History interpreter shows how
Minnesota, Forestville were mapped
Wednesday, September 04, 2013 5:18 AM
Don Borcherding, a living history interpreter who specializes in the history of surveying, appeared as Andrew Talcott at Historic Forestville Saturday, Aug. 24, to share as part of the site's "Defining State Lines in the 1850s" program how Minnesota, and more specifically, Forestville, were placed on the map.
Andrew Talcott, portrayed by Don Borcherding, shows how state lines were established during the middle of the 19th century while speaking at Historic Forestville Saturday, Aug. 24.
Brave men forged into the wilderness with little more than a zenith telescope - a telescope used in surveying to determine the position of stars at their zenith, or brightest, in relation to coordinates on Earth, a 66-foot chain, surveyor's pins - stakes used to mark distance points along the ground, notebooks, a compass, and their own sense of direction.
He told how a reference point was installed in Allamakee County, Iowa, and named after Thomas Jefferson Lee, a key authority in the pursuit of surveying and laying meridians and longitudes that would actually shape states and counties, townships and towns themselves.
"They built Fort Atkinson in Iowa to keep the Indians apart...it was a neutral zone, and Houston County in Minnesota was part of that. What was left after Wisconsin and Iowa was formed became the Minnesota Territory," he said. On Sept. 26, 1849, the secretary of the interior sent a letter to Gen. Thomas Jefferson Lee charging him with the job of surveying the territory.
"When the plat was filed for Forestville by Robert Foster and Felix Meighen on Oct. 24, 1858, there were already two cabins on this land...the map shows a couple of cabins owned by a Mr. Fitch and a Mr. Watkins," said Borcherding, "and the actual deed went to Forest Henry. It was registered at the land office in Brownsville, in Chatfield Territory within the Minnesota Territory. Minnesota had become a state on May 11, 1858, because they could prove that there were over 60,000 inhabitants."
Borcherding pointed out that teams of men were assigned to set out with their tools, find evenly-spaced latitudes and longitudes and mark them carefully, taking into account the curvature of Earth itself.
"My method, the Talcott Method, meant that you would observe the northern hemisphere for a while, then the southern. That helped correct refraction of starlight. My zenith telescope was 46 inches long, and it had a little lamp inside it because all the observing and note-taking had to be done at night," he said. "It was important to know where you were in relation to the stars, so you had to keep a chronometer - a wound-up clock that you could use to keep track of local time, and then you had to know the position of the stars. They used 66-foot long chains to measure out the land, and if they went down a hill, they had to keep the chain straight across the hill instead of down it. The man who carried the chain pins would put one in the ground, and when he ran out after he counted 10, he and the man at the front would trade places."
Men in teams from Washington, D.C., and Dubuque, Iowa, covered miles across what would become the state of Minnesota, working day in and out, approaching the new state from the southeast corner and setting pins and measuring chains as they went to the northwest.
"If someone wanted to know where they were, they could go to Lee's monument in Allamakee County, then they'd know if they were measuring right from north to south, east to west," he explained.
Forestville Township is number 102 in Range 12, as measured by another method from the mouth of the Arkansas River - essentially, it denotes that the township is 600 miles north and 72 miles west of the river's beginning.
"Two systems were used as we surveyed off the Wisconsin meridians. To get started, we knew where Lee's monument was, and if we had figured parallel latitudes, if they were to run straight north, they would converge at the North Pole, meaning that the townships would get smaller. In order to keep the parallels straight, we would get out every 50 miles and set astronomic stations. We had to run a line out and take new calculations to find if we needed more curvature, then we'd go back and offset every half mile."
These methods eventually made the unsettled territory into an attractive place for pioneers to venture, to dig in and cultivate the soil. The first United States land office was in Wisconsin in 1848, and then it moved to Stillwater, and after that, to Chatfield, and from there, to Iowa. People could pay $1.25 per acre, and they could homestead as part of the Homestead Act, which didn't come until much later.
In the 1840s, a lot of surveying was done, but by the 1860s, not much was done because of the Civil War going on, and settlers were not moving around as much. By the 1870s, the entire state was surveyed into townships - even the Boundary Waters - and by the 1890s, they were about done.
"Forestville was 160 acres... and the blocks for the town were set up so that there would be room for big growth - so the store is right square on - but since that didn't happen, the wagon barn is set right in the middle of where the street should be," he said.
Showing off an antique surveying chain that he had purchased for his presentations as Talcott, and also a vintage surveyor's compass that he noted was "rather crude" for its time, Borcherding invited visitors to follow him from the barn into the yard to do some actual measuring of the town site, a chance to see how the town that was eventually bypassed by the railroad came to be years before, when pioneering hope was strong and Minnesota was in is youth.