Potential impacts of large-scale fraud on the utility of General Land Office surveys for vegetation reconstructions: lessons from Arkansas

Authors: Don Bragg*, USDA Fororest Service, Southern Research Station
Topics: Historical Geography, Natural Resources, Landscape
Keywords: historical ecology, landscapes, forest
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Bonaparte, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

General Land Office (GLO) surveys offer considerable promise for reconstruction of historical vegetation patterns. However, there are many issues with using this information, including the potential influence of large-scale fraud. Often dismissed as only locally significant, or detectable/correctable through post-hoc analysis, the widespread GLO surveyor fraud documented in Arkansas challenges these notions. As revealed by historic state-level maps, later resurveys determined that approximately 15% of Arkansas were inadequate even for the low quality control standards of that period. Most of these deficient original surveys were attributable to one man, Charles H. Pelham, who parlayed political influence into a decades-long racket that earned him thousands of dollars for work of dubious—if not outright malfeasant—quality. Resurveys in the 1850s fixed only about two-thirds of Pelham’s work, with the rest remaining to this day as the official records. When coupled with the questionable work of other deputy surveyors who also secured large-scale GLO contracts, much of this historical data in Arkansas should not be considered geographically or taxonomically reliable. While particularly odious, widespread GLO fraud is not unique to Arkansas, and may have similarly impacted the records for most states prior to the transition to agency-staffed public land surveys in 1910. To avoid serious problems, it is critical that those using GLO survey notes understand the history of its implementation in any given geographic region prior to its application in vegetation reconstructions.

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