Archive for April, 2012

The most complicated and inherently tenacious problem in large parts of the Globe is the question of “who owns what piece of real estate.” University departments have been founded just to find its solutions; hundreds of western movies have been filmed with that very problem as their theme; and, more importantly, it causes far too many wars.

Yet, at the local level, responses can often be practical and exact. For example, a Peruvian extension agent who attended a Dutch conference on the subject was asked how he solved the problem—how he knew which parcel of land belonged to which farmer. The agent answered simply that when a different dog barks he knows that he has crossed from the property of one owner to the property of another.

This is not how the early folk in our country divided up the lands previously “settled” by even earlier folk who couldn’t solve the problem either. What our forefathers did was declare a clean slate with no ownership but by the government and then let those who could work the land mark off a chunk and legally claim it as their own. The way the piece of land was officially described by the surveyor guy was by use of something called “Metes and Bounds.”

George Washington: Official Land Surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia. (Chessman/Trumbell; Clements Library, University of Michigan)

Osbourne Russell—a favorite mountain man of Forrest Fenn—after he lost an eye (Osbourne Russell I mean), decided to become a farmer and on October 23, 1845 he recorded a land claim in Oregon Territory. The description by the land surveyor says the following: “… situate and beginning at a fir tree 3 feet in Diameter, standing 800 yards south west of the falls of the north branch of the Lukamyute river, and blazed on the north and east sides, thence running north 600 yards to the stream, thence crossing said stream and running north 1130 yards to three Oaks each 6 inches Diam—standing together on the side of the Mountain, one blazed on the south and another on the east side—thence running nearly east one mile, to an oak tree two feet in Diam—blazed on the west and south sides, standing on a high ridge—thence south 1200 yds to the stream, thence crossing the stream and running nearly south 560 yds to an Oak tree 12 inches Diam standing on the side of a ridge, and blazed on the north & west sides—thence west to the place of beginning…”

You get the idea. These were the “metes.” You start at a certain point, face a given direction, go a certain distance, face a different direction, go a certain distance, etc. until you hit the point where you started. It has to do with direction and distance starting from a known feature like “the falls of the north branch of the Lukamyute River” or, more to the point, “Begin it where warm waters halt.

In addition, a land claim was described by “bounds,” that is, by the appearance and tenure of the landscape surrounding the land claim. In Osbourne Russell’s case: “…said claim is bounded on the west by Mountaineous forest, on the north by a high spur of Mountain, which divides the waters of the Lukamyute and LeCreole rivers, on the east, north of the stream, by a tract of Prairie Land supposed to be claimed, by Chas Eaten—south of the stream by a tract of prairie claimed and occupied by Adam Brown and on the south by vacant ridgy Land, and spurs of Mountain.”

Now, there is no reason that the piece of land being defined must be 640 acres or 160 acres or 80 acres. It could be six square feet—a piece of land just the right size to hide a brass box 18”x12”x8” full of gold and jewelry; the system of “metes and bounds” would still work. And a method of “direction and distance” from a given point would work equally well to take one to that very same six square feet piece of land in the first place (“If you’ve been wise and found the blaze“).

Anyone who has ever filed a flight plan knows the rudiments of “metes and bounds” even if it is not called that. And Forrest Fenn has filed thousands of flight plans. But did he use some form of  “metes and bounds” to give us clues as to where he hid his treasure? I think so…but he did it in an obscure language called “poetry” and in old photographs and other vague imagery. So, between the poem and the other clues hidden in his Memoir, distances and directions are there and a description of the surrounding landscape is there—but all of it is masked by symbol and metaphor.

I wrote this blog post to explain how people in the olden days used direction and distance to locate and mark off bits of land on a much larger landscape and not to suggest that we go looking for Forrest Fenn’s treasure with an early visit to the old homestead of Osbourne Russell and his neighbor to the south—Mr. Brown. But, then again, maybe we should. After all, the poem does say, “…take it in the canyon down … put in below the home of Brown.”

Stay safe,


Read Full Post »