|WILLIAM AUSTIN BURT
William Austin Burt (below) was one of the most active and leading
of the surveyors in Michigan. He was a man who personified the rugged early
American pioneer. He led many a survey team through the Michigan wilderness,
and today Burt Lake stands in his remembrance.
Burt's inventions included America’s first writing
machine ("typographer"), but it was his solar compass that earned him
fame as one of the most accurate of the early pioneer surveyors. At age
52, Burt had been working as a deputy surveyor for 11 years when he and
his party first encountered iron ore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Although
quiet and unassuming, he was an articulate conversationalist who often
talked with his men long after the campfires had died out.
In the fall of 1834, Burt was required to subdivide
13 townships in what became Wisconsin Territory in 1836. He soon faced
a dilemma that had plagued surveyors since the federal surveys began---the
preexisting township lines did not meet properly with his "new" lines.
Burt checked the work and confirmed that his crew had not caused the
problem. Instead, mineral attraction in the ground had deflected the
needle of their magnetic compass just enough to produce the errors. Other
surveyors simply coped with the problem. For Burt, coping was not good
To solve the problem Burt applied his knowledge of
astronomy to the art of surveying. While the township lines were to run
by the true meridian, the magnetic compass pointed to magnetic north,
which could be about 1200 km away from the North Pole. By knowing the
location of the sun in relation to his position on the earth, the surveyor
could adjust the solar compass for the sun’s declination (taken from
values found in a table and his latitude) set from noon observations
of the sun. After setting the latitude and declination for that day,
the surveyor would move the indicator on the hour circle to the "local
apparent time" and rotate the instrument until the lens bar pointed at
the sun. When rays of sunlight passed through the lens and focused between
crosshatched lines on a target area, the sighting vanes of the compass
would be aligned on the true meridian.
In 1835 Burt built a prototype of his solar compass
(above) and sent it to William J. Young, a prominent Philadelphia instrument
maker, who made a more precise model, which was sent to the US Patent
Office. On 26 February 1836 Burt’s solar compass was issued patent number
As they reached a hill on the first mile, section
one, compassman Harvey Mellen noticed the magnetic needle of his solar
compass spinning crazily. Burt was both astonished and excited. As he
moved the solar compass, he noticed the needle pointed opposite to where
it should. Burt observed that "where the variation was so large the needle
appeared like one nearly destitute of magnetism and difficult to determine
within one or two degrees where it should settle."
Burt called out, "Boys, look around and see what
you can find." They all returned with specimens of magnetic iron ore gathered from outcrops. They had discovered
a portion of the Marquette Range, the first of the Lake Superior iron
ranges to be located. Burt and his survey party, however, still had a
job to do. Undeterred by the unreliable magnetic needle, they just continued
surveying with the solar compass.
From the May/Jun 1980 issue of the Transactions
of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters:
Heavy black clouds filled the sky to the north, and chill winds
carried a promise of snow. It was only a little past mid-September 1844,
but to William A. Burt's small party of government land surveyors it
seemed that winter had arrived in the central UP . Burt urged them to
hurry with the work of running out the township lines in this rough tract
of land. It was Lake Superior country where rugged terrain and uncertain
weather seemed to conspire against rapid surveys.
As though weather and terrain were not enough to
contend with, Burt's men were almost out of supplies and subsisting on
three porcupines they had been able to take the previous day. But Burt
was thorough. His lines and field notes must be accurate; there would
be no shoddy work done under his name. He and his crew would not go back
to base camp for supplies until the township and range lines were properly
Bad weather, difficult terrain, short rations--surely
enough for the party to cope with. But there was more. The compass needle
was fluctuating continually! An obvious solution was to use the highly
accurate solar compass that Burt had perfected, which the United States
government now urged its surveyors to employ. But clouds threatened to
obscure the sun.
A cry from the compass man brought Burt to the front.
Here was a "variation that will beat them all." Burt looked at the violently
moving needle and said, "Boys, look around and see what you can find."
In a short time members of the party found numerous specimens of ore
that Burt immediately recognized as iron. After carefully noting several
chunks of the ore, Burt recorded the find in his field notes, adding
that spathic and hematite ores were abundant along this eastern boundary
of T 47 N-R 27 W (township 47 north-range 27 west). In this matter-of-fact
fashion he noted an event that changed the history of Michigan and its
Upper Peninsula and proved to be of monumental importance to the United
William A. Burt and his party had officially discovered iron ore in Michigan. This discovery of what
was to become the Marquette Range was followed by finds on the Menominee
and Gogebic ranges. When developed, these ranges made Michigan the leading
iron ore producer in the nation.
Burt was a United States government deputy surveyor
whose work took him into wilderness areas largely unknown even to the
fur trappers. For more than 20 years he was one of a small group of men
who ran the lines that divided the two peninsulas of Michigan into a
checkerboard of townships and sections as prescribed
by the Ordinance of 1785. Today almost all land titles and conveyances begin
with the surveyors' designations as to range and township.
When Burt came to Michigan Territory in 1824 little
was known of the lands in lower Michigan above the third tier of counties.
Knowledge of the Upper Peninsula had not advanced greatly from the time
of the French Jesuit fathers, and Burt saw surveying as a necessary prerequisite
to settlement and a profession offering a good livelihood and the esteem
of fellow settlers. Despite Michigan governor Cass’s strenuous efforts
to have more lands surveyed and put on sale, the federal government believed
its efforts would be better justified in Indiana and Illinois where settlers
continued to occupy lands the surveys had not yet reached.
By 1833 the federal government was ready to move forward with its
Michigan surveys. Burt’s skills and reputation
for dependability were in demand. Burt was offered a contract to survey
lands in Sanilac County. Several surveyors had refused contracts there
because the lands seemed unworthy of agricultural settlement and presented
extreme problems of swampy terrain and mosquito infestations. There were
already reports that some of the deputies had turned in fraudulent field
notes, and Burt was admonished that better work was expected from him
than had heretofore been practiced.
Today it is easy for us to smile at the reports of
rugged terrain and mosquitoes that were ready to devour, and we underestimate
the rigors and hardships that faced the deputy surveyors who moved into
these lands with chain, ax and compass. But there was a great deal of
truth in the statement made by Surveyor General Edward Tiffin when he
"None but Men as hard as a Savage who is always at home in Woods
and Swamps [and who] can live upon what they afford (if occasions so
require), who can travel for Days up to the knees in mud & mire,
can drink any fluid he finds while he is drenched with water also- and
has a knowledge of the lands [and] who are equally patient and persevering
under similar hardships can make anything by surveying the kind of Country
we have to Survey."
While he was running lines, Burt first encountered what was to be
a recurrent problem for all the government surveyors of that era: the
frequent disturbance of the magnetic compasses by mineral attraction.
These aberrations of the needle proved such a problem to Burt that he
devised his famous solar compass as a means to obtain accurate township line.
The solar compass proved to be highly successful and was first recommended,
then adopted, by the federal government for its surveys. Limited only
by the fact that the surveyor had to be able to sight on the sun, the
solar compass enabled deputy surveyors to run more accurate lines and
saved its users valuable time.
In June 1840 Burt carried out an important assignment
for Michigan and the federal government when he extended the principal
meridian (84 degrees, 22 minutes, 24 second west longitude) across the
Straits of Mackinac and on up to Lake Superior.
Burt received his introduction to the rugged Upper
Peninsula terrain while running this meridian. The heavy brush took its
toll on clothing, and as Burt neared the Superior shore, he wrote his
wife that his "Coat and Pantiloons are most gone", and requested that
she make him a new outfit from the "strongest kind of bedticking".
Once the principal meridian was established, the
immense task of running the town and section lines of the Upper Peninsula
could begin. Mile by mile, Burt, John Mullet and other United States
deputy surveyors ran their lines and filled in the "unknown" portions
of the map of Michigan's north country. These surveys were made over
extremely difficult terrain, which included the great Tahquamenon swamp,
but Burt and his companions continued until in 1842 they reached the
Chocolay River--the boundary of the existing Indian treaties.
By this time, the state had Dr. Douglass Houghton’s
famous report on the geology of the Upper Peninsula, which described
extensive copper deposits. The Indians were called in for a treaty that
would open the lands to the expected rush of copper miners. Under the
Treaty of LaPointe, the Chippewa ceded these valuable lands, and the
task of surveying proceeded.
In due time their work brought them to the area where
Burt made the official discovery of iron ore on the Marquette Range.
Here, Burt noted that roads would have to be built out to Lake Superior
so that the ore could be exploited. He also called attention to the need
for a canal around the rapids of the St. Marys
so that the iron could reach the forges and smelters of the industrial regions.
Meanwhile the Copper Country
needed orderly surveys, especially since hundreds of would-be miners
and fortune hunters were staking out claims all over the Keweenaw and
Ontonagon areas. In running the town and section line in this copper
region no man equaled William A. Burt’s work, either in miles covered
or in accuracy. This despite the fact that even the veteran Burt found the
work the most difficult he had ever attempted. The country was virgin
wilderness; there were constant compass needle variations; and worse,
"the thick forest prevents the rays of the sun falling on the Solar Compass
in many places and in the early or latter part of the day high hills
and knobs sometimes intervene between the instrument and the sun."
That's the story of William Austin Burt....surveyor
Some of the text on this page was adapted from Dunbar
and May's Michigan A History of the Wolverine State, as
well from as the November/December 1994 collectors edition of Michigan History
Magazine: Forging America's Future, 150 Years of Michigan Iron. Thanks
are extended to John S. Burt, who contributed to this web page via his article
in the 1994 Michigan History magazine, entitled, "Boys, look around and
see what you can find."
This material has been compiled for educational use
only, and may not be reproduced without permission. One copy may be
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