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Mapping Idaho: The First Surveyor General of Idaho, Lafayette Cartee

On March 3, 1863, Congress created Idaho Territory, which, at the time, encompassed all of what would become Montana and nearly all of Wyoming. In total, this equated to an area of 324,000 square miles, an area larger than Texas. At the time of Idaho’s creation, contractors with the General Land Office had not surveyed any of the land within the new territory’s boundaries. By December 1864, Idaho’s Territorial Legislature petitioned Congress to reduce the territory’s size to make it easier to govern. Congress obliged, redrawing Idaho’s boundaries nearer to those of the state’s shape today. By June 27, 1866, Congress passed additional legislation to streamline the territory’s settlement further, establishing Idaho as a discrete land district within the jurisdiction of the US General Land Office, the federal government agency responsible for surveying and disseminating public land under various laws. This action paved the way for Idaho’s first Surveyor General, Lafayette Cartee, to begin surveying Idaho.1 

On August 13, 1866, Congress approved President Andrew Johnson’s appointment of Lafayette Cartee as Idaho’s first Surveyor General.2 Cartee was born in Tioga County, New York, in December 1823 to John L. and Seclendia Cartee. He received little public education but became self-taught as he and his family moved to Kentucky and Ohio. In 1846, he enrolled at St. Johns College in Cincinnati, excelling at his course of study and quickly becoming a professor of mathematics and civil engineering. However, poor health forced him west via boat around South America, and in 1847 he arrived in San Francisco.3 After a short stay in California, his health improved, and he ventured north to Oregon, where he made a name for himself as a surveyor. In 1853, he added politician to his resume, serving as a member of the Oregon Territorial Legislature.  

In the mid-1850s, he returned east to marry Miss Mary Bell of Pennsylvania. She bore three daughters and a son before she died in Oregon in 1862. During much of this time, Cartee continued to build his reputation as a surveyor across Oregon under several General Land Office contracts and as an engineer and superintendent supervising the construction of a route for the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. Following his wife’s death, Idaho beaconed. 

Cartee arrived in Idaho sometime after 1863 and erected the first sawmill at Rocky Point Bar. He also attempted to erect a quartz mill, but obstacles delayed the arrival of equipment, and he abandoned the effort. On November 7, 1866,4 following his appointment as Surveyor General, he opened the General Land Office in Boise and began laying plans to establish Idaho’s initial point—the point from which all cadastral surveys in the territory would emanate. In April 1867, Cartee’s team of surveyors set Idaho’s initial point nineteen miles southwest of Boise atop a rocky butte. Throughout 1867, his office surveyed 288 miles of the Boise Meridian (north-south longitude), 138 miles of the baseline (east-west latitude), and 105 miles of standard parallels (also east-west latitude). In completing this work, Cartee’s men noted the agricultural promise of the territory and the opportunity for mining and estimated that the following year’s work would cost roughly $37,000 dollars.5 

By 1873, Cartee and individuals working under his office had made considerable work to map Idaho Territory. Most of the work to date encompassed surveys in a small portion of Owyhee County, a considerable amount of southwest Idaho, including the Boise Basin, the settled portion of Oneida County, a resurvey of the Idaho/Utah boundary, select portions of northern Idaho within Nez Perce County, and the area in and around Lewiston, and north of the Palouse River. Aside from the territory’s isolation and the lack of railroad transportation through the territory, Idaho found itself with an abundance of settlers eager and willing to plant orchards, vineyards, and other crops. The volume of mining claims had likewise increased since Cartee first established his office in Boise, with placer claims producing across Boise, Owyhee, Alturas, Idaho, and Lemhi Counties. Additionally, Cartee’s office carried out border surveys for the Shoshone Bannock Indian Reservation and was awaiting news of modifications to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation before commencing boundary and allotment surveys for that tribe’s reservation.6  

Cartee served dutifully in his post until 1878 and afterward remained in Boise, assisting in the creation of the Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers in 1881, the predecessor of the Idaho State Historical Society, building an impressive and sightly home, importing fruit trees and becoming a well-known horticulturist and cattle rancher, and honing a reputation for benevolence and charity.7 Congress abolished the office of Surveyor General on June 3, 1925, and replaced it with the role of district cadastral engineer. However, the work that Lafayette Cartee accomplished during his tenure and the nine Surveyors General of Idaho that followed him between 1878 and 1925 ensured that the record of Idaho’s boundaries, land ownership, and resource allocation in Idaho exist in perpetuity.8

Written by State Historian HannaLore Hein  

 

Bibliography

Bien, Morris. “The Public Lands of the United States.” The North American Review 192, no. 658 (1910): 387–402. 

“Box 1, Records of Lafayette Cartee, Folder 6, Cartee Correspondence and Family History (Photocopies),” n.d. MS 376. Idaho State Archives. 

Bureau of Land Management. “Management of Land Boundaries.” Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, n.d. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/Management%20of%20Land%20Boundaries.pdf. 

Bureau of Land Management, Mineral & Land Records System. “About the Public Land Survey System,” November 17, 2023. https://mlrs.blm.gov/s/article/PLSS-Information. 

Hart, Arthur. “Mapping Idaho: Surveyor General Gartee Began Mapping Idaho Territory in 1867.” The Yellow Pine Times (blog), November 21, 2015. https://yellowpinetimes.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/idaho-history-november-22-2015/. 

Idaho Statesman. “Veteran Public Employee Retires From Service: Charles Paynton For Nearly 40 Years Connected with Surveyor General’s Office of Idaho, Accepts Playtime; Associated Present Gift; Was Once Statesman Printer.” June 3, 1928. 

Olson, Jerry. “Olson Engineering – Lafayette Cartee.” Olson Engineering, November 16, 2008. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/http://www.olsonengr.com/download/globios/carteelafayettebio.pdf. 

“Report of the Commissioner of General Land Office for the Year 1866.” Washington, DC: General Land Office, October 2, 1866. 

“Report of the Commissioner of General Land Office for the Year 1867.” Washington, DC: General Land Office, October 15, 1867. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112101709597?urlappend=%3Bseq=9. 

“Report of the Commissioner of General Land Office for the Year 1873.” Washington, DC: General Land Office, October 1, 1873. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.a0002280170?urlappend=%3Bseq=5. 

Vaughan, Champ Clark, and United States. Bureau of Land Management. A History of the United States General Land Office in Oregon. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, 2014. 

 

Photographs  

P1984-111-1, Lafayette Cartee, Idaho State Archives 

P1974-50,3, Biography, Lafayette Cartee, Idaho State Archives 

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