Idaho History

Surveyor General Cartee began mapping Idaho Territory in 1867

Lafayette Cartee was appointed surveyor general of the Idaho Territory on Aug. 13, 1866, and arrived in Boise that November. He had been in the surveying business in Oregon since at least 1850.

Before he and his associates, Allen M. Thompson and brother-in-law Peter Bell, could start their hundreds of miles of surveying, a starting point had to be chosen. Cartee’s instructions from the commissioner of the General Land Office read, “After having obtained the necessary information from reliable sources and from your personal observation you will establish Initial Point of Surveys therein, either on a conspicuous mountain or at a confluence of streams which point will be the intersection of the Principal Meridian with the Base Line governing those surveys. You will commemorate the initial point by a conspicuous and enduring monument, signalizing the spot with appropriate inscription thereon.”

The nearest “conspicuous confluence of streams” was at the mouth of the Boise River — a location unsuitable for Cartee’s purpose because during every spring flood season, the Snake and Boise rivers rearranged the area where they met. Instead he chose a small, solitary volcanic butte about 20 miles southwest of Boise and 5 miles north of the Snake River. The place is not impressive, but it is a conspicuous landmark on the flat sagebrush plain. (As you drive south toward Kuna on Meridian Road, it stands out before you in the distance. Because of its geographical significance, you may find it is worth a visit.)

Statesman Editor James Reynolds and Cartee became friends, even though Cartee was a Democrat and Reynolds a radical Republican. Reynolds became much interested in the survey process and reported on it regularly. On Dec. 3, 1868, he wrote, “Happening into the surveyor general’s office yesterday we noticed a few of the township maps being made by Mr. William P. Thompson, draftsman in that institution. They are perfect specimens of workmanship, their uniformity and legibility rarely being equaled. Mr. Thompson’s skill is the result of many years laborious practice.”

Thomas Donaldson, in his reminiscence “Idaho of Yesterday,” remembered this: “W.P. Thompson, an Englishman by birth and a queer old genius, was draftsman in the office of L.F. Cartee, surveyor general of the territory. Mr. Thompson had resided for many years on the coast. … I recall that he imported a particular brand of Scotch whisky into Idaho and brewed warm potions that sent our local connoisseurs into dreamland. In the fall of 1869, Thompson blossomed out as a financier, and his ingenuity deserves mention. We had no coin in the territory smaller than two bits, a quarter dollar. Thompson sent one hundred dollars to a friend in San Francisco — the ‘Bay’ as we called it — and requested 1,000 ten-cent pieces. When they arrived, Mr. Thompson distributed them at the rate of two for a quarter — that is bit pieces. He consequently made $20 without the slightest difficulty. Loud and lasting were the curses of merchants against the unknown who had done the trick!”

Produce from Lafayette Cartee’s vegetable garden was shared with his friends. George Ainsley, editor of the Idaho World, wrote of him in August 1870, after receiving by stagecoach a large box of vegetables: “The General is as successful as a horticulturist as he is in the use of (surveying equipment); at least we should judge so from the size and quality of the esculent ‘yarbs’ raised in his garden. Thanks General for such favors.”

Two weeks later Ainsley received from Cartee a box of “the largest and finest tomatoes we have ever seen in this territory.”

In the heat of summer in 1871, Lafayette Cartee and his family joined those of banker C.W. Moore and Thomas Donaldson “for a short stay in the mountains and to luxuriate on game and trout.”

In November 1871, it was back to work for the surveyor general. The Statesman noted, “Parties just in from Idaho City report that the last seen of Gen. Cartee and A. Thompson they had joined the gum-boot brigade and were striking out down the bed of More’s Creek, with tremendous strides, accompanied by a couple of assistants and a chain.”

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