpose to one’s life. Whether it was ancient Rome, the birth of the United States, or the various wars, it all just seemed like an exercise in regurgitating facts on a test. I could never understand why anyone would ever major in history of any kind in college. How incredibly boring. Other than becoming a history teacher or Jeopardy contestant, what good could it possibly be?

How ironic that I have thought this way for as long as I can remember, yet the profession that chose me 42 years ago is all about history. Rarely are surveyors of today the “first” or original. There is almost always history to piece together in the course of boundary retracement. The older the original establishment, the deeper and more potentially complex the history. The history in the record. The history hidden outside of the record. The oral history. The mapping history. And, perhaps most importantly, the history on the ground and our reliance upon it.

Surveyors are the ultimate history majors. With any luck, we amass hundreds or thousands of course credits during our careers. It never (or very rarely) seems mundane or unimportant. Quite the opposite. History is one of the primary elements that sucks us in to the love of being a professional land surveyor.

Wow, and all this time I thought history was just useless BS and a course of study for those who couldn’t cut it in the STEM world. Wrong again, Old Man.

I toasted history and smiled.


Field NotesThis article appeared in xyHt‘s e-newsletter, Field Notes. We email it once a month, and it covers a variety of land surveying topics in a conversational tone. You’re welcome to subscribe to the e-newsletter here. (You’ll also receive the twice-monthly Pangaea newsletter with your subscription.)

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Steeped in History” Comments

  1. When asked by laypersons what I do, they often comment that it sounds like an Engineer. I correct them by saying that engineers can be likened to practitioners of Applied Science; Boundary Surveying is the practice of Applied History.

    Good article

    Paul Miller OLS CLS

  2. Here, Here!
    Started my career at this local Southern California water agency which was born out of a couple of ambitious brothers vision of developing the land in 1886. Never liked history in school but now I can’t get enough of it.

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