George Pierce: Early Front Range Surveyor

At the height of the Colorado gold rush, some newcomers were better equipped than others for the savage dangers of the unexplored west – both physically and psychologically.

In the early 1860s, the flow of wagon train and stage traffic was often heavier eastward than westward.  Thousands of ill-prepared pioneers had a change of heart when they realized what they were getting into – sometimes long before they even reached the small, dirt-street settlements like Denver and Auraria. Very few farmers had yet to establish crops and if arrivals didn’t bring enough food to last six months or even a year, they might very well starve in the marvelous land known as Pike’s Peak. Food wasn’t the only commodity they had to carry along in their Conestogas. A clear head helped too.

Most of those who came and stayed headed for the mines, but early newspapers show new businesses popping up every day. Non-miners wasted no time surveying, building, planting, and thinking of new ways to make a living off the miners. One of the early “spider people,” as the Arapaho called the whites, made the first surveys of the Broomfield area. His name was George Pierce.

Starting in 1861, Pierce divided the area northwest of Denver into townships, each consisting of 36 square miles. The townships were divided into sections, then quarters of 160 acres each. These were all duly recorded and the project was completed by 1864. George also filed a land claim along Rock Creek and became one of the handful of early farmers in the Broomfield area.

historical survey equipment

An unidentified surveyor (1840-1860) with a transit on a tripod and holding dividers and a map.

While later platting out another region, George and his survey party had an encounter with a wagon train packed with jittery easterners led by a man named Wobber. By their account, Mr. Wobber and his train were plodding along on the trail west when they were suddenly beset by a party of hostile Indians. The hostiles formed a line of battle and encircled the train. Wobber and his party quickly abandoned the train and all its cargo and hightailed it out of there in a state of terror. They scampered until they encountered another wagon train and breathlessly described the attack.

Upon further investigation, they discovered that the “chief” of the hostile Indians was none other than George Pierce carrying a surveying gadget called a transit on his shoulder. Other members of the attacking party included the survey team’s flagman waving a white rag on a stick, a couple of chainmen (people who hold rods or reflectors at designated points), a man with a spade, along with two mules and the “master of transportation” with his frying pans and other camp gear.

When he heard the story, George politely checked his field notes, which clearly indicated that they had been going in a straight line due north — not encircling the wagon train as Wobber claimed. He then invited the frightened Wobber et al to reclaim their abandoned wagon train while he and his team got back to the work at hand.

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