Land Boundary Monuments, Past and Present

One of the most important elements of a land survey, and hopefully the most enduring, are the land boundary markers, or monuments, set by the land surveyor. Following are descriptions of typical markers that I have found in southwestern Montana and in the hill country of central Texas. These monuments include the original boundary markers set before the land was transferred into private ownership, as well as subsequent markers set to replace original missing markers or to divide existing tracts. This is not an exhaustive treatment of boundary markers, but I suspect that what I have noted here has a much wider application that just in these areas. As noted in the Montana corner record act, the monument is not the corner -- the corner is a permanent geographic point, which cannot be destroyed. Monuments may be destroyed, but the corner itself cannot be -- lost, perhaps, or incorrectly located, but never destroyed.

Surveyors and land owners alike may find information of value and interest in this article. Surveyors are always interested in practices outside of their geographic area. Landowners are interested in the marking of their boundaries, from the original survey for patent until the present. Surveyors and landowners alike find the actual monuments used of great interest, and an observation on this is appropriate at this point.


Without consideration of the consequences of the destruction of original evidence, occasionally someone who finds an interesting example of a corner monument, from an original patent or from a subsequent survey, will remove this monument and add it to an existing collection of arrow heads, old tools, and other assorted artifacts. My earnest suggestion about this practice can be summarized as follows: DON'T EVEN THINK OF IT!

The artifact in a collector's cabinet or on a patio will be of no further use as evidence of the location of an original corner, and in a few years will be thrown away or lost. A number of years ago I found a notation in an early surveyor's field book of a "gun barrel" set at a section corner in southwestern Montana. In discussing this with a company who had worked in the area, I was told that they had removed the gun barrel and added it to their office collection. Within a few years, the company had shut its doors, and that bit of evidence is no longer available even as an interesting relic. In the same area I visited with a farmer who had been told by a surveyor that the county surveyor's field notes from about 1900 recorded that he had set a squared and scribed cedar post to mark the location of a sixteenth corner, and had placed a whiskey bottle alongside "to keep it warm." The farmer said that after the surveyor left he dug up the bottle and took it home. Fortunately he had left the scribed post intact.

Several monuments are shown in this article, and it is important to note they were either obtained new (as in the case of the BLM monuments) or found in an iron scrap heap (as in the case of the historic markers).

Monumentation of Rectangular Survey System Corners in Montana
In any original survey in public land states, such as Montana, the surveyor was given instructions concerning the procedures and monumentation practices to be followed. The surveyor was given options on the materials that might be used in marking a corner. IN DETERMINING THE DESCRIPTION OF A PARTICULAR CORNER MONUMENT, IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT THE ORIGINAL FIELD NOTES BE OBTAINED AND KEPT IN HAND WHILE THE SEARCH IS CONDUCTED! This cannot be emphasized too strongly.

My observations on original public land survey monuments set in Montana address those set in the last half of the nineteenth century, and the first part of the twentieth. The first original surveys were conducted by contract surveyors, with later work (after 1900) done by General Land Office surveyors. In viewing an undertaking as vast as the surveying of the public lands, surveyors recognize that all work was not of the same quality, and that is some instances the notes did not accurately describe the work done. My opinion is that the performance of poor work did not represent the general practice, and such instances of poor work as actually occurred are pointed out and dwelt upon out of all proportion to its actual occurrence. Some, such as the work by John Corbett in 1868 in marking the boundaries of Virginia City, exceeded the standard which you might reasonably expect with the equipment available -- which was the solar compass and link chain.

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The Best Kept Secrets in Montana Surveying Law
Curtis M. Brown, Land Surveyor and Author
How to Live in the Woods
Land Boundary Monuments, Past and Present