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Diaries of a Frontier Surveyor

Unsung Heroes of the Westward Expansion

When we think of those who tamed the “Wild West,” settlers and lawmen spring to mind. They are celebrated in stories, songs, and shows, along with explorers, mountain men, cowboys, and railroad workers. Unrecognized and unsung, though, are the surveyors. Land surveyors had to mark state boundaries, townships, and other subdivisions for settlement, and mark them precisely, to prevent future disputes. ​Surveyors had to have advanced skills including astronomy, and they had to be rugged and determined. ​Beginning in 1869, the diaries go into detail about Richards's life in rural Wisconsin and his brief teaching career, then give a vivid picture of the burgeoning frontier town of Omaha as the transcontinental railroad was being completed. After weeks of discouragement, the young man finally secures an entry-level position with a surveying party laying out townships for settlement in the country west of Omaha. His diaries give us a you-are-there view of the hardships, the close encounters with mosquitoes and Bison bison, and the fears of close encounters with tribal warriors. ​Richards becomes a deputy surveyor and a newspaper reporter in Omaha. When his elder brother, Alonzo, receives the contract to survey the southern boundary of Wyoming, Richards goes along as general assistant and keeps a diary of their experiences. He learns enough about the more advanced surveying skills that Alonzo puts him in charge of surveying the more rugged western boundary of Wyoming, in 1874, and his diaries detail their even more harrowing challenges in the high mountains and crossing untamed rivers. ​Once that survey is completed, William marries Harriet Alice Hunt in Oakland, California, and continues surveying in Northern California until lung trouble forces a move to the Colorado mountains in 1881. He is elected county surveyor and city engineer of Colorado Springs, but wants something better for his wife and two daughters than this “hand-to-mouth existence.” With the help of a Wyoming rancher friend he explores the Bighorn Basin and locates a homestead claim and a tract for the first major irrigation diversion from the Bighorn River, a project that will finance his move. His diaries of 1884 and 1885 mention numerous early settlers of the eastern part of the basin, and footnotes give information about them. ​Through all the dangers and hardships, Richards keeps his sly sense of humor as he reveals a sometimes enchanting, sometimes harrowing tale of adventure, guts, and accomplishment.

5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads and Amazon:

“Informative and engaging...a must-read biography and nonfiction book!”

The diaries give a unique, you-are-there view of the life and times of a young man who leaves rural Wisconsin for Omaha, becomes a surveyor in Nebraska, and surveys the southern and western boundaries of Wyoming. At age 35 with a family to support, he keeps yet another revealing diary as he explores and decides to settle in the Bighorn Basin, itself in the process of settlement. He describes encounters with what must have been all the original settlers of the eastern half of the basin, and footnotes identify and give further information about them.

Richards’s diaries present telling detail about his experiences, Omaha in its frontier days, the country, and the people he meets. When surveying terms and instruments are mentioned, they are explained by Dr. Herbert W. Stoughton and others, both in footnotes and in essays in the appendix. Dr. Stoughton has overseen surveying and mapping projects throughout the world, and frequently consulted throughout the United States on 17th through 20th century historical surveying matters. 

The appendix also features an essay and maps of Richards’s Nebraska surveys by Gene A. Thomsen, a Nebraska deputy state surveyor and historian.

The book is enhanced with biographical essays such as “W.A. Richards: Surveyor to Statesman” • Accounts of surveyors’ returns to the remote boundaries, among them Wyoming surveyor Paul Scherbel’s 1990s remonumentation campaign that included the state boundary “corners” established by William and his brother Alonzo • Richards’s dramatic published hunting stories and his revealing letters to President U.S. Grant and others over the course of his life as a surveyor

diaries cover.jpg

Paperback 6" x 9" 

296 pages 

55 illustrations and photos, 22 in full color   

30 maps and diagrams

Available at some Wyoming public libraries and bookstores, with more being added.

$26.95 list price

$19.95 if you order from this website

Excerpts from the diaries

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