Idaho History

Lines had to be drawn the hard way in early Idaho, and surveyors did the vital work

Lafayette Cartee was appointed as Idaho’s surveyor general in 1866.
Lafayette Cartee was appointed as Idaho’s surveyor general in 1866. Idaho State Historical Society

Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, centuries B.C., mankind has devised ways to measure and establish boundaries between one piece of land and another. This has been necessary to establish ownership of farms, city lots and political subdivisions, including nations.

America, from the beginning, has had some notable surveyors. Did you know that George Washington learned the craft in 1749 when he was only 17, and was later appointed surveyor general of Virginia?

Daniel Boone, despite little formal schooling, learned to survey lands in the Eastern states, and Thomas Jefferson, that true Renaissance man, was appointed county surveyor of Albemarle County Virginia in 1773. It was then 1804 when Jefferson, as president of the United States, sent sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the incredibly ambitious survey of the Louisiana Purchase, acquired from France the year before. It took them up the Missouri River, through the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, and back.

Henry David Thoreau, before attaining fame as the author of “Walden,” worked as a surveyor in the 1850s, and Abraham Lincoln also worked as a surveyor for a time, studied law, and worked as a storekeeper and postmaster before going into politics to become one of our greatest presidents.

Idaho’s most famous surveyor was Lafayette Cartee, appointed surveyor general in 1866. The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman noted his arrival in Boise City on the front page, Nov. 20, 1866: “Mr. L.F. Cartee, Surveyor General of Idaho, arrived last Saturday from Oregon. We understand it is his intention to begin immediately to prepare for commencing the public surveys at an early day. Partial appropriations have already been made for that purpose. He has a clean sheet before him and no man in the West is more capable of doing a good work than Mr. Cartee. Idaho is fortunate in having so competent a man to inaugurate and manage the survey of her public lands.”

What is now Idaho was acquired by the United States in 1846 as part of Oregon Territory through a treaty with Great Britain. Idaho was made a territory in 1863, but her public lands were not available for disposal until they had been surveyed, and Lafayette Cartee’s first step in the process was to establish an “initial point” from which to start. In early April 1867, he chose a conspicuous small butte 5 miles south of the Snake River, and 8 miles south and one mile east of present Kuna.

A few days later surveyor Peter W. Bell, Cartee’s brother-in- law, surveyed south from Initial Point to near the southern border of the territory, and then surveyed west to the Oregon border, and east to about 20 miles east of Fairview.

Cartee held the job of Idaho surveyor general until 1878, by which time he was better known to his Boise City neighbors for what the Idaho Statesman praised in these words: “General Cartee’s grounds and improvements surpass anything this side of California.”

When Lafayette Cartee died in September 1891, all businesses closed and a long procession followed him to the Pioneer Cemetery east of the city.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email