This is the first in a series of posts about the survey systems found in the United States, and their importance in oil and gas mapping. If you’ve ever wondered why survey lines vary so much, this is the blog for you.
No PLSS for Texas
In 1784, the Jeffersonian Public Land Survey System (PLSS) was presented to the Continental Congress by a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson. By 1785, the Jeffersonian PLSS became the standard mode, by law, for surveying lands in the rapidly expanding nation. During this time, the region that makes up present-day Texas was under Spanish rule.
Draw Your Own Plot
Unlike the United States, land survey in the Spanish territory was a result of land sold to settlers traveling from within Mexico region, including Native Americans and immigrants from Spain. Surveys were not set to an organized standard but rather directly plotted to allow for the best amount of water access. The land was incredibly hostile and settlers were few and very far between.
Aside from an interest in strengthening the defense of their territory, ownership of land was encouraged by Spain as it was seen as a means of exploiting natural and human resources for the benefit of spreading Catholicism through the mission system. Through this system, Spain attempted to convert Native Americans to a both Catholic and colonial life, hoping to generate cultivation and production in a vast land.
Labors, Leagues and Haciendas
In 1821, the Texas territory fell under Mexican rule as the Spanish colonial government was overthrown. In an effort to strengthen the Texas territory, Mexico started welcoming settlers from the United States and Europe. Large tracts of land were allotted to Empresarios (or contractors), who had been granted the right to recruit families to settle the newly founded Mexican land.
Dependent upon strict statutes of requirements and limitations, the settled land was assigned in labors (177 acres each), leagues (4,428 acres), and haciendas (five leagues each), terms that are still used today. The early Anglo settlements were located in southeast Texas running southeast along the Brazos, Colorado, and San Bernard rivers all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Each league was to have a frontage on the river equal to approximately one-fourth of its length. Most of the labors were arranged in three groups around San Felipe de Austin, the unofficial capitol of Empresario Stephen F. Austin’s first colony. San Felipe de Austin is now a state historic site in the town of San Felipe, just east of Sealy.
Within a decade, thousands of U.S. and European immigrant families had settled in Texas, drastically outnumbering families of Mexican descent. This situation created concern for the young nation of Mexico and in 1830, strained political relations with the United States and growing dissent within the settlements forced Mexico to abandon its immigration policies and begin enforcing stricter laws in the Texas territory. In 1836, the Texas territory overthrew the Mexican government and the Republic of Texas was born.
Join the Army, Get Land
During the brief life of the Republic of Texas, settlers were granted land by boards of land commissioners in each land district. Called headrights, the concept was similar to Mexico’s policy years earlier; to develop and strengthen a new nation’s economy and defense. Bounty land grants were also issued during the Texas Revolution to encourage settlers from all over to join the army of the cash-poor Republic. The amount of land issued in the bounty land grant was dependent upon the length of service.
Eventually, donation land grants were awarded to veterans (or their heirs) who fought in the Siege of Bexar and the battle of San Jacinto. Donation land grants were issued to the heirs of those who fell at the Alamo and Goliad. Several other military-based land grants would eventually be issued, including grants that awarded land to Confederate soldiers (or to the widows of Confederate soldiers) who were permanently disabled.
The Puzzle with Pieces that Don’t Fit
Like the surveys performed during the time of Spanish and Mexican rule, the headrights and military land grants were not bound by any limitation other than amount of land. Land was still surveyed and sold based on access to water and other valuable resources (e.g. soil type, vegetation, etc.) The land grants weren’t even restricted to the survey of one area. If the amount of land surveyed fell short of the amount that was granted, the remaining amount of issued land could be surveyed elsewhere.
Extremely cheap land, crude surveying and mapping instruments, inconsistent units of land measurement, meager pay, and a dangerous frontier led to irregular gaps of unsurveyed land, conflicting surveys, illegal work, and ambiguity throughout most of the state. A first glance at a General Land Office county map in eastern Texas looks almost like a poorly constructed jigsaw puzzle.
The Great Railroad Survey
Starting in 1854, the Texas legislature began offering 16 sections (10,240 acres) of land for every mile of railroad contracted and put into operation. For each section the railroad companies surveyed, a survey was performed for an exact duplicate of land adjacent to the railroad. The sections with odd numbers were issued to the companies and the even numbered sections were retained by the state. Up through 1882, roughly 33,777,038 acres of land were surveyed and issued but the process was eventually halted due to widespread fraud.
Land for Education
Along with the land surveyed by the railroads, Texas began using its wealth of land to fund public education. The Texas Constitution of 1876 set aside half of the remaining Texas public lands to establish the Permanent School Fund. Each county was allotted four square leagues of land for public schools. These county school lands were sold to settlers and the counties would invest the money in bonds and use the earned interest to pay for schools. Fifty leagues of land were set aside to establish the University of Texas (and eventually Texas A&M). Also in 1876, the state of Texas used the sale of 3,000,000 acres of public land within the panhandle region of Texas to pay for the construction of the state capital building in Austin.
The "first come, first serve" mentality of surveying seen in the east and southern parts of Texas was by now insufficient to the needs to both state and business. That’s why the land in the western and northern territories of Texas were mostly subject to subdivision by a rectangular system of survey similar to that of the Jeffersonian PLSS.
However, due to the growing pains Texas consistently battled (primarily financial issues), the land survey in the western lands was not nearly as clean as the Jeffersonian system. Survey was still driven primarily by powers outside the Texas government such as the railroad companies. This still resulted in a patchwork of irregular surveys and blocks.
Is There Still Texas Land That Hasn't Been Surveyed?
In 1898, the Texas Supreme Court declared there was no more vacant or unappropriated land in Texas. As a result of that decision, the state legislature ordered a complete audit. That audit determined that the public school fund was actually short of the amount of land it should have by 5,009,478 acres. Since then, numerous slivers of unsurveyed land have been discovered between existing surveys - one of the more recent filings was 1989.
Aaron Preine is a GIS Technician (III) with the Research & Edit Department located in P2’s San Antonio office. He holds a B.S. from Texas State University in Geographic Information Science and has been with the company since the first Monday after graduation in May of 2007. In 2006, Aaron was twice awarded an internship at the Texas General Land Office working with the GIS team in the Coastal Resources Department. Aaron has also been active in martial arts for two decades, holding black belts in both Taekwondo and Judo, and is a volunteer coach for a group of competition fighters. Aaron can be reached at email@example.com.