Mark Twain had many sayings. One famous saying attributed to him is “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”
Along with water, land ownership has historically been a point of contention. Missouri has a long history of land surveying to prevent such feuds; and in recent years, much of this information has been made available digitally to the public through the combined efforts of Mark Twain National Forest and Missouri Department of Agriculture.
For decades, the Mark Twain National Forest was the sole possessor of Form 874-9 – Revised May, 1918, also known as “yellow sheets.” These old documents hold information regarding government land corners (the points from which land boundaries were identified) in 29 counties across southern and central Missouri. The history of land boundaries follows closely with the history of the Mark Twain National Forest. Here is a timeline of these changes:
Early 1800s: Government Land Office (GLO) contractors set across the unsettled areas of the Missouri Territory, subdividing the frontier into 1-mile sections and marking corners as they went. They kept field notes in journals to track their progress. This was rugged work; and it set the foundation for two centuries of land records.
1870s: Citizens of southern Missouri began an era of extensive logging of the state’s native oak, hickory, and pine forests. Lumber mills were commonplace. Land boundaries from GLO surveys were important for business and were only occasionally perpetuated by County Surveyors of the era.
1920s: Many mills had closed, as much of the state’s native forests had been logged. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, the people of the state became concerned about the condition of idle and sometimes abandoned lands in the Ozarks region. Much land within the present National Forest boundary had been stripped of timber, burned, and over-used as pasture or tilled until its productivity was seriously impaired. Abandoned lands contributed nothing to the local economy or tax base. Frequent wildfires and erosion were serious problems and the land needed extensive rehabilitation.
1934-1935: Eight separate purchase units embracing 3,313,705 acres, were established in 28 counties to create land that would be managed by the Forest Service for timber and watershed restoration.
1939: President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed four of the eight purchase units as the Mark Twain National Forest. The purchase units involved were: Gasconade (Rolla, Houston), Pond Fork (Ava) Table Rock (Cassville), and Gardner (Willow Springs). On the same date, the Clark National Forest was established by Proclamation. The units involved were: Clark (Potosi, Salem); Fristoe (Winona, Doniphan, Van Buren), LaMotte (Fredericktown), and Wappapello Lake (Poplar Bluff).
1930s: At the height of the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employees set out to verify land boundaries, equipped with just crude maps and typed copies of the original GLO notes. Most of the GLO surveys dated from the 1820s, a few even earlier. The CCC was charged to find, verify, and re-mark any found Section Corners, Quarter Corners, and other monuments set by GLO surveyors a century earlier. Defining boundaries was very important to the newly formed Forest and its mission of land conservation.
Late 1930s: The various administrative units that now make up the Mark Twain dispatched personnel to find and catalog the condition of corners in the Proclamation Boundaries of their respective units. To document this, they used the “yellow sheets”.
1940s – 2009: For decades, and through several reorganizations, these “yellow sheets” served as the bridge between modern times and the original efforts of Missouri’s first surveyors.
The “CCCers” of the Great Depression had the benefit of viewing many of the land corners in a time when much more of the evidence (from the GLO’s notes of the 1800s) was still intact and not disturbed by man nor ravaged by fire or storm. This helped these hardy workers do such a credible job, that their documentation served the Forest for a very long time. Many of the location posters or “tree tags” found today are over 80 years old and are well-referenced in the “yellow sheets.”
1960s: The Forest added state-licensed Land Surveyors to the staff to meet legal requirements of Missouri and the Agency. The aging “yellow sheets” remained in what later became District Ranger Stations of today’s Forest. Sometimes they were discovered in oil houses and old garages of closed offices.
1990s: With the advent and spread of the internet, a need began to arise to have digital records of land corners. Although zone surveyors assigned to Districts often knew where to access these records, they were not readily available to private surveyors working for the public adjacent to the Forest. Unfortunately, this lack of available information often led to erroneous corners being set even though reliable evidence existed, causing conflicts with adjacent landowners.
2000s: Discussion between land management agencies and surveyor groups in Missouri focused on ways to best digitize land corner information and make it available to the public. Over time, attrition and closures of several administrative sites across the Forest led to the “yellow sheets” and other property records accumulating in the Mark Twain National Forest’s Supervisor’s Office in Rolla.
2009: Surveyors Roger Mallott (now on the Superior NF), John Stevens (now retired) and the Mark Twain National Forest’s current surveyor, Chris Ferguson, met with DNR-LSP survey personnel in late 2009 to arrange the transfer of paper documents to DNR-LSP for digitization. Even after the initial bulk was digitized, old records continued to trickle in after being discovered, packed away in various offices; continuing to strengthen the fidelity of the digitized records.
2010-2016: Cadastral Surveyors Terry Throesch and Chris Ferguson delivered nearly ten thousand records to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources- Land Survey Program, now part of the Weights and Measures Division of the MO Dept. of Agriculture.
Thanks to the efforts of both the MTNF and the State, after several years of processing, the finished product is a fully-indexed database which increases government efficiency and provides easy access for the public. This information can now be found online at the State of Missouri’s Land Survey Index (https://apps.mda.mo.gov/molandsurveyindex/).
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