Surveyor and Lawyer

"The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers," was the proposal that William Shakespeare put into the mouth of a vile character named Dick, butcher of Ashford (King Henry VI). If nothing else, it reveals that even in Shakespeare’s time people felt that there were too many lawyers. Had Dick been a surveyor he might have somewhat softened his demand and suggested to retrain them to be surveyors, for seldom has anybody complained of there being too many surveyors. Also, the two professions seem to complement each other. There is a strong element of quasi-legal decision-making in the surveying profession, and many a lawyer has enhanced his career by studying surveying, cashing in on the world’s never ending boundary disputes.

I have known several attorneys, including our own venerable Bob Stephenson, who surveyed their way through law school, and they always struck me as being very philosophical and colorful characters, and probably more successful lawyers as a result. On the other hand, a surveyor who knows the difference between practicing surveying and practicing law will save himself plenty of trouble and embarrassment.

To buttress my argument I will call upon O.W. Williams, who not only practiced both professions with great success, but also left us with a fine account of his many years as an astute observer of the frontier Southwest.

Oscar Waldo Williams, or O.W. as he was commonly known, was a native of Kentucky, were he was born at Mt. Vernon on March 17, 1853. He attended several colleges, among them Bethany College in West Virginia were he took some engineering courses. In the summer of 1871 he worked for the Mississippi Valley & Western Railroad Company, which was the source of his surveying skills. Beginning in 1873 he attended Harvard University from which he graduated with a law degree in 1876.

Spending too much time in stuffy law libraries not only ruins one’s faith in mankind but also is bad for one’s health, as O.W. discovered soon enough. Lung trouble encouraged him to seek the drier and, as he hoped, healthier climate of Texas, and so in 1877 he moved to Dallas where he expected to practice law. Yet even though Dallas was a bustling frontier town, young O.W. was unable to find employment as a lawyer, but only found that: "there were too many already". Since in fact there were almost sixty of them we do agree. Undaunted in his determination to remain in Texas he decided: "I fell back on an earlier avocation of mine and got employment as a surveyor of Public Lands."

Williams joined a party of surveyors and for the next two years, and for fifteen dollars a month, he surveyed in the Texas panhandle near present day Lubbock. He had developed a habit of keeping a diary much of the time, and because he was always interested in what he saw and experienced (including a buffalo stampede through and over his survey party) his diaries were to become an invaluable historical record, also furnishing the material for many of his later stories and articles.

His surveying job vanished when the Texas legislature decided to reserve all of the un-appropriated land in the panhandle as payment for the construction of their new capitol building in Austin, and so in 1879 Williams rode horseback from Dallas to Santa Fe, determined to try his luck in territorial New Mexico. In the spring of 1880 he tried to mine silver at Shakespeare, which today is a ghost town just to the south of Lordsburg, but in 1880 was a thriving community of some 150 souls living in about thirty adobe houses. Whiskey, Indians, and bad land titles provided more excitement than O.W. had bargained for, so later that year he moved to Silver City where he became deputy postmaster and deputy clerk of the Federal Court. After a brief visit to Dallas to get married, he returned with his bride to Silver City where they lived until October 1882.

Next, O.W. tried surveying in East Texas, but the arid Southwest had gotten into his soul and in December 1884 he moved to Fort Stockton as deputy county surveyor of Pecos County. Fort Stockton became his home for the remaining sixty-two years of his long life. There he raised his five children, served several terms as county judge as well as county surveyor, built irrigation ditches and tried farming. He became interested in the natural as well as the political history of the West Texas region and became a fellow in the Southwest Historical Society.

Surveying in the 1890’s with the Texas State Mineral Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey he had the good fortune to be sent to the Big Bend region of Texas, which at that time was but a little known sun scorched wilderness of fantastic scenery, haunting canyons, and rugged beauty. Too rough for chaining, many of the measurements could only be made by triangulation.

Typically, Williams had little to say about the surveying process itself but with a keen eye he absorbed the land, its creatures, and its people. One member of his survey party, a seasoned guide named Natividad Lujan, especially impressed himself into O.W.’s memory. Natividad was a native of that arid border country, and well informed about its history and legends. He was articulate and enjoyed to wile away many lonely hours by talking, and O.W. Williams was an avid listener. In return, Williams immortalized his Hispanic friend in his: Stories from the Big Bend, tales that have entered southwestern folklore. O.W.’s description of Natividad’s weathered countenance would portray the look of many hardy surveyors of the desert southwest, and is cited here to give an example of the richness of O.W. Williams’ prose:

"…Natividad had a face in color and texture like his deerskin jacket. The wind and sun for sixty years had been hardening and tanning and dressing its surface until by no possibility could any passion throw the red blood to the outer part of the epidermis. And of man’s usual facial expression, there were left to him only a pair of keen black eyes under shaggy eyebrows and some archaic wrinkles about the mouth, which showed feebly when he attempted to laugh. But it seemed to me that nature, by way of compensation, had given to his crown of red hair a sort of limited expression, and that it grew deeper or lighter according to the various emotions that might move the soul inside that leathern mask." (From: Santiago Peak)

From 1902 until 1935 Williams had a law practice in Fort Stockton. Because of his extensive knowledge of surveys his colleges often referred to him as "a walking abstract office." As ever, he found time to write about his experiences and impressions in great detail. In his many published papers, newspaper articles, pamphlets, stories, diaries, and long letters to his children, he left us with a moving, truthful, and colorful account of frontier Texas and New Mexico. He had a superb memory, met many interesting people, he had an eye for the desert in its unmarred beauty, and above all he gave a voice to what might have been a silent pursuit of several professions, writing until he died on October 29, 1946 at the ripe old age of 93.

The scrubby West Texas desert scoffs at the struggling cypress grove in the East Hill Cemetery at Fort Stockton, and almost touches the simple slab that covers Williams’ grave. Yet there is a dignity in the plain lettering on the stone, summarizing his many achievements: Oscar Waldo Williams – Lawyer, Surveyor, Historian, Naturalist, and Writer.

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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