Southeast Missouri State University Press

A Surveyor’s Challenges: P.K. Robbins in Missouri

Lynn Morrow

On Saturday, November 18, 2006, the Missouri Association of County Surveyors met in St. Genevieve to memorialize an icon in the history of surveying in the nation’s Trans‑Mississippi West—Prospect K. Robbins. Like many folks who died on an American frontier, Robbins does not have a marker at his gravesite. Thanks to the professional surveyors, he now has a native stone bench installed beside a walking trail that will have a plaque devoted to the memory and work of this talented pathfinder. Robbins lived his adult years in Louisiana Territory, Missouri Territory, and the State of Missouri. Through the changes in government authority, he and his fellow citizens worked to create legal boundaries and marketable resources on new lands.1

Americans assumed federal authority in the Louisiana Purchase in March 1804. However, it would be many years before Americans could easily claim, purchase, and record property in the millions of Purchase acres. Major Amos Stoddard, charged with taking control of Upper Louisiana as civil and military commander, reported that every available surveyor in the country was employed. Americans, moving west, brought a rationalized way of commodifying the land for sale and ownership—surveys in a grid pattern that could be mapped, visualized, and presented in court as legitimate boundaries. The starting point for the survey of the Louisiana Territory required an “initial point,” and subsequent north/south and west/east lines (meridians and baselines), so that survey contractors could proceed from them. General William Rector (1773–1826) managed a federal land office in St. Louis, where he chose contractors and received the completed plats and survey notes. The general chose a former officer from their shared experiences in the War of 1812, Prospect K. Robbins, a young man well known for his education, military service, and surveying skill in St. Charles and Lincoln counties, as the man to establish the Fifth Principal Meridian, a foundational survey in the Midwest. This event, of course, lies in the context of a national story, and is part of P.K. Robbins’s legacy, a glimpse of a man’s life observed in public sources, newly available in Missouri Circuit Court records.2

The surveying experience was a frontier enterprise that bound together young, educated men with political or military connections and ties to the federal government. Surveyors, central figures on American frontiers, did not become household names, although national figures from George Washington and Daniel Boone to Abraham Lincoln surveyed dozens of properties. American surveys of private claims and federal land began in 1785, and lasted until 1946; Missouri’s public-land surveys commenced in 1815, with the Fifth Meridian, and continued until 1855, when surveyors had completed the grid of one-mile sections available for claim and filing in county recorder of deeds offices. The work provided a legal framework for owning land, and it merged the state into the national experience with the creation of state and local government archives that chart the ownership and use of real estate. Beginning in Missouri in 1815, federal contracts sent scarce money into frontier towns and were significant plums for those who were party to the survey economy. Skilled surveyors were also administrators who hired crews to negotiate natural obstacles and survive unpredictable weather. Surveyors were also experienced men in backwoods lifeways, living months in the open woods, out on the prairies, and in traversing swamps and wetlands.3

The science and history of surveying, so prominent in the Western movement, required a bureaucracy, but it had to be invented as Native American lands became federal property. By 1796, the federal government had established land offices in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the work in Ohio, with later ones emerging farther west in Vincennes, Kaskaskia, and St. Louis. The fast‑paced federal acquisition of Indian lands in the Northwest Territory, and the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, created hundreds of new jobs for survey teams. In the early nineteenth century, William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, administered the federal contracts. William Rector, a talented frontiersman and remembered as a first settler in Perry County, Indiana, was among his first influential surveyors. In summer 1805, Rector surveyed a buffalo trail from near the Ohio River northwest to the Vincennes Tract, laying the basis for subsequent Indiana work. William Rector made an early reputation among his peers by surveying the Third Principal Meridian later that year, a benchmark in the Old Northwest. He continued surveying and brought his five brothers into the business. They continued work in Indiana, and in Illinois by 1807, while the survey business continued as a federal activity of territorial government.4

In 1812, the federal government, in order to centralize the administration of the nation’s land records, created the General Land Office in Washington DC. Edward Tiffin, the first governor of Ohio and later U.S. Senator, became the first commissioner; he hired Josiah Meigs, a man educated in medicine, the ministry, and politics, to be the surveyor general. William Rector had remained a pillar in the western work within this new bureaucracy, and Meigs called him “the most skillful and able practical surveyor in the United States.” But the War of 1812 brought new challenges. In 1813, Rector became brigadier general in the Illinois militia, and brother Elias Rector performed a adjutant general for Illinois Territory.5

A few months later, in 1814, the government posted William Rector in St. Louis as the principal deputy surveyor for Missouri Territory; all the while, William kept his brothers party to the federal jobs. Private land claims, given under French and Spanish colonial rule and enclosing thousands of acres, represented a very small total acreage in the old Louisiana Territory. By the time that Edward Tiffin had changed jobs and became Surveyor General in 1814, no one made any louder call for surveys than military veterans, who wanted “government lands,” as a reward for their military service. Tiffin, a modernizer in clerical procedures, codified written contractual instructions for the surveys, and William Rector worked in the first projects to use Tiffin’s guidelines.

Deputy Surveyor General Rector administered the first Trans‑Mississippi contracts for the Fifth Principal Meridian to be surveyed in Arkansas and Missouri. He chose war veterans Capt. Joseph C. Brown (a surveyor who reputedly had worked east of the Mississippi River) for the east/west baseline, and Lt. Prospect K. Robbins, for the north/south meridian. Years earlier, in Indiana, Rector had proposed a meridian survey in the Missouri country “to tie in the many private land claims surveyed at St. Louis, New Madrid, and elsewhere in the region”; and the end of the war gave him the opportunity. Veterans Rector, Brown, Robbins, and many other surveyors who had served in the recent war as officers and militiamen received patronage from their former commanders.6 One writer, commenting on Rector’s success, wrote, “General Rector has so many connections that are Surveyors that it is not possible for a stranger to get any Contract of any importance.” Rector’s budget soon equaled that of all other survey work in the nation, as he had the largest district in the United States, and federal money poured into St. Louis.7

Robbins and Brown began their work in the Arkansas delta, where on November 10, 1815, they met to establish an initial point—the intersection of baseline and meridian—memorialized at the Louisiana Purchase State Park, Monroe County, Arkansas, and subsequently christened a National Historic Landmark. Brown worked in Arkansas, while Robbins headed north for the Missouri River. The initial point became the future reference for surveys in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and most of the Dakotas. Robbins hired trusted acquaintances from St. Charles County to join him—included were brothers John and Alexander Baldridge and Hiram Scott. The Baldridge brothers, and perhaps Scott, had earlier traveled hundreds of miles on the Missouri River and overland with Morgan and Nathan Boone in the salt trade. The Baldridges and Scott, like Prospect Robbins, had served together in St. Charles district militias during the late war. These outdoorsmen knew how to secure wild game, transport and protect provisions, create shelter in the woods, and carry tools, tents, and blankets critical to their mission.8

The crew floated in a flat‑bottom boat down the Mississippi River and docked at the mouth of the Arkansas River to travel inland. Planning the survey was crucial. Lying ahead for Robbins was a country that did not have any settlement along the proposed north/south meridian line in Arkansas and Missouri. The survival of the team and success of the mission lay in the skill of their hunting. Robbins, a schoolteacher and local surveyor in St. Charles District, already knew something about sensitive equipment, paper, ink, pens, mapping, and clerical responsibilities.9 Walking north or two months and one day, Robbins’s crew arrived at the Missouri River on December 28, 1815, after surveying 317 miles, a significant feat for tramping through swamps and rugged terrain, keeping equipment serviceable, and men well enough to work, while depending on animals and good behavior among the workers. The survey had been easier than expected, however, since drought had lowered the water levels in the swamps. The Fifth Principal Meridian became an immediate benchmark for subsequent surveys in Missouri, the largest state in the union, and settlers expected land offices to open soon.10

Josiah Meigs, who had become the Government Land Office commissioner, praised William Rector’s administrative work, and in April 1816, named him as surveyor general for the new district of Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas—a vast land of millions of acres in the middle Mississippi River valley. Rector presided over dozens of survey contracts that included hundreds of men extending from Indiana and Illinois into the prairies, uplands, and swamps of the Trans‑Mississippi. Contract surveyors acquired a close knowledge of the land and many went into the real-estate business themselves or speculated with their federal wages on the cash‑poor frontier. Lucrative contracts varied from $2 to $3 per mile surveyed, including expenses, and job applications poured into the land office. Rector’s reputation and wide influence made him an obvious choice among territorial leaders as a member of the Missouri Constitutional Convention in 1820.

Prospect Robbins (1788–1847), selected by General Rector for federal patronage, was also an entrepreneur in territorial Missouri. Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he migrated to Monroe, Lincoln County, in 1810. For almost twenty years, Prospect centered his life in St. Charles and Lincoln Counties, alternately living in both. His brother, Joshua N. Robbins (1792–?), a merchant in the upper Hudson River valley near Troy, New York, came to Lincoln County after the War of 1812.11

As an educated man, Robbins assumed roles in local government, the professions, and commerce. Robbins and James Callaway had a brief partnership in a gunpowder factory, located eighteen miles north of St. Charles in 1811. He tutored children before the war, work that he resumed afterwards, too. Robbins had enough liquid resources in 1812 that he loaned, and borrowed, money. More important for his primary profession, Silas Bent, deputy surveyor for Missouri Territory, recommended Robbins in August 1812 as one of seven men to survey the new lands; he received his surveyor’s commission for St. Charles County in October 1814. As a literate man, he also served as auditor for the estate of Territorial Judge Timothy Kibby in 1814.12

During the War of 1812, Robbins’s education probably accounted for several leadership posts that he held as a young officer. He served in fall 1812, then enlisted again at St. Charles on April 29, 1813, and was finally discharged May 18, 1815, at Portage des Sioux. As lieutenant, he was a junior officer under Capt. Nathan Boone and Capt. James Callaway, and became Adjutant, First Regiment, Western Armies of Mounted Militia of Missouri and Illinois, a post and duty familiar to Gen. William Rector. In September 1812, while serving in Maj. Morgan Boone’s militia, Robbins presided over a court martial. The charge against the soldier was “raising a riot while on guard,” that is, assault against James Clay, and members of the court martial included Sgt. John Baldridge, who soon joined Robbins on the Fifth Meridian survey. Baldridge and his peers convicted the accused Sgt. Drury Prichard and reduced his rank. In spring 1815, the St. Charles Circuit Court deputized Robbins to serve summons in at least one case. Gen. William Clark communicated Robbins’s appointment as surveyor in St. Charles County, but Robbins ironically declined it, as he did not want to travel from his home in Monroe throughout St. Charles County; he soon changed his mind about travel.13

In 1816, six months after completing his Fifth Meridian contract, Robbins married Elizabeth Evans (1784–c.1820s) in St. Charles, newly arrived with her father and siblings from the New River settlements in western Virginia. For the next decade, Robbins surveyed, taught school in St. Charles and Lincoln counties, and speculated in a number of real-estate and commercial ventures. Their son, Jesse B. Robbins (1818–1879), became a surveyor, lawyer, county recorder, and state representative in St. Genevieve County.14

Robbins had significant income from 1815 to 1818, due to contracts from Rector, as the federal government made preparations to open land sales to the public. Each party must have been satisfied with the other, suggested by the rapid succession of contracts. The Fifth Meridian fieldwork took two months, and Robbins had another three months to turn in his plats and notes to avoid a default payment back to the federal office in March 1816, a benchmark he met easily. Rector reserved the military bounty lands between the St. Francis and Arkansas Rivers for Robbins, but Robbins did not want to return to Arkansas, as he judged the work to offer too little in profits.15

So, in April 1816, Robbins committed, “agreeably to the laws of the United States,” to another five‑month contract to run “the extension boundary lines” of townships in what today is part of Audrain, Boone, and Callaway counties. Rector reported to his superior that Robbins and two other deputy surveyors would “lay off and survey eighty townships . . . a part of the largest, rich[est] and desirable tract of Country that is in the Missouri Territory or perhaps in the Western Country.” This expanse of land, vaguely included in St. Charles County, had already attracted settlers traveling along a route that became the future Booneslick Road.16

Following his spring and summer work, in September 1816, Robbins agreed to “subdivide into sections, and establish corners for quarter sections” in six months for land in southern Callaway County. In the standard contract, as previously stated, when trees were not available for marking corners, Robbins’s party built “mounds” that were a minimum of two feet, six inches high, and two feet, six inches in diameter on Missouri’s prairies. Robbins and his crew may have completed this survey early, for in January 1817, he and partner Joseph Evans agreed to a more complex survey to be completed in one year. The contract directed work to begin at the Missouri River, where Robbins had ended the northern extension of the Fifth Meridian, to extend it northward to the Mississippi River (establishing what became the west boundary of St. Charles County), passing through modern Lincoln and Pike counties. Then, the survey team left Pharrs Island surveying across land and water, and came down the Mississippi River, “including all islands belonging to the Missouri Territory,” to the mouth of the Missouri River, then up the Missouri to their beginning point. Then, they subdivided and surveyed into sections and corners for quarter sections most of St. Charles County in an area bounded by the two major rivers, the Fifth Meridian on the west, and a township forth‑seven north boundary that runs east approximately from near Enon to Peruque to Dardenne Island, and toward West Alton. In St. Charles County, they could include the “out lots common, and field lots,” but not the commons and village lots in St. Charles and Portage des Sioux. At the contract fee of $3 per mile, Robbins grossed an income that he could use in land speculation and commerce.17

Although Robbins did well in many pursuits, litigation for debt followed him for years. Whereas the “corps of surveyors” financed by Gen. William Rector’s federal patronage had put money into the hands of hundreds of territorial pioneers, Rector’s same network offered intelligence to attorneys looking to settle financial claims. For example, St. Louisan William Russell, deputy surveyor in Arkansas in 1816, purchased financial notes of other surveyors, including that of P.K. Robbins. Robbins’s note was only $14.38, but Russell had others that rose into the hundreds of dollars. Russell wrote to attorney Charles Lucas in St. Louis on March 7, 1816, saying, “These notes I have bought and paid for. But as I wish them collected without delay and I am friendly with these men on whom they are, I did not have them assigned, as they expect indulgence from me, which they cannot from you, as an attorney collecting money from a client at a distance. I do not wish them to know the notes are mine. You need not sue until I come [to St. Louis] but urge the payment . . . the Mr. Rectors and Mr. Robbins you know . . . . Gen. Rector can tell you who any of them are and where they are.” William Russell was speculating in Arkansas lands and wanted the cash flow for his own obligations.18

The ever‑important social connections could also play to Robbins’s advantage. In June 1818, when correspondent Joseph Wiggin wanted to locate land in secret, he asked Israel Reed to “ascertain if Prospect Robbins the surveyor” would meet him in St. Charles to do business.19 They met, and ultimately Robbins borrowed $323.22 from Wiggin the following May. Robbins and a partner had already indebted themselves a year earlier to another creditor for $708.38 in a transaction involving lead. By June 15, 1819, Robbins had borrowed almost $3,500 from attorney Rufus Easton, and owed at least $4,615.32, a very substantial debt, all of which was the subject of four lawsuits against Robbins in Lincoln County Circuit Court. Robbins’s contracts for surveying resulted in superior cash remuneration in territorial Missouri; however, conducting successful commercial transactions on time and credit was difficult. Did Robbins suffer extremely bad financial luck? Did his partners leave him “holding the bag”? Whatever the reasons, given the amount of Robbins’s debts in eighteen months, one may wonder about the wisdom of Robbins’s money management.20

P.K. Robbins’s survey work and his legal difficulties co‑existed side‑by‑side into the 1820s. He did, however, keep his reputation intact, as he held several local government offices. He joined local leaders as a signatory to a petition to incorporate the Town of St. Charles in 1817, and in 1819–1820, he served as a Justice of the Peace in Monroe Township in the new Lincoln County. Robbins purchased two city blocks in the new county seat of Monroe, the first elections in Monroe Township were held in his house, he was on the first grand jury, and he was an overseer for the roads in Monroe Township, including a new one from Monroe to Wood’s Fort (Troy). Crossing the Cuivre River into St. Charles County, he taught a subscription school on Howells’s Prairie, and instructed apprentices in surveying; his students were children of affluent settlers. And he acquired a new title in 1821, when he received promotion as brigadier general of the state militia.21

While Robbins served local government, his creditors, reeling from the serious consequences of the 1819 national depression, began to take Robbins to task in circuit court. Bringing forceful legal challenges to Robbins were attorney partners Thomas H. Benton and Robert Farris of St. Louis, William Smith, a local lawyer, and eventually Rufus Easton, prominent regional attorney, businessman, and Missouri’s attorney general (1821–1826), and Henry Geyer, Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives during the litigation, and considered by many as Missouri’s most able lawyer. One Robbins case ultimately involved more directly his brother Joshua N. Robbins and George Collier. They employed legal maneuvering of their own that kept P.K. Robbins out of debtors’ prison and postponed for years a legal decision for debt responsibility. The defense included Robert Wells, future Attorney General (1826–1836); Joshua Barton, Secretary of State (1820–1821), until he was killed in a duel in 1823, and Edward Bates, recent Attorney General (1820–1821).22

Rufus Easton sued Prospect Robbins in Lincoln County Circuit Court in August 1820, and received judgment for an $1,800 note. Easton became Missouri Attorney General, assigned his note to Dr. John T. Nash, and continued to seek satisfaction for Nash in Missouri’s Circuit and Supreme Court for several years. Easton’s efforts and P.K. Robbins’s defense, mounted by his signatories to his recognizance bond, George Collier and Joshua Robbins, became embroiled in technicalities and legal interpretation that had long-term consequences.

In January 1821, the St. Charles County sheriff took Robbins into custody for debt. Robbins aided by friend and St. Charles merchant John Collier, posted a $2,000 security bond for his temporary freedom until a hearing in the February term of court; John T. Nash pursued Robbins to collect his $1,800. At the same February term, attorney Robert Farris represented the estate of Joseph Wiggin to sue Robbins for collection of the earlier $323.22 note, and John Collier signed a security bond for Robbins on this suit, too. When Robbins failed to make payment on these claims by summer 1821, plaintiff attorneys Benton and Farris petitioned the court to command Sheriff Hiram Baber to take Robbins to jail on July 31, 1821. This time, St. Charles merchant George Collier (John’s brother) came to his aid, as did Troy co‑founder, merchant, and brother, Joshua N. Robbins, and they posted a “prison bond” in the face of Robbins’s mounting legal difficulties.23

Shortly thereafter, on August 10, 1821—the official date for Missouri statehood under its first constitution— Robbins appeared before Judge Rufus Pettibone to take advantage “of the act concerning insolvent debtors.” The act allowed the court to reserve such items as bedding for his family, selected household furniture or weapons, and “implements of his trade or occupation.” Robbins presented Sheriff Baber’s certificate of his assets that included his “surveyor’s compass and chain with plotting instruments, a horse and wagon, old joiners tools, six or eight books, one gang of hogs, supposed to be 60 or 70 running on Cuivre near Monroe,” all included with a very modest list of household items. Robbins also submitted two‑dozen “notes and accounts” due him worth about $303. Under the Insolvency Act, some of Robbins’s assets were legally exempt from creditors. However, Robbins’s major creditors included Rufus Easton ($5,000), Dr. John T. Nash ($1,800), Joseph Wiggin ($400), and others presenting claims that totaled over $9,000. Another list included questions of whether or not seven or eight others were actually creditors or debtors to Robbins; William Rector and parties in New York were on it, suggesting loose bookkeeping related to land speculation. Robbins’s pledge of insolvency “discharged and exempted him from arrest and imprisonment” until the fall, when the St. Charles County Circuit Court would hear subsequent petitions.24

Depositions indicated that George Collier began to feel uneasy about his security bond for Prospect Robbins. Accordingly, Robbins offered himself for jail in April 1821, to relieve Collier and Joshua Robbins from the bond, but Easton interfered with P.K. Robbins’s surrender. Easton convinced the surveyor not to surrender, so the case could remain open, while masking his desire to litigate against Collier and Robbins for his money. After the failed surrender of Robbins to the Lincoln County Sheriff, the case went to St. Charles Circuit Court in March 1822, where the defense successfully argued that Easton had improperly and fraudulently advised Robbins. The St. Charles case, brought when Collier was in Philadelphia, included a witness who testified that Easton told him that George Collier was “a young man and rich [and] that he could pay the debt without feeling it, that he the plaintiff was poor, had a large family, and that it would be hard for him to lose it.” The St. Charles jury concluded that Easton’s fraud trumped any satisfaction due, and did not award Easton any compensation. Judicial sparring continued.25

The court records in St. Charles did not exactly match those sent from Lincoln County. There were variances in the specific amount of the debt and damages being argued. Judge Rufus Pettibone in St. Charles, at the conclusion of the trial, had instructed the jury to see that certain notes of his were entered “in proper form” into the circuit clerk’s records. Later, in an appeal to the Supreme Court, a deposition related that Edward Bates “took it upon himself to superintend the [St. Charles] entry and made the entry himself in the minutes of the clerk,” much to the dissatisfaction of plaintiff Rufus Easton. The witness was none other than former St. Charles Circuit Judge Rufus Pettibone, who, at the time of his testimony about the lower court’s records, had been elevated as a judge on the Supreme Court bench. (Pettibone recused himself from commenting on other issues in the litigation.)

Easton appealed to the Supreme Court in April 1824, and received partial satisfaction, but the superior court returned the case to St. Charles, and, after another hearing in October 1824, Easton had the case back before the Supreme Court, where it ruled in a dispute as to which local court had jurisdiction—Lincoln or St. Charles. Easton received a decision for the latter, and the superior court remanded the case back to St. Charles Circuit Court for his petition to be heard in July, postponed to October 1825. Finally, Easton and Henry Geyer appealed the case to the Supreme Court for the third time in April 1826. The superior court ruled in Easton’s favor, directing that George Collier and Joshua Robbins bear responsibility. The decision included a heavy damages penalty for lawyers and court fees that ballooned the $1,800 debt to $2,605.61 ¼, satisfied in full in September 1826.26

In fall 1822, Robbins had offered an option to Easton, perhaps in an attempt to satisfy a portion of his embarrassing indebtedness. George Atchison had detained Robbins’s slave, 23-year‑old Susan, nicknamed “Sookey,” who Robbins had probably hired out as a domestic to Atchison. For whatever reason, Atchison kept Susan from returning to Robbins’s house. Rufus Easton successfully represented Robbins in a replevin suit, and the St. Charles Circuit Court sent Sheriff Baber’s deputy after Susan, who delivered her to Robbins on November 4, 1822. The court valued Susan at $600. There is no evidence to explain what happened to Susan. Did Robbins keep her? Did he transfer her ownership to Easton or allow her sale to soften Easton’s irritation of Robbins’s indebtedness to him? The court records do not say.27

However bleak Prospect Robbins’s balance sheet looked, the surveyor kept a visible role in St. Charles local government. In 1821, Gov. Alexander McNair appointed Robbins as St. Charles County surveyor, and this time he accepted the post. In 1822, St. Charles city government appointed him to draft an ordinance for the location and maintenance of a free public school, which commenced the following year. In 1823, the St. Charles Circuit Court appointed Robbins as one of three commissioners to partition land in Prairie Haut Field. By the mid­1820s, Robbins was serving on the city’s Board of Trustees.28

Robbins continued to appear as plaintiff and defendant in additional litigation. In July 1823, he received judgment for a four‑year‑old survey job he performed for Joseph Voizard. It was for “six miles, 25 chains, and 33 links” at $3 per mile, plus interest. Surely, this small contract was representative of dozens that Robbins did in St. Charles and Lincoln counties. Even though Robbins kept working, bad news from the national depression haunted him, as it did thousands in Missouri, while land prices plummeted and bankruptcies mounted. Governor Alexander McNair, himself ruined by the depression, called a special session of the legislature in July 1821, and established five loan offices, one in St. Charles, to lend up to $1,000 to oppressed Missourians. Moreover, the legislature passed a bill that permitted a “two‑and‑a‑half‑year moratorium on foreclosures.” Robbins was one who sought financial refuge at the loan office in November 1821, but in July 1825, attorney general Rufus Easton, representing the State, filed suit for the debt. The State received judgment and Robbins paid a $107 obligation to the St. Charles sheriff in March 1826. That same month, March 1826, the St. Charles Circuit Court rendered a judgment of $193.88 against P.K. and Joshua Robbins to settle their account with an estate. According to currently known records, this is the last judicial action involving the famous surveyor in St. Charles County.29

Before Robbins left the county, he was involved in one more important regional benchmark. Travelers going overland to the West took various wagon roads. In 1827, the county court appointed Lt. Col. Nathan Boone to survey a Boone’s Lick Road, and, responding to a subsequent citizen’s petition, added Gen. P.K. Robbins to the task in February 1828. The veteran militia brothers chose the route that became the most famous interior road in Missouri.30

Sources indicate that after eighteen years of frontier life in St. Charles and Lincoln counties, and at forty years of age, presumably as a widower with a young son, P.K. and Jesse moved to Ste. Genevieve. Perhaps Robbins tired of his court appearances, perhaps he was physically debilitated from his years of work in the outdoors, or perhaps stress from an embarrassment of financial ventures, including brother Joshua’s legal liability for him, convinced Robbins to seek life elsewhere. Genealogical research also suggests that a social indiscretion may have encouraged him to leave St. Charles County. It is not clear when his wife, Elizabeth Robbins, died, presumably in the mid–1820s, but records have emerged that offer circumstantial evidence that P.K. Robbins fathered an illegitimate child, Joseph Edward, by Marie Therese Panton in February 1825. Panton married Thomas Langley, who died in early 1850, while the family lived in St. Louis, and only then did Marie apparently tell son Joseph who was his natural father. In January 1850, when he married, Joseph took his father’s name, becoming Joseph Edward Robbins (1825–post 1880), and named his first son, in December 1850, Prospere, after Prospect K. Robbins; he named his third son, in 1855, after his half-brother, Jesse.31

Whatever the case, apparently P.K. Robbins left St. Charles in 1828, and spent the last generation of his life near Jesse. Court actions in Lincoln County that involved his benefactor and brother Joshua indicate that his merchant kin continued to help a financially prostrate Prospect Robbins. Unfortunately, in 1833, Joshua Robbins endured his own financial collapse, when a Philadelphia merchant demanded an accounting of overdue payments. The litigation reveals that Joshua expected “to pay about fifty cents to the dollar” toward more than $10,000 in arrears to several Philadelphia creditors. The brothers had apparently remained on good terms, as the accounting presented to the court listed money and mercantile goods extended to Prospect Robbins for $235, and to Prospect and his son Jesse for $126.26. However, it appears that Joshua’s beneficence to P.K. may have led to his ultimate failure in Troy. P.K. still owed $5,000 to Joshua for covering his long-past obligation to Rufus Easton; it was “a claim on Prospect K. Robbins without writing or evidence for,” in other words, Joshua paid for his older brother’s failed land speculation and sour investments, which had heightened by the 1819 depression. Joshua’s summary before the court on January 21, 1834, concluded, “P.K. Robbins note is connected with circumstances that renders it very uncertain whether it will ever be paid or could be collected.” Joshua liquidated his real and personal properties to satisfy creditors, and by 1834, both brothers, who contributed significantly to county-seat developments in St. Charles, Monroe, and Troy, had lost small fortunes.32

In 1834, Prospect Robbins married for a second time to Harriet Neil, who had children from a previous marriage. In May 1847, shortly before his death at age fifty­nine, P.K. Robbins was baptized in the local Catholic Church and was buried in Memorial Cemetery. Jesse Robbins, who, like his father, had a career as a county-seat businessman, administered his father’s modest estate.33



  1. “Memorial to Famous Surveyor Dedicated at Historic Cemetery,” St. Genevieve Herald, November 22, 2006.
  1. The Missouri State Archives, Local Records Preservation Program, and willing co‑sponsors in local governments and civic organizations have worked for several years to position millions of nineteenth-century judicial court records, never before used by the public for research and writing about the formative decades in state history. Archivists recently completed an 1805–1835 case-file series for St. Charles County, available in the St. Charles Historical Society and at the Missouri State Archives. The Stoddard reference is in Floyd Shoemaker, Missouri and Missourians (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1943), 201.
  1. The federal government transferred the original survey records to Missouri in August 1874, C. Albert White, A History of the Rectangular Survey System (Washington DC: Bureau of Land Management, 1984,) 212. They now reside at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Land Survey, Rolla, and on microfilm at the Missouri State Archives (hereinafter MSA).
  1. “George R. Wilson, Early Indiana Trails and Surveys (rpt. 1919, Indiana Historical Society Press, 2002), 50, 57, 75 and 101; and Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn, The Settling of the North American Continent (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993),466–479, for a good summary on the Rector family’s survey work. The Third Meridian runs down the middle of Illinois.
  1. Meigs’s quote is in Malcolm Rohrbough, The Land Office Business (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 187. Rohrbough’s work on Rector, in several sections of his book, is the most sophisticated to date, and the only work to consult relevant federal records in the National Archives. The Ohio Historical Society gives a Tiffin Award to honor recipients for their extraordinary contributions to state and national history.
  1. C. Albert White, A History of the Rectangular Survey System, 1984. Joseph C. Brown (? –1846), a Virginian, became very successful. It appears that before statehood, Brown had a New Madrid claim of 2,200 acres and five slaves on the Missouri River in Franklin County, became a county sheriff and collector in St. Louis County, and citizens elected him to the Missouri State Senate in 1824 and 1826, while he lost a U.S. Senate bid to Thomas H. Benton in 1826; he became St. Louis County surveyor in 1829, and later, St. Louis City engineer. By the early 1830s, he appears to be a clerk for the Supreme Court in St. Louis, and was a survey contractor statewide, c. 1820s–1840s, including an eastern portion of the Santa Fe Trail in 1824. See Franklin County tax assessments, 1819–1820, Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Columbia; Brian King, “The Delimitation and Demarcation of the State Boundary of Missouri,” master’s thesis, University of Missouri, December 1995, 48, and ad passim; James Clemons v. Joseph C. Laveille and George Morton, St. Louis Circuit Court, March 1834, debt, Supreme Court opinion within the case, signed by Joseph C. Brown, clerk, and “‘I Well Remember’: David Holmes Conrad’s Recollections of St. Louis, 1819–1823,” ed. James Goodrich and Lynn Gentzler, Part I, Missouri Historical Review (October 1995), 13.
  1. For Rector’s idea of the Missouri meridian survey, see White, A History of the Rectangular SurveySystem, 61, and Malcolm Rohrbough, The Land Office Business (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 187–189. Rector’s federal salary as surveyor general was $2,000 annually, but Registrar Alexander McNair received $3,203 and Receiver of Public Money Samuel Hammond got $3,206, Frederick Hodes, Beyond the Frontier, A History of St. Louis to 1821 (Tucson, AZ: Patrice Press, 2004), 471; and Rohrbough judged that “success was Rector’s greatest enemy,” as Rector was one of the most efficient federal administrators of his day. Rector’s success led to charges of corruption in a political smear campaign engineered by the Bartons against the Rectors. Coincidentally, one of the Rectors most vocal opponents was Rufus Easton, who had provided a legal apprenticeship to Joshua Barton. Finally, William Rector’s brother Thomas represented the Rector family on Bloody Island and killed Joshua Barton in a duel in1823, and he was buried in St. Charles. The federal government removed William Rector from office the following June, and he retired to his St. Louis County farm. Dick Steward, Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 54–57, for the duel.
  1. See Mary Ellen Rowe, Bulwark of the Republic: The American Militia in Antebellum West (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003) for a discussion of how the militias were populist in nature, served as social and political institutions, and how the culture of militias aided the advancement of its members.
  1. For the frontier surveyors’ experience, see Dwight L. Agnew, “The Government Land Surveyor as a Pioneer,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review (vol. 28, 1941), 369–382.
  1. Robert R. Logan, “Notes on the First Surveys in Arkansas,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Autumn 1960), 267; Larry Young, “The Monument in the Swamp,” typescript, 1980, p. 3, cites the original GLO notes in Little Rock, Arkansas, for John Baldridge as axe man, and Alexander Baldridge and Hiram Scott as chain carriers, and Richard Elgin computed that Robbins covered the flat, steep, and rolling topography from 4.87 to 6.72 miles per day, Richard Elgin, “The Fifth Principal Meridian,” typescript, p. 6, both in papers of Elgin Surveying and Engineering, Inc., Rolla, Missouri; John C. Nelson, “Presettlement Vegetation Patterns along the 5th Principal Meridian, Missouri Territory, 1815,”American Midland Naturalist, 137: 79–94, concluded that the Ozarks was an open woodlands—savannah lands—and had a strong relative density of shortleaf pine; “Shortleaf Pine Symposium,”Missouri Conservationist (October 2006), 30, says that the southern Missouri shortleaf pine and oak-pine forest acreage today is only one-tenth of the original forest, not surprising in that the transect coming north from Arkansas passed through Ripley, Carter, Reynolds, Iron, Washington, and Franklin counties emerging east of modern Washington on the Missouri River; and King, “The Delimitation and Demarcation of the State Boundary of Missouri,” 94, for the largest state in the Union. Modern readers of these surveys are well acquainted with the surveyor’s phrase, “more or less,” a legacy of inexact, but “pretty close” frontier work. Robbins expected to encounter water three to fifteen feet deep in the swamps, but it was “uncommonly low” and his crew managed “without much difficulty on account of water,” William Rector to Edward Tiffin, January 15, 1816 in The Territorial Papers of the United States, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter, vol. XV (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1951), 103.
  1. Family and business background for Joshua Robbins is in Abel Wyman v. Joshua Robbins et al,September 1833, debt, Lincoln County Circuit Court, MSA.
  1. Photocopies in the Richard Elgin file include notes from the Missouri Gazette, September 3, 1814, for the Kibby auditor reference and Louisiana Gazette, December 4 and 7, 1811, for the gunpowder factory. Lewis Howell recalled being a student of Robbins’s before and after the war in William S. Bryan and Robert Rose, A History of the Pioneer Families of Missouri (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2002, rpt., 1876), 154‑158. Survey records in Territorial Papers, vol. XIV, 590 & 793.
  1. Photocopies for the court martial are from the Missouri Historical Society and in the Elgin Papers. Robbins served summons to former militiamen James and John Callaway, David Porter, and Elijah Collard in April 1815 in George Wheland v. Jeremiah Groshong, St. Charles Circuit Court, October 1814, a labor debt case at a mill on Cuivre River, MSA.
  1. Elizabeth Evans’s mother died in Wythe, VA, June 7, 1815, Letter, Jerry Bader to Dick Elgin, September 28, 2005, Elgin Papers. Many of Elizabeth’s siblings migrated and married in Callaway County, MO.
  1. William Rector to Edward Tiffin, April 22, 1816 in The Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. XV, 130. Rector examined and accepted Robbins’s work on January 6, 1816, photocopy of “Field Notes of Fifth Principal Meridian Survey,” courtesy of Michael Flowers, DNR, Land Survey, Rolla, MO.
  1.  Letter, William Rector to Edward Tiffin, The Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. XV, 1815–1821, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington DC, 1951), 131–132. Contracts are in United States Surveyor General of Missouri Surveys, 9 October 1815–8 May 1843, MSA.
  1. Contracts are in United States Surveyor General of Missouri, Surveys, 9 October 1815–8 May 1843, MSA. Robbins’s crew may have included his St. Charles neighbors, e.g., men from the Baldridge and Scott families that were with him on the Fifth Meridian, but the contract records do not record the axemen, chainmen, hunters, etc. Apparently, Robbins and Evans released the work for the northern extension of the Fifth Meridian, as Deputy Surveyor Taylor Berry agreed to do it two weeks after Robbins and Evans signed up for it; see Survey Books, vol. 2, 721/007, copy from Michael Flowers, State Land Surveyor, to Lynn Morrow, January 18, 2007. Nathan Boone witnessed the Berry agreement. Public land sales began in St. Louis on October 1, 1818, Shoemaker, Missouri and Missourians, 206.
  1. In Arkansas, William Russell worked under Thomas Rector, see Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn, 476; Russell letter to Lucas, March 7, 1816, titled in the original, “At Camp below Mouth of St. Francis,” in Elgin Papers; Russell was also buying New Madrid land claims for speculation, see Elgin Papers, copies from collections in the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. By April 29, 1816, William Russell had submitted 309 land claims to the general land office, twenty‑three were confirmed, Floyd Shoemaker,Missouri and Missourians (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1943), vol. 1, 201.
  1. Photocopy, June 7, 1818, Elgin Papers.
  1. Three of the Lincoln County circuit court suits are in the April 1820 term: Thomas Jackson v. John Evans and Prospect Robbins, debt for a January 6, 1818, $708.38 note for eighteen months concerning lead; Robert and John Heath v. Jesse Campbell and Prospect Robbins, debt on a June 3, 1819, $120 note for sixty days; Rufus Easton v. Prospect Robbins, debt for two notes, June 15, 1819, one due in six months, the other in nine months, totaling $3,463.72; and Ira and Almond Cottle co‑signed security bonds for Robbins in all three cases. The fourth case was Clarissa Wiggin, administratrix, v. Prospect Robbins, debt for a $323.22 note to her late husband dated May 8, 1819, all at MSA.
  1. Dorothy McPheeters and Audie Kelly, People and Places of Southeast Lincoln County (private print, May 1981), 3, and History of Lincoln County (Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1888), 261­263. Robbins did not benefit from the Lincoln County public land survey contracts, but Morgan Boone reputedly surveyed there; see History of Lincoln County, 291. Robbins’s militia authority extended over Pike, Ralls, Lincoln, St. Charles, Montgomery, Callaway, and Gasconade Counties, Daniel T. Brown,Westerning River, Westerning Trail, A History of St. Charles County, Missouri to 1849 (St. Charles: St. Charles County Historical Society, 2006), 222.
  1. Geyer was Speaker 1820–1825. He is well known as the slave‑owner defense attorney for John Sanford in the famous Dred Scott case in Missouri, Dictionary of Missouri Biography, Lawrence O. Christensen, et al, eds. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999) 335–336. The young Wells (1795–1864) had just spent 1816–1819 as a deputy surveyor in Missouri and Illinois, began his legal practice in 1820 in St. Charles, designed the Missouri State Seal in 1821, and was a state representative 1822–1826; he was a federal judge in the U.S. Circuit Court, St. Louis, that ruled against Dred Scott, Dictionary of Missouri Biography, 788.
  1. John T. Nash v. Prospect K. Robbins, St. Charles Circuit Court, February 1821, debt, and Clarissa Wiggin, administratrix, v. Prospect K. Robbins, St. Charles Circuit Court, February 1821, debt, and case documents have the prison bond, MSA. Joshua N. Robbins was the first merchant in Troy, c. 1818, and was instrumental in getting the county seat moved to Troy in 1828, as J. N. Robbins and George Collier, who donated two blocks of land for the courthouse, were principal founders of the new town. Robbins and Collier continued making additions to Troy into the 1830s. Mrs. Collier, a wealthy widow, brought her two sons, John and George, from Philadelphia to St. Charles in 1815. In 1830 the Colliers erected the town’s first Methodist Church, and, in 1834, established St. Charles College; George married Frize Morrison, the daughter of merchant James Morrison. See Paul Hollrah, History of St. Charles County, Missouri, 1765–1785 (private print, 1997, rpt. Good speed), 302–303, and History of Lincoln County, 272, and 429–432. In St. Charles, Collier had a combined house/store building on Main Street, and later, stores in Troy and St. Louis.
  1. Prospect K. Robbins, St. Charles Circuit Court, August 1821, insolvent debtor, has his inventory, notes, counts, and creditors listed. See insolvency summarized in Laws of a Public and General Nature . . . and of the State of Missouri, up to the year 1824 (Jefferson City: W. Lusk & Son, 1842), 745–750.Rufus Easton v. George Collier and Joshua Robbins, St. Charles Circuit Court, March 1822, debt, has details about Prospect Robbins’s debt litigation that extended back to Lincoln County Circuit Court, August 1820, includes Collier and brother Joshua’s “pledge and bail” for Prospect, and a number of subsequent court actions, including moving the case to the Supreme Court in 1824, and back down to St. Charles in 1825, MSA. The final Supreme Court case is Rufus Easton v. George Collier and Joshua Robbins, action on debt, 1826, also at MSA.
  1. Easton’s quote is in the 1826 Supreme Court case. The Eastons had eleven children, and for their wide social connections see Bruce Campbell Adamson, For Which We Stand, The Life and Papers of Rufus Easton, 1774–1834 (private print: Bruce Adamson, Santa Cruz, CA, 1994).
  1. The case can be followed in Rufus Easton v. George Collier and Joshua N. Robbins, St. Charles Circuit Court, March 1822; and in the published Decisions of the Supreme Court of the State of Missouri from 1821 to 1828 (St. Louis: Orr & Keemle, 1829), 420ff.; 467ff.; and 603ff. In 1831, Geyer married Easton’s daughter, Joanna Quarles, in Adamson, For Which We Stand, 216.
  1. Prospect K. Robbins v. George Atchison, St. Charles Circuit Court, November 1822, slave replevin suit, MSA.
  1. St. Charles Circuit Court, May 1823, appointment of commissioners to partition land, Prospect K. Robbins, John J. Wheeler, and Nathaniel Simonds were the commissioners, and see Elgin Papers, for Robbins on the Board of Trustees, and also note that George Collier, litigant in the Rufus Easton case, was chairman of the St. Charles Board. At this time, there was still much dispute over colonial and private land claims in Missouri, and in some cases, litigants sent warnings in writing to regional surveyors to desist in running lines within the bounds of those surveys, as Louis Labeaume did to P.K. Robbins in John T. Nash to Surveyor General Rector, August 8, 1823, U.S. Surveyor General Letters, 1815–1826, MSA.
  1. Prospect K. Robbins v. Joseph Vizard, St. Charles Circuit Court, July 1823, appeal for survey debt, MSA; the moratorium is discussed by R. Douglas Hurt, “Seeking Fortune in the Promised Land: Settling the Boone’s Lick Country, 1810–1825,” Gateway Heritage (Summer 1992), 15; State of Missouri v. Prospect K. Robbins and Ruluff Peck, St. Charles Circuit Court, July 1825, MSA; the original debt was to Easton and the loan office had assumed the note; ironically, then Easton represented the State to collect it. Robbins’s payout was $107.55. See Timothy W. Hubbard and Lewis E. David, Banking in Mid‑America: A History of Missouri’s Banks (Washington DC: Public Affairs Press, 1969), 40–41, for the loan offices in St. Charles, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Boonville, and Chariton. The last case isNathaniel Simonds, administrator (for John Thompson, deceased) v. P.K. and Joshua Robbins, St. Charles Circuit Court, March 1826, debt, MSA. The Elgin Papers includes an 1817 individual survey of 1,000 arpents by Robbins for Francis Saucier that uses the chimney of the house as a reference point. Joshua N. Robbins continues to be a litigant in St. Charles and Lincoln counties into the 1830s.
  1. Brown, Westerning River, Westerning Trail, 302–303.
  1. See Prospect K. Robbins file, St. Charles County Historical Society, courtesy of Bill Popp, archivist.
  1. Abel Wyman v. Joshua Robbins et al, September 1833, Lincoln County Circuit Court, MSA. This complex suit that did not end until 1837 demonstrates a context for long-distance trading of the time and records developments in Troy; Robbins’s co‑defendants were Joshua’s sons, Charles and William Robbins, George Collier, Francis Parker (Lincoln County clerk), David Bailey (Lincoln County sheriff), and Consider White (Joshua’s father‑in‑law in New York).
  1. The Ste. Genevieve cemetery records have Robbins’s age as sixty‑five at his death, making his birth year 1782; however, other work in the Robbins family history, e.g., Lloyd Mattmann’s “Robbins Ancestry, Supplement to Mattmann Ancestry, Switzerland‑Missouri, 1600–1997,” typescript, has 1788 for his birth year, copy in the St. Charles County Historical Society. Joshua N. Robbins, according to the 1830 census, lived in Lincoln County with his wife and five children, but apparently moved elsewhere by 1840. Jesse B. Robbins’s c. 1867 brick house stands at 199 Merchant Street in Ste. Genevieve.


© Lynn Morrow