We’re going to travel, west to east, along the 1,209 mile line that begins on Nevada’s eastern border and separates Arizona from Utah, New Mexico from Colorado, and Oklahoma from Colorado and Kansas, ending on Missouri’s western border.
In our resurvey here, we’ll stop along the line, look east and west, taking stock of the landscape. Now, surveyors routinely assess the territory in which they place survey markers (called “monuments”), typically every mile. Tree species would be mentioned; the relative aridity might be assessed; soil would be classified, with a nod toward agricultural potential. In this way, surveyors built a plodding geographic catalog, mile after mile, of the landscape through which they diligently chained their way. And chain they did: a chain is a 66-foot length of 100 connected links, 80 chains to the mile. Howard B. Carpenter used two teams of chain men who would stretch their chains 80 times from one monument to the next, from the Nevada border to Four Corners. He’d simply average any difference between the two sets of measurements and establish the next mile monument at that point. Small errors were acceptable, according to Carpenter’s contract.
Now, we’re going to resurvey this landscape, chainlessly, occasionally finding surveyors’ monuments, with an eye on the landscape itself. First and foremost, borders are instruments of governmental artifice that permit land to be bought and sold, rented for cattle grazing or leased for mineral or petroleum exploitation. For the most part the abstract artifice of the line has little value except where barbed wire separates one herd– or pivot irrigator, from another. But we can take stock, as the original surveyors did, of the landscape with an eye toward understanding the land itself.
When contracted to survey the Arizona-Utah border, from Nevada to Four Corners, Howard B. Carpenter needed to establish a location on the correct meridian and then locate the 37th parallel. He started his survey in 1901, with a sandstone pillar he labeled the Initial Monument. That’s where the resurvey begins.