Little Rock attorney John P. Gill has spent years trying to bring attention to one of the most important surveys in the history of Western civilization.
And it began right here in Arkansas, though the vast majority of Arkansans couldn’t tell you anything about it.
Gill worked with former Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest and longtime state employee Ron Maxwell to raise money for a public sculpture that will be installed in 2016 in front of the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.
Michael Warrick, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Louisiana sculptor Aaron Hussey were commissioned to create a worked titled “Straight Lines on a Round World.” At a height of 20 feet, it will be among the largest freestanding glass sculptures in the world.
Gill wrote the entry about the Louisiana Purchase survey for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. He began it this way: “The purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 practically doubled the size of the United States, yet little of it was marked off by the American land survey method, which divides land into square tracts, an orderly prerequisite for land ownership in the 19th century. The survey of this vast, new American West began in what would later become the state of Arkansas and is commemorated at Louisiana Purchase State Park on U.S. Highway 49 between Brinkley and Helena. Since Arkansas was first, the survey enabled early sale of land that contributed to Arkansas being the third state admitted into the union west of the Mississippi River (after Louisiana and Missouri).
“The survey of the Louisiana Purchase, ordered during the administration of President James Madison, began shortly after the end of the War of 1812, in part as a means for the federal government to pay its veterans with land. The nation’s greatest asset was land west of the Mississippi River, and it was necessary to survey that land so that it might be apportioned fairly to veterans and sold to settlers and other investors who were already streaming into the trans-Mississippi West.”
In October 1815, surveyors Prospect Robbins and Joseph Brown set out from the Mississippi River.
Robbins began at the mouth of the Arkansas River and headed due north.
Brown began at the mouth of the St. Francis River and headed due west.
“Brown’s survey line is called the baseline, and Robbins’ line is called the fifth principal meridian because it was the fifth north-south line surveyed in the United States,” Gill wrote. “During this period, surveying land was exceptionally difficult work. Using only a compass and a chain, surveyors made their way through the wilderness, stopping every half mile to mark or ‘blaze’ a tree. They carried all of their provisions with them for a task that lasted several months. In the wilderness of the Arkansas Delta where Robbins and Brown worked, the only signs of life were scattered Indian and animal trails.
“On Nov. 10, 1815, Robbins crossed the baseline that had been set by Brown, who already had proceeded to the west of that point. Robbins sent for Brown, who returned to mark this intersection of their surveys as the initial point of the first survey of the American West. From this initial point, which is located in a headwater swamp at the northwest corner of Phillips County, the lands in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota and part of Minnesota and South Dakota are measured. This initial point is located in the Louisiana Purchase State Park. Brown’s survey line today marks the northern boundary of Phillips County. He continued west to the Arkansas River on Dec. 4, 1815, while another surveyor continued the baseline across what is now known as Baseline Road in Little Rock.
“Robbins traversed the western boundary of Phillips County and continued north, reaching the present-day Missouri border later that month and continuing onward to the Missouri River, where other surveyors continued the meridian to the Canadian border. Several other surveyors followed Robbins and Brown, marking the corners of each square mile using the initial point as their reference. The process took many years, and some surveys were still not complete when Arkansas joined the union in 1836.”
During a recent lunch meeting in downtown Little Rock, Gill told me: “This survey was a key to the growth of the United States. We read all the time about the Lewis and Clark expedition, but Robbins and Brown ought to get recognition. I’m hopeful that the sculpture will at least make people in Arkansas more aware of their history. People will see it and want to read more about the survey. It has taken us years to get to the point of actually commissioning the sculpture, but we finally concentrated and got it done.”
In November 2002, Gill joined 12 other Arkansans in retracing the initial baseline of the Louisiana Purchase on a three-day hike through east Arkansas. He later edited a journal about the expedition that was published in 2004 by the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Committee of Arkansas.
“A nation that only recognizes part of its history is not a whole nation,” Gill wrote in the preface to the journal. “A nation that celebrates with selective memory does not practice equal treatment of all its citizens because all of them have their own history. A marker outside Marianna in Lee County locates the home site and grave of John Patterson, Arkansas’ first native-born white child. … The unique history of this Arkansas resident and others similarly situated is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.
“Twenty miles southwest of Patterson’s grave is another monument, one that locates the initial point for the first survey of the new West — the Louisiana Purchase. Although the survey enabled the settling of some of the land that doubled the size of the United States, this unique history of Arkansas is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history. One hundred fifteen miles west of the initial point marker is another monument, one that marks the trail of explorers William Dunbar and George Hunter at Hot Springs, where their ascent of the Ouachita River culminated. Although these explorers made the first report to Thomas Jefferson of exploration of the Louisiana Purchase (even complete with biological specimens), this unique history of Arkansas is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.
“Ninety miles southwest of the Dunbar-Hunter marker is the place near Texarkana where the Spanish army stopped the Freeman-Custis exploration of the Red and Arkansas rivers that was the Southern counterpart to Lewis and Clark. Although Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to both the Lewis and Clark and Freeman and Custis expeditions were nearly identical, and the U.S. Congress initially appropriated more money for Freeman and Custis than for Lewis and Clark, their expedition is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.
“In an effort to help this nation recognize its whole history and give equal treatment to Arkansas’ central role in the exploration and settlement of the Louisiana Purchase, 13 Arkansawyers sought to examine just one of these events lost in history and set out to retrace the initial baseline of the Louisiana Purchase on the eve of its bicentennial.”
The long hike took place from Nov. 7-9, 2002.
Of the spot where the three-day expedition began, Gill wrote: “The place where the St. Francis River and Mississippi River join forces is called the mouth of the St. Francis, but that geographic term does not do justice to the beautiful place where the St. Francis meets the father of waters. Reached by Forest Service road through a huge native pecan orchard, a 13-foot circumference native pecan sentry permits entry to this fairyland. The quiet calm of this land belies the power of 484,000 cubic feet of water passing this place each second of every minute of every day. The willow and cottonwood trees reaching from the loess soil and sand blend in perfect harmony with the water, and one standing in this place understands and feels peace.
“It has not always been so. Violent floods have moved the river like the tail of the panther crouching for its prey. This mouth is now one mile downriver from where it lay on Oct. 27, 1815, when Joseph Brown set out on his epic journey to make Thomas Jefferson’s dream of private land ownership come true. At that time the St. Francis made a fishhook to the east and then flowed north to meet the Mississippi; therefore, when Brown set out heading west, he left the mouth, traveled just over two and a half miles and hit the St. Francis again. So he crossed and continued from the west bank. This spot, under a 10-foot circumference American elm, became the starting point for the 2002 expedition on Nov. 7.”
Gill wrote that Crowley’s Ridge “stands in stark contrast to the flat Mississippi Alluvial Plain known as the Delta. Unlike most mountains created by violent upheavals, volcanoes or earthquakes, Crowley’s Ridge is the remains of fine, windblown soil accumulated from ancient time and then eroded by the Delta’s many rivers. The dust-like soil created when ice age glaciers pulverized rocks is called loess. Its susceptibility to erosion created deep ravines with near vertical cliffs as though sliced with a knife. Even an experienced hiker or woodsman is not prepared for the arduous task of crossing the ridge. Most of the journey is a steady climb punctuated by a steep slide and another climb. And another slide. And another. And another in endless succession. The loess soil is extremely loose, making footing difficult.
“Sinkholes beneath the soil can, and did, twist knees and legs when the soil gave way. Fall rains made matters worse. But at least the 2002 expedition did not have to contend with large brass compasses, mules, chains and provisions. In the first half mile from the low road, the baseline traverses six steep elevations; the first as high as a 16-story building. Little is known about Joseph Brown, but he must have been a rather rugged individual for he described Crowley’s Ridge as just ‘very hilly oak land.’
“As much as the terrain is unforgiving, the scenery gives breathtaking beauty. It is much more than oak land, for just the first hill contains a smorgasbord of trees spread among trout lilies; yellow poplar, red buckeye, hornbeam, water oak, cedar, sugar maple, sassafras, cherry bark oak and surprisingly beech, which is at its southern growth range on Crowley’s Ridge. The autumn rainbow of colors set against a blue bird sky lingers in one’s memory.”
In an essay in the journal, naturalist John Morrow wrote: “Our journey drew attention to a gorgeous part of the Natural State, but one not often closely examined. All too often stereotyped as a boring, monotonous region, the trip proved to me that sometimes you just have to slow down to appreciate some things. I have found that any disdain for the Delta comes from people who drive across it at 70 miles per hour, staring at it through tinted glass.”
Though it is one of our smallest state parks, Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park is among my favorite spots in the state parks system. While surveying the boundary between Lee and Phillips counties in 1921, surveyors Tom Jacks and Eldridge Douglas from Helena found witness trees that had been marked by Robbins’ party more than a century earlier. The L’Anguille chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Marianna held a ceremony on Oct. 27, 1926, to place a stone marker on the site. The Arkansas Legislature authorized a state park there in 1961, but no money was appropriated. In fact, development did not begin until 1977. Today visitors can walk down a boardwalk through the swamp to the 1926 monument, reading interpretive panels about the Louisiana Purchase, the survey and the Delta. In the modern visitors’ center of the Mississippi River State Park near Marianna, a video features Gill talking about the survey.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park “conserves a rare headwater swamp, located on Little Cypress Creek, and a granite monument standing in the swamp’s interior. … On April 19, 1993, the National Park Service designated the point a National Historic Landmark. … The park’s complex plant community includes species normally associated with swamps such as swamp tupelo, bald cypress, black willow and buttonbush, in proximity with upland species such as sweet gum, mulberry, Nuttall oak and sassafras. Many bird species — such as the prothonotary warbler, the belted kingfisher, the pileated woodpecker and the barred owl — can be observed in the surrounding swamp area.”
Thanks John Gill, Sharon Priest, Ron Maxwell and Arkansas State Parks for not letting us forget the survey that changed America.