Everything Has To Start Somewhere . . . .
Story by Hardy Peacock with photos by Denver Norsworthy
The land surveys for the Louisiana Purchase all are tied to a, “Point of Beginning,” located atthe Juncture of Lee, Phillips, and Monroe Counties in Eastern Arkansas.
At the site is one of Arkansas’ smallest state parks. The Louisiana Purchase State Park. The park consists of a 950-foot boardwalk/bridge that penetrates a black water swamp and leads to a concrete marker. Everything has to start somewhere and all land boundaries in the Louisiana Purchase start here.
We all learned in grade school that President Thomas Jefferson sent Ambassador Robert R. Livingston to the Court of Napoleon to purchase the City of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River. The goal was to secure an outlet to the seas via a deepwater port from the Ohio/Mississippi Rivers that could not be controlled by a foreign government. Napoleon refused and President Jefferson sent James Monroe as a special emissary with further instructions. Several days before Monroe arrived the French contacted Livingston and offered to sell all of the Louisiana Territory. Monroe and Livingston negotiated a price for the entire territory $11,250,000 plus assumption of $3 ,750,000 in claims by U S Citizens against France for a total price of $15,000,000. They didn’t have the authority to make such a deal and the United States did not have $15,000 ,000, but it was too good a deal to turn down. With incidental fees and interest the actual cost figures out to be $27,267,622.
This is quite possibly the strangest real estate deal ever. The basic facts are that this Frenchman (Napoleon Bonaparte) sold land that he didn’t own, to a country (United States) that didn’t want it for more money than they had. Nobody knew exactly where it was, nobody knew exactly how big it was, nobody knew what was or wasn’t there, and none of the people involved in the transaction had ever seen or ever would see the property in question.
I suppose this demonstrates that deficit spending and government boondoggles are not new developments…
Business being business, despite the fact that diplomatic relations between the fledgling United States and Great Britain were not very good. Despite the fact that Great Britain and France were at war the purchase was financed by a London Bank. Then Napoleon spent the money for arms and material to carry on the war with (you guessed it) England.
Then a bunch of other stuff happened. President Jefferson first sent the Hunter/Dunbar Expedition to explore and map the Ouachita River. They set out from Natchez, Mississippi in October of 1804, secured a shallow draft boat at Monroe, Louisiana, and journeyed North to the hot springs of Arkansas. They returned to Natchez in February of 1805. Official reports of this expedition were the first look at the Louisiana Purchase.
The second expedition led by Merriweather Lewis and Rogers Clark had a better press agent. They got all the ink, while Hunter and Dunbar became a footnote in history at best.
Then nothing happened for about 10 years, unless you count Napoleons’ retreat from Moscow, the War of 1812, and the beginnings of the Western Expansion of the United States. Little things like that.
The War of 1812 was concluded with the Treaty of Ghent, which was agreed and signed by the British Empire and the United States of America on December 24, 1814. However, there was no way to rapidly inform combatants already in the field. Because of slow communications the major land engagement of the war took place at Chalmette Battlefield, near New Orleans, two weeks after the peace treaty was signed.
Forget all that, the upshot was that there was a tremendous war debt (sound familiar?) and the returning, victorious veterans were clamoring for a bonus. Once again, the country was short of money.
But wait a minute, what about all that land that we bought? Nobody owns it. It’s just lying out there in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, etc. Exactly where is it? Will it grow crops? Is it worth anything? Just what is out there, anyway? Can we turn it into cash? Will the veterans accept land instead of cash?
Of course the answers were that the land was right there where it had always been. It would grow crops. It was worth a lot, and veterans, emigrants, and immigrants were desperate to own land.
President James Madison sent Prospect K. Robbins and Joseph C. Brown. All of the territory of the United States East of the Mississippi had been surveyed and four meridians had been laid down. Robbins and Brown were to establish the Fifth Meridian. They traveled down the Mississippi River. Brown and his party stopped at the mouth of the St. Francis River, Robbins and his party continued down the river to the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers in what is now Desha County, Arkansas near Arkansas Post. On October 15, 1815 Brown set out on a due West Course from the mouth of the St. Francis and on the same day Robbins started North from the mouth of the Arkansas. Sometime between November fourth and November twenty-fourth their paths converged in a black water swamp that was ninety-one degrees, three minutes, and forty-two seconds West of Greenwich at Latitude thirty-four degrees, forty-four minutes North. This is the point of beginning for all lands in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and most of Kansas, Colorado, Montana, Minnesota, and others.
A black water swamp is so-named because the tannin from the tree bark standing in the swamp gradually dyes the water until it has a black appearance. It is generally very pure water and was highly prized as safe drinking water. Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia is another example of a black water swamp.
Ask a Boy Scout what a beeline hike is. He’ll tell you that it is an effort to go from one point to another in as straight a line as possible. During my affiliation with the United States Marine Corps on more than one occasion we straight-line navigated cross-country with compasses, pacers, markers, etc. and I promise you it is not a good way to travel.
Try to imagine doing that through pristine wilderness in a swamp, using primitive equipment, carrying all your supplies, surveying as you go (this means taking frequent sightings and dragging a surveyors’ chain more than sixty feet long. The drill is that you take a sighting, throw the chain, mark it, and either call, “Pull,” or, “Chain,” to your crew and repeat the process. Eighty chains to the mile), and making copious notes of observation. You do this over hill, over dale, through rain, snow, gloom of night, etc. You allow and compensate for trees that you must circumnavigate, and all obstacles in your path. You move straight ahead, and you record observations in your notebooks, even if you are up to your whatever in a swamp. (Incidentally, the Arkansas Land Commissioner still has the original notebooks of both Mr. Brown and Mr. Robbins. At one point Mr. Brown observed, “This would be good land were it not subject to inundation.” On another page he notes, “Terrain seems to consist of briers and swamp, alternating with swamp and briers.”)
Just for the record their equipment was so primitive and inaccurate that they had to constantly make corrections and allow for compass error. (Yes, I can show you how to determine compass error and even show you how to determine True North without a compass, but that is another story.)
Somehow they got all of this done. They marked two sweet gum trees to establish the juncture and then proceeded to begin extending the baseline and surveying the surrounding territory. The baseline was extended West and runs right down the middle of Base Line Road in South Little Rock. All property lines in Pulaski County were established by the relationship to the base line. By 1841 this base line was extended all the way across Arkansas. All along this latitude in those counties you will occasionally find a county road that runs due East and West. Nearly all are named Base Line Road and still follow the extended line first laid down by Robbins and Brown.
When the survey was completed, they were largely forgotten.
According to an article by Mike Trimble in the Arkansas Democrat/Gazette published in May of 1993 they might have remained forgotten except for a 1921 county line dispute between Lee and Phillips Counties. Guess what. The common boundary ran along the base line established by Robbins and Brown 106 years earlier. Two surveyors, E. P. Douglass and Tom Jacks were hired to, “run a survey of the line and clear up the controversy.”
According to Mr. Trimble’s article, “They did that and they did something else too: They rediscovered the two gum trees slashed by Robbins and Brown in 1815.”
In 1926 the L’Anguille Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a concrete marker commemorating the site . They also secured the deeds to the property and presented them to Senator Joseph T. Robinson. He promptly lost them and the title to the property remained clouded until a series of legislative acts in the late fifties secured title to the State Parks Commission.
In 1961 the State of Arkansas further preserved the site by designating it a state park.
In 1993 the Department of the Interior designated the Louisiana Purchase Initial Survey Point Site as a National Historic Landmark.
In 2002 as various entities were preparing for the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase the site was resurveyed with the latest space age technology, including radar, lasers, and ground positioning satellites. They discovered that the 1815 survey team of Prospect K. Robbins and Joseph C. Brown had made a grievous error in their calculations and misstated the initial point of beginning. They had missed it by almost one inch.