'Witness Trees' mark land lines in new U.S.

By Mary K. Hamner
Journal Correspondent

If Witness trees could talk, stately old oaks, beech, or other varieties would come forward with their stories. They would speak of how the wounds they sustained were for a noble cause. One would bear an "X" marking the east west line of a rectangular land survey. Another would rear back in pride with its tree branches tucked behind the "Y" blazoned across its chest signifying the principal meridian (north south line) of the United States survey of the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800s. Federal surveyors marked trees with a carving stylus as they blocked off territory in the South and registered their marks in Washington.

Orey G. Poret, former Director of the Division of State Lands, presently the Louisiana State Land office said in his report of 1972; "United States surveyors had established a 'principal meridian' and a 'base line' by 1807. The principal meridian running north and south from the base line was established approximately in the center of the territory. Monuments were then set every six miles on the principal meridian and base line-North, South, East, and West. These were to be used as main points in establishing later surveys. The method of surveying used in the then Territory of Orleans had been adopted on May 7, 1784, by a special committee appointed by the Continental Congress under the chairmanship of Thomas Jefferson. This system initiated the method of laying out a square six miles long and six miles wide, and re-subdividing this square into 36 sections with each section being one-mile square containing 640 acres. Each section was numbered, beginning at the top row of the township, from 1-36 running east to west, thence in the second row west to east, etc."

While laying out the township grids, surveyors walked each section line, noting changes in vegetation as well as soil quality and topography. They also recorded species and diameter of trees growing directly on section lines. They blazed (marked) one to four bearing (witness) trees to further specify the location of section corners, and one or two bearing trees at quarter corners (half mile points).

Survey law established by the Continental Congress in 1785 reads as follows: Deputy surveyors shall cause to be marked on a tree near each corner established in the manner described, and within the section, the number of each section, and over it the number of the township within which such section, may be; and the deputy surveyors shall carefully note, in their respective field books, the names of the corner trees marked and the numbers so made. Marks on a tree standing today can be authenticated with 19th century paperwork.

The Act of May 27, 1908 provided for the purchase of metal monuments to be used for public land survey corners wherever practicable. Section 57 of the Criminal Code of 1909 provided a penalty for the unauthorized alteration or removal of any governmental survey monument or marked trees. The wording was slightly modified June 25, 1948 to read: Whoever willfully destroys, defaces, changes, or removes to another place any section corner, quarter-section corner, or meander post, on any Government line of survey, or willfully cuts down any witness tree or any tree blazed to mark the line of a Government survey, shall be fined not more than $250 or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

Other trees scattered throughout the forests of Louisiana and the US bear other types of carvings pointing to stories told by American Indians as they migrated throughout a region that then knew no bounds except as designated by different tribes. Indians used their " witness tree" for communication, gravestones, directions, story telling, or even for marking hollow trees where they had stored their belongings. Pictographs are part of a language American Indians developed along with a language of signs and gestures that was used across wide distances or among Indian tribes with different languages. The hand motions easily translated into drawings that Indians put on rocks or trees. Indians are believed to have peeled back the bark on trees and painted directions, warnings or stories.

In the densest part of the Bankhead National Forest stands a beech tree that is decorated with a figure called a 'birdman'. No one knows the age of the birdman of the Bankhead beech. He is about two feet tall and wears a hat. The hat is a feature that appeared in American hieroglyphs after Europeans arrived on this continent that scholars say represents the white men.

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