New Mexicos County Surveyors

The office of County Surveyor predates independence from Great Britain by many years, an indication of the importance of the function the surveyor exercised on the local level. As far as I was able to determine the father of our country also became the father of all county surveyors when in 1749, at the age of seventeen, George Washington was appointed County Surveyor of Culpepper County, Virginia, apparently the first of such an appointment anywhere in America.

In New Mexico the office dates to February 14, 1891, the day on which it was created by the territorial legislature. It was elective for a term of two years, commencing on the first day of January succeeding the general election for county officers. Since it was understood that the surveyor running for the office be a resident of the county in which he sought the office, the law provided: That in counties where there is no resident surveyor any competent surveyor resident of the territory may be appointed [by the county commissioners].

The statute contains some interesting provisions. Prior to the adoption of registration laws just about anybody could call himself a surveyor, therefore the law provided that to be eligible to hold the office the candidate must be a practical [sic] land surveyor actually engaged in the business. Since land surveyors were not required to be licensed until 1917, and in the absence of a professional examining board, the statute spelled out some of the technical/professional requirements for the office.

The county surveyor shall keep two books of record One book shall contain the calculations by latitudes and departures of all surveys The other book shall be a book of records and so constituted as to have the left page for diagrams and plats, and the right page for notes and remarks; and shall contain a full statement of such surveys, with the variation of the magnetic needle, length of lines, location of corners, with description of such corners, also description of all witness trees, and other marks used as witness marks for such corners, with size, distance and course. It goes on to say that: In re-establishing missing corners the county surveyor shall establish said corners in strict accordance with the manual of instructions of the United States to the United States deputy surveyors.

The duties of the county surveyor included All county surveying, engineering on roads and bridges [and he shall] be one of the viewers in the establishment of new roads or the location of bridges.

County surveyors had to post a bond in the sum of five thousand dollars and were to be paid $5 per day plus expenses (for official county work), a miserly sum at a time when even the parsimonious U.S. General Land Office paid between seven and ten dollars per surveyed mile to their deputy surveyors. It is fair to assume that those elected kept their official county surveying to a minimum and negotiated higher fees with private parties requesting surveys. County surveyors were allowed to appoint two deputies.

Because the first general election after the passage of the statute was almost two years away, the bill required that the office of county surveyor shall [italics added] be filled by appointment of the board of county commissioners. We must assume that the commissioners complied and that at least some if not all of the surveyors on the 1892 ballots were earlier appointees.

The election of 1892 probably filled all of the positions in the seventeen counties of the territory although I found no records prior to 1902 when all twenty-one counties then in existence elected a surveyor. Twenty-five years later in 1917 New Mexico became one of the first states in the United States to require land surveyor registration, the number of counties had grown to twenty-eight and all still had a county surveyor. But when Lea County was created that year from the eastern parts of Chaves and Eddy counties it became the first county not to fill the position. In 1930 two other counties (Curry and Roosevelt) were without a county surveyor, and by 1950 more than half of the counties were without one (17 out of 32). The decline continued until at the beginning of the 1990s only Eddy, Luna, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties still filled the elective office. In 1999 and 2000 there were none.

It is an interesting observation that the decline in candidates for the office began with the passage of the 1917 registration act, allowing for speculation that qualified surveyors in private practice were better known and more accessible with greater confidence. Public confidence was probably further re-enforced in 1935 with the creation of a Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. On the negative side, the office had served as a depository for GLO and other survey records that in the absence of a county surveyor quickly degenerated into a cardboard box somewhere in the basement record keeping system. That problem was addressed several times in the past with an attempt to create the position of a state surveyor, thus far without result.

As of this writing (August 2008) only Santa Fe County still has an elected county surveyor. Allen C. Grace was first elected in 2000, after the office had been vacant for a couple of years. Like all elected county officials the position is a four year term limited to two consecutive terms. Jeff Ludwig, Director of our North Central chapter, has thrown his hat into the ring and is running unopposed for the 2009-2012 term on a democratic ticket.

It is possible that the elective office of county surveyor became an anachronism that in modern government structure no longer serves its intended function. In the New Mexico legislature a bill was introduced in 2007 (SB 889) to abolish the elective office but it didnt pass. The bill was re-introduced in 2008 as SB 319 but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee (Action postponed indefinitely), and its future is uncertain. If the abolishment is intended as money saving measure it is a bad decision and an illusion to boot. A professional surveyor, whether he is elected or otherwise, should be involved in any and all land management planning decisions wherever they may be made. This was true in 1749 and it remains true today. As of this writing at least one county has a staff surveyor in its engineering department (Tom Werkman in Dona Ana County) and there may be others. It is hoped that the trend continues.

In the next issue I will publish a list of early New Mexico county surveyors.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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