"Certainty generally is illusion and repose is not the destiny of man."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Unlike many of his peers who complained about losing money on General Land Office contracts John W. Garretson did rather well in surveying the public domain, so much so that in 1858 at the relatively young age of forty-six he spoke of retiring and going into the money lending business. By the end of 1859 he had saved $26,000 in gold dollars, worth at least 15 times that much today. For all that, he was generous and: "A kindhearted uncle," who supported the orphaned children of his brother, put a son of his half-brother through medical school, and from Santa Fe sent presents of beaded Indian purses, into each of which he put $1,000, to two female relatives.
When he came to New Mexico in 1855 he had no illusion about the hardships that lay ahead, but the arid Southwestern desert sorely tried even his field tested, rugged constitution. After surveying a portion of the Principal Meridian he took on a partner to work as his compassman, in addition he employed: "… a chainman, a flagman, a campkeeper, and five Mexicans, three on line and two with my camp and I, John W. Garretson, Deputy Surveyor, the other chainman who takes the field notes and superintends the whole business." He also had a horse and six packmules to carry his supplies. In the desert these supplies would consist mainly of water and the amount of it dictated how far the party could stray from a source.
In a letter to his nephew written in October 1856 he summed up his second field season in the territory: "I have had a long and laborious tour this year and it has not been so profitable as formerly owing partly to more rugged country. I lost four mules last August worth $400." This was near present Tucumcari. He continued: "I had at the time a military escort but it was camped some three miles from me at the time my mules… ran off, perhaps met with wild mustangs. I expect to take one more contract and then quit work, if I have good luck I can make enough to live on the rest of my days. If I take another contract it will be in the valley of the Rio Grande where we will not be in much danger from the Indians and where we will not suffer so much from want of water. This is a miserably poor country."
On the second day of December he got his fourth contract. A month later near the Mexican border lack of water was again a major problem. No sooner had the progress of his work carried him away from the Rio Grande he was in trouble. Southeast of the Organ mountains at the southeast corner of Township 23 South, Range 4 East he wrote: "I should like to continue this line and also continue the surveys east if I had water. On yesterday our packmules and packmen had to travel at least 28 miles to bring us water from the Rio Grande which is as far as it is possible to travel with packmules, and they would soon entirely fail if travelled thus far every day."
Proximity of a military post offered a chance to recuperate: "Our provisions failing we are compelled to repair to Fort Craig for provisions… and rest our almost exhausted mules near the river." Let us not forget to include these stoical fourlegged crewmembers in any tribute to pioneer surveying.
In a letter from Santa Fe written in June 1858 he said: "I shall leave this place… [and] I shall not return to New Mexico again I think. I am done with hard work. I shall have a competence to retire on." Yet he returned in the summer of 1859 to take one last job to survey the boundaries of most of the Indian Pueblos. In August his young wife presented him with his first child. In October he called it quits: "We are going to Texas to live; … I am going for health, and to raise cattle, horses, mules, sheep, and to lend a little money." He had prepared for an easy life on his extensive holdings near San Antonio. The future seemed bright, while a world away in Virginia John Brown was raiding the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry.