Mellette County, South Dakota
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County & Town Histories - Surveying
Helping Survey Mellette County
As told to Winifred Reutter

(Partial Transcription,  from the "Mellette County Memories, Golden Anniversary Edition 1911-1961", published by Winifred Reutter, 1961 (pg. 57-58))

Charley Larison, who with his wife, Minda, now lives in Belvidere, S. D., was one of the men who actually
helped put Mellette County on the map, as he furnished some of the teams and wagons for the surveyors
back in 1910 and 1911 and was an early surveyor's assistant. Most of the land had previously been
surveyed into sections. The men were headed by J. B. Scrivin, who was a member of the Government
appraising and allotting crews. Dick Allison, an Indian, represented the Indian Department, and a third
man, who also helped with the group Charlie piloted around. They had to find these marked, and sometimes
unmarked section corners. Then their job would be to survey and cross-section each piece of land. In other
words, figure out the exact center of the section and the half-way point between the corners.These places
they would mark with Government stakes, thus making four quarters of land 160 acres each out of each

I always thought when I saw these iron stakes around here in the Rosebud Reservation that they had been driven into the ground. But Charley said that it couldn't be driven because it was a large iron having two hooks on it and was full of cement. So they had to dig a hole and set the stake in it.

The Government was giving the Indians first choice of land before it was to be opened for homesteading. The allotting was done before it was appraised for white settlement and they tried to give the Indians the best land and leave the rough out. So it was Larison's job to take these men to the land each Indian selected and there they would place a special iron Government stake at each corner of the allotment. Usually it was a quarter (160 acres), sometimes a half section (320 acres) and sometimes an Indian was allotted a whole section of land.

One of the earlier surveying crews had been headed by a man named Anderson or Gunderson. Usually those earlier markers were wooden stakes with numbers burned on them, but sometimes it was only a buried tin can containing stones, or posts, or a large rock, or sometimes marked with a cross. There were also markings burned in or cut on trees along the Little White River.

Most of the Indians were unable to read and write at that time so some of them would select a piece of land, pull up the wooden stake, then take it to the Rosebud Agency to show the officials there the numbers and descriptions on it. These descriptions, section, range and township, were duly recorded as that particular Indian's allotment and he would ride back up into Mellette County and put the stake back where he found it.

Some of the rocks and cans used as section corner markers by the first surveyors were pretty hard to find by the time Larison brought his men along. A couple of times they found tents set up and once a log house had been built right on the locations where the iron markers were to be put in.

All the transportation and equipment necessary was usually supplied by Charley Larison. Sometimes he drove Government horses when appraising. He furnished three teams of horses, freight wagons, chuck wagon and all Sam Chilton was the crew boss. He was a surveyor and map maker.

The cook was George Howard, a colored lad who could make lots of tasty pies, cakes, bread and hot biscuits for his hungry bunch, although they were often many days and miles from towns and stores.

Chain men were George Hibbard and George Burning Breast.

The flagman was Wayne Scrivins and it was his job to ride ahead and locate the approximate site of the next marker so the rest of the boys could sight to it. He did this so often that his pony was trained to the job. Scrivins would take off and ride across this vast, rough, fenceless prairie land. Suddenly he'd stop and some of the crew would come on and invariably they'd find the marker within a couple rods; very often he was within six feet or less of the exact-spot. Either the man or the horse, or perhaps both, had an uncanny ability of computing distance.

As mentioned before, some of the markers left by the earlier surveyors were buried cans or boulders and Larison's men would have to take a spade and dig holes to find these identifying objects. Sometimes it took quite a lot of time, then again they might find it quickly. Either way it was all in the day's work.

The iron stakes furnished by the Government made a heavy load to haul around the country side. They had to be freighted by horses to Rosebud from the closest railroad station at Valentine, Nebr. Each had Government information stamped on its top, such as, Government property, severe penalty for removal, etc. The letter N at one side which meant north, so care had to be taken to see that this was placed right when the stake was put into the ground. There was a large cross in the center. The surveyor's job was to set this stake into the proper spot and then they had equipment with which to stamp into the top of the stake the correct number of quarter, section, township, range and allotment number. One of their tricks while setting stakes was to tie a white handkerchief on the buggy wheel and count 240 turns before the next stop. So the wheatfield measurers of today are still using this method of counting the wheel turns.

Other old-timers who rode with Charley have told me that he was an excellent teamster. Although they also said that in driving across this open country he frequently went up and down places where jeeps would still fear to travel today. However, I never heard of him losing a man or a horse, or having a bad accident. But I did hear that some of the men got off and walked when they came to the next steep place.

A fellow by the name of Hank Slaughter, Charley thought it was, had also started surveying the eastern part of the Rosebud country about this time, but he gave it up as a bad job and Chilton was assigned to take over in his place. Larison and his outfit were again hired to furnish the transportation and so they went to survey parts of Todd and Tripp Counties and later also over into the Lower Brule country.

Charley worked at this job during the summertime, but when it got so cold in the wintertime that the fresh, hot coffee froze when they were pouring it out of the coffee pot, then Larison took his teams and wagons back to Rosebud for the winter. During the winter months he frequently hauled food and supplies from Valentine to the Rosebud Agency. Probably he even hauled more iron stakes for surveyors to use somewhere the next summer.

At Rosebud there were two large livery barns. There was a stockade around the Agency at that time, although Charley says the gates were usually open so everyone went in and out as they pleased.

Charley, along with other riders, also trailed cattle out from ranches in the Valentine area to Rosebud, White River and other Issue Stations. There the cattle would be turned out (issued) to the Indians for slaughter on certain dates.

Surveying In Mellette County
back to top
Paul Reutter Points to a government iron stake near their place.
Putting Mellette County on the Map - Surveying 1910 and 1911
Contributed by Donna Adrian

     Most of the land had been surveyed into sections by this time. Charley Larison was a surveyor’s assistant, to find the markers, survey and cross-section each piece of land.
     The survey stakes were shipped in on the rail from Valentine, Nebraska. The iron stakes were Government markers, having two hooks on it and poured with cement, so as not to be destroyed easily. Each had a large cross on them, a letter ”N”, marking north then they mark the numbers of the quarter, section, township and range number. This was all done by teams of horses and freight wagons. To guesstimate, they tied a white handkerchief on the wagon wheel and count 240 turns before the next stop.
The government gave the Indians first choice of land before it was opened to homesteading.
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