This story of the first survey of the east-west line which forms the southern boundary of Nebraska is excerpted from Al White’s history of the sixth principal meridian, on file at the Nebraska State Historical Society. The meridian, the north-south line which forms the western boundary of Jefferson, Saline, Seward, Butler, Stanton, and Wayne counties, together with the southern boundary, formed the basis for all the surveys conducted in the state. The southern boundary had to be surveyed first, west from the Missouri River 108 miles to the point where the meridian was to be established. This boundary was established in 1854 to follow the fortieth parallel, a line we think of as being east-west.
John Calhoun, surveyor general of Kansas and Nebraska, contracted with John Powers Johnson on November 2, 1854, to survey this line. Calhoun was well aware of the difficulty of this task. His supervisor arranged to have an experienced astronomical surveyor named Thomas J. Lee find the fortieth parallel, to insure its correctness at the start. Calhoun then assumed that Johnson would be able to follow the parallel from there.
Johnson commenced the southern boundary survey on November 16 and finished on December 5, 1854. Johnson was paid without being checked. On April 26, 1855, Calhoun contracted with Charles A. Manners to perform more surveys in Nebraska, and in the process, to verify Johnson’s work for the first sixty miles to test its accuracy. Manners’s survey found Johnson’s to be one quarter mile too far north at twelve miles from the Missouri, and three quarters of a mile too far south at sixty miles. The boundary was so inaccurately completed that it could not be corrected, and Calhoun decided to have Manners resurvey the line as though it had never been done.