By Linda Kirkpatrick
The history of surveying travels back to early time. The Egyptians recorded plots of land as far back as 3000 B. C. What is astounding to me is that the Great Pyramid is only a few inches out of square. The Bible notes, “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor’s landmark, which they of old time have set, in thine inheritance which thou shalt inherit…”
Lewis and Clark, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were all surveyors whose work helped map the early United States. The Spanish were some of the first in Texas.
Early Texas surveying was unusual and varied to say the least. The terms, “a cigarette’s length” or “half a day’s walk,” recorded in field notes are somewhat inaccurate.
Juan Antonio Padilla, land commissioner of Mexico, had to have a survey recorded before Austin’s colonist could claim their land.
The early surveys in Texas are marked in varas and leagues. A vara equals 33-1/3 inches. Using a compass, corners were established and marked. Trees and mounds of dirt marked lines not bounded by rivers or creeks. Some recorded field notes of surveys proved remarkably accurate.
Some inaccuracies gave way to land vacancy and land excesses. Given that their equipment was crude, many were untrained, careless and rushed the early surveys laid a good start in spite of the handicaps.
Some used a wagon wheel marked with a rag tied on it. They would then then follow the magnetic compass and count the revolutions of the wheel to obtain the distance. Its inaccuracies resulted in lawsuits.
Early surveying parties consisted of a chief, a transit man, two chainmen, a flagman, a corner builder and a cook. With crude equipment, these brave souls headed out into the frontiers of Texas to mark the land.
On March 2, 1836, the Texas settlers received a league (4,428 acres) and a labor (177 acres) just to come to Texas. The free land enticed the people. Other enticements gave early settlers more land.
Moses Lapham, born 1808 in Rhode Island, came to Texas in 1831. Lapham was a surveyor with the Gail Borden party, a teacher, a spy for Sam Houston’s army and assisted in destroying Vince’s Bridge during the Texas Revolution. He was instrumental in the laying out of the city of Houston.
Added below is the letter that Lapham wrote to his family in Ohio after the Battle of San Jacinto.
May 17th 1836
Dear parents & Brothers,
I am ashamed not to have written for so long a time but I have been very busy; I have been in the army since the 23rd of Feb. We have underwent a great deal of suffering; but finally achieved one of the most signal victories that was even recorded in the annals of any nation. I have enjoyed better health than I could have expected, considering the hardships we have endured. - - I have again to write that I have not heard one word from home since I left there; I am very anxious to hear from you all; it seems to me an age since I saw you. I cannot think but that you have often written to me, and entreat you by the most endearing ties of parents and brother to continue to write often hoping that at last some one of your letters may get to me. So the war is at an end, in the part of this country, at least, I think there will be a much better chance of getting letters than there has been.
You have no doubt heard of the war proceedings from the news papers, up to nearby the present date; but as they are very incorrect I will give you a concise general outline of the war, since I joined the Army. Col. Travis was stationed at San Antonio with a little more than 100 men, when Santa Anna about the last of Feb., came on him with a force of 2000 men; he wrote for assistance; but the people were so dilatory, that but four companies could be raised to go to his assistance, and they did not reach Gonzales (60 miles this side of San Antonio till Travis was taken. Col. T.- and his men fought like heroes, they were all killed but seven who threw down their arms and begged for quarters, but were brutally killed upon their knees. Col. Fanning was stationed at Labordee [La Bahia] (60 miles below San Antonio) with about 400 men; He attempted to retreat when he heard the fate of Travis; but was attacked by near 2000 men, he sustained himself for three hours (in the open prairie) till dark, when he threw up a small entrenchment and lay till morning; then he found himself surrounded by four pieces of cannon. He had no water and his men were suffering for it. The enemy raised a white flag and he entered into a capitulation with the commanding officers. Col. F. and his men were to deliver up their arms and they were to be taken on parole of honor and sent to the U. S. in eight days. But they were stripped of most of their cloaths and their private property, and, on the ninth day, were ordered to be shot by General Santa Anna. They were fired upon by near ten times their number within a few yards; but fortunately some eight or ten escaped and saved themselves by running into the river, which was close by; they came to tell of the disgraceful and worse than savage violation of the flag of truce, and The Mexicans say Travis killed 500 and wounded as many more, and Fanning 300 and also wounded as many as he killed.
On hearing of the defeat of F. we retreated to the Colorado river, and then on that of F. our crazy Gen. Houston, ordered all his army of 1200 men to retreat to the Brassos, and hid the main body in a swamp between a lake and the river and suffered the enemy to cross the Brassos, when he (our crazy Gen) ordered another retreat; but fortunately, the men would not obey it; then he agreed that we should follow the enemy to Harrisburg (a place 20 miles east of the Brassos) where we took their express and found out the situation of that division of the army. We left out baggage a part of the men to guard it near Harrisburg and marched up with the rest to the enemy 10 or 12 miles below. Our cavalry attacked, on the evening of the 20th of April; but the Gen. would not permit the infantry to sustain them and they were obliged to leave the field. Several of our men were wounded, and they killed a number of the enemy. On the next morning the Gen. called a council of the officers and proposed to build a bridge across the Sangacinto Bay which is 200 yards wide; but the officers and men would not hear to it at all but urged an immediate attack. And the Gen. supposing that there had no reinforcement arrived, reluctantly consented to it. The express that we took on the evening of the 19th said Santa Anna had 700 men there and our force amounted to a few more; they had one piece of cannon and we two; we had exchanged several shots the day before. Our encampments were about a mile apart, both in the skirts of timber on the shore of the Bay. At four o'clock P. M. we attacked them in their fortification, by marching right across the open prarie. Our number was somewhere about 700 (I have not been able to ascertain exactly; but shall be as all of their names are registered and will be published). It consisted in part of the marrow bone of Texas; the cowards having fled from the country) and some choice volunteers from the U. S. and a few regulars. The enemy opened their fire at the distance of 300 or 400 yards; but our men marched on the 100 yards farther, when our officers ordered them to fire; but most or them (especially the Texians) know better the range of their rifles, and the military character of their enemy, and rushed eagerly ahead, wholely regardless of the shameful order of our Gen. and officers, until within a hundred yards of the enemy, when they gave a destructive fire; and some of the officers had sense enough to charge which would have been given, order or no order and they rushed on like tigers mounted their breastworks; threw the enemy into utter consternation, and turned the battle into a route, kill until they became glutted with slaughter and then took above 400 prisoners. I joined our cavalry for that day, (the most of them being unwilling to fight again on horseback, on account of not being sustained by the infantry the day before) and started at noon with five others to destroy and burn the bridge ten miles above to cut off their retreat and prevent reinforcement, and got back to the company just as the action commenced. After the route had fairly begun, thirteen of us, on the best horses, pursued about thirty of the cavalry and Santa Anna and his staff officers to the creek where we destroyed the bridge, killed a dozen or more before we got back these and as many more on the bank of the creek; the rest took shelter in thicket along the creek and we guarded it till morning when we took the old fox, Santa Anna prisoner and several officers. There were but two or three escaped to tell the news to the other divisions, when they immediately commenced a precipate retreat, and have been going ever since. Our army is following them to drive them across the Del nort river [Rio del Norte]. The enemy had been reenforced with 500 troops on the night of the 20th which made their numbers according to the statement of the prisoners we took 1164 regular soldiers, beside several 100 volunteers and officer's servants; but it is most probably there were more than they say. We had six or seven killed on the field, and wounded and killed in about, not above twenty. We cannot tell how many of the enemy were killed as they are scattered over the prarie and thicket for several miles, and many were killed swimming the Bay. We suppose between 700 and 1000 and them the veteran and choice troops of Mexico. Tell Chenney folks that E - - is well. I suspect he has written lately. I have great hope of Texas now; but if we do not get better men at the head of affairs, it will be a long time before we have a good government. Show this letter to Brother Oziel and request him to write to me. Give my love to all our friends. I am your affecinate child and brother Moses Lapham
Two years later, Moses Lapham would be dead. He and five others surveyed for Samuel Maverick. They were marking land on Leon Creek, four miles from San Antonio when attacked by Comanche. The Comanche killed Moses Lapham, Cornelius Skinner, Mr. Jones and one other. One escaped to spread the news. Captain Benjamin Franklin Cage and thirteen men promptly headed to the location of the massacre. Approximately one hundred Comanche surrounded them. They killed Captain Cage, Dr. McClung, R. M. Lee, Mr. O’Blye, Peter Conrad, John Pickering, Mr. Green and wounded two. The next day the bodies were buried in a single grave in a Catholic cemetery.
Life has not always been easy for the land surveyors. Moses was not the first or the last killed in the line of duty. H. C McCluer said of his work in 1928 Bowie County, Texas, “I do not want to go back to that damn county unless I have a guard and an iron suit.”
Land & Ranch Realty, LLC agent Linda Kirkpatrick grew up on the upper H. W. Lewis Ranch in north Real County. She spent her time exploring and helping her dad manage the 2000 head of angora goats, 2000 head of sheep, cattle, and enough horses to work the stock. Later she managed a 2000 acre cow/calf and white tail deer operation. She knows the land, the animals, and the wildlife.
Linda followed in her mother and brother’s footsteps and became a licensed real estate agent in 2002. When her mother retired, Linda moved her own license to Land and Ranch Realty and she has been there ever since.
She is an author and poet known for her writings on local and area history, including a regular newspaper column. Among her books are Somewhere in the West, Tales from the Frio Canyon, and a forthcoming book about the John Leakey family and the settlement of Leakey.
Somewhere in the West can be purchased directly from Linda
Tales of the Frio Canyon can be purchased from Linda or www.amazon.com
Her poetry can be read at
She is expertly qualified to help you find a ranch, hunting or riverfront property, or just a place to call home.
Linda Kirkpatrick, Agent