William Austin Burt (below) was one of the most active and leading of the surveyors in Michigan. He was a man who personified the rugged early American pioneer. He led many a survey team through the Michigan wilderness, and today Burt Lake stands in his remembrance. 
    Burt's inventions included America’s first writing machine ("typographer"), but it was his solar compass that earned him fame as one of the most accurate of the early pioneer surveyors. At age 52, Burt had been working as a deputy surveyor for 11 years when he and his party first encountered iron ore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Although quiet and unassuming, he was an articulate conversationalist who often talked with his men long after the campfires had died out.


    In the fall of 1834, Burt was required to subdivide 13 townships in what became Wisconsin Territory in 1836. He soon faced a dilemma that had plagued surveyors since the federal surveys began---the preexisting township lines did not meet properly with his "new" lines. Burt checked the work and confirmed that his crew had not caused the problem. Instead, mineral attraction in the ground had deflected the needle of their magnetic compass just enough to produce the errors. Other surveyors simply coped with the problem. For Burt, coping was not good enough.
    To solve the problem Burt applied his knowledge of astronomy to the art of surveying. While the township lines were to run by the true meridian, the magnetic compass pointed to magnetic north, which could be about 1200 km away from the North Pole. By knowing the location of the sun in relation to his position on the earth, the surveyor could adjust the solar compass for the sun’s declination (taken from values found in a table and his latitude) set from noon observations of the sun. After setting the latitude and declination for that day, the surveyor would move the indicator on the hour circle to the "local apparent time" and rotate the instrument until the lens bar pointed at the sun. When rays of sunlight passed through the lens and focused between crosshatched lines on a target area, the sighting vanes of the compass would be aligned on the true meridian.

    In 1835 Burt built a prototype of his solar compass (above) and sent it to William J. Young, a prominent Philadelphia instrument maker, who made a more precise model, which was sent to the US Patent Office. On 26 February 1836 Burt’s solar compass was issued patent number 9428X.
    As they reached a hill on the first mile, section one, compassman Harvey Mellen noticed the magnetic needle of his solar compass spinning crazily. Burt was both astonished and excited. As he moved the solar compass, he noticed the needle pointed opposite to where it should. Burt observed that "where the variation was so large the needle appeared like one nearly destitute of magnetism and difficult to determine within one or two degrees where it should settle."
    Burt called out, "Boys, look around and see what you can find." They all returned with specimens of magnetic iron ore gathered from outcrops. They had discovered a portion of the Marquette Range, the first of the Lake Superior iron ranges to be located. Burt and his survey party, however, still had a job to do. Undeterred by the unreliable magnetic needle, they just continued surveying with the solar compass.

From the May/Jun 1980 issue of the Transactions of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters:

Heavy black clouds filled the sky to the north, and chill winds carried a promise of snow. It was only a little past mid-September 1844, but to William A. Burt's small party of government land surveyors it seemed that winter had arrived in the central UP . Burt urged them to hurry with the work of running out the township lines in this rough tract of land. It was Lake Superior country where rugged terrain and uncertain weather seemed to conspire against rapid surveys.
    As though weather and terrain were not enough to contend with, Burt's men were almost out of supplies and subsisting on three porcupines they had been able to take the previous day. But Burt was thorough. His lines and field notes must be accurate; there would be no shoddy work done under his name. He and his crew would not go back to base camp for supplies until the township and range lines were properly run.
    Bad weather, difficult terrain, short rations--surely enough for the party to cope with. But there was more. The compass needle was fluctuating continually! An obvious solution was to use the highly accurate solar compass that Burt had perfected, which the United States government now urged its surveyors to employ. But clouds threatened to obscure the sun.
    A cry from the compass man brought Burt to the front. Here was a "variation that will beat them all." Burt looked at the violently moving needle and said, "Boys, look around and see what you can find." In a short time members of the party found numerous specimens of ore that Burt immediately recognized as iron. After carefully noting several chunks of the ore, Burt recorded the find in his field notes, adding that spathic and hematite ores were abundant along this eastern boundary of T 47 N-R 27 W (township 47 north-range 27 west). In this matter-of-fact fashion he noted an event that changed the history of Michigan and its Upper Peninsula and proved to be of monumental importance to the United States.

William A. Burt and his party had officially discovered iron ore in Michigan. This discovery of what was to become the Marquette Range was followed by finds on the Menominee and Gogebic ranges. When developed, these ranges made Michigan the leading iron ore producer in the nation.
    Burt was a United States government deputy surveyor whose work took him into wilderness areas largely unknown even to the fur trappers. For more than 20 years he was one of a small group of men who ran the lines that divided the two peninsulas of Michigan into a checkerboard of townships and sections as prescribed by the Ordinance of 1785. Today almost all land titles and conveyances begin with the surveyors' designations as to range and township.
    When Burt came to Michigan Territory in 1824 little was known of the lands in lower Michigan above the third tier of counties. Knowledge of the Upper Peninsula had not advanced greatly from the time of the French Jesuit fathers, and Burt saw surveying as a necessary prerequisite to settlement and a profession offering a good livelihood and the esteem of fellow settlers. Despite Michigan governor Cass’s strenuous efforts to have more lands surveyed and put on sale, the federal government believed its efforts would be better justified in Indiana and Illinois where settlers continued to occupy lands the surveys had not yet reached.

By 1833 the federal government was ready to move forward with its Michigan surveys. Burt’s skills and reputation for dependability were in demand. Burt was offered a contract to survey lands in Sanilac County. Several surveyors had refused contracts there because the lands seemed unworthy of agricultural settlement and presented extreme problems of swampy terrain and mosquito infestations. There were already reports that some of the deputies had turned in fraudulent field notes, and Burt was admonished that better work was expected from him than had heretofore been practiced.
    Today it is easy for us to smile at the reports of rugged terrain and mosquitoes that were ready to devour, and we underestimate the rigors and hardships that faced the deputy surveyors who moved into these lands with chain, ax and compass. But there was a great deal of truth in the statement made by Surveyor General Edward Tiffin when he noted that,
"None but Men as hard as a Savage who is always at home in Woods and Swamps [and who] can live upon what they afford (if occasions so require), who can travel for Days up to the knees in mud & mire, can drink any fluid he finds while he is drenched with water also- and has a knowledge of the lands [and] who are equally patient and persevering under similar hardships can make anything by surveying the kind of Country we have to Survey."

While he was running lines, Burt first encountered what was to be a recurrent problem for all the government surveyors of that era: the frequent disturbance of the magnetic compasses by mineral attraction. These aberrations of the needle proved such a problem to Burt that he devised his famous solar compass as a means to obtain accurate township line. The solar compass proved to be highly successful and was first recommended, then adopted, by the federal government for its surveys. Limited only by the fact that the surveyor had to be able to sight on the sun, the solar compass enabled deputy surveyors to run more accurate lines and saved its users valuable time.
    In June 1840 Burt carried out an important assignment for Michigan and the federal government when he extended the principal meridian (84 degrees, 22 minutes, 24 second west longitude) across the Straits of Mackinac and on up to Lake Superior.
    Burt received his introduction to the rugged Upper Peninsula terrain while running this meridian. The heavy brush took its toll on clothing, and as Burt neared the Superior shore, he wrote his wife that his "Coat and Pantiloons are most gone", and requested that she make him a new outfit from the "strongest kind of bedticking".
    Once the principal meridian was established, the immense task of running the town and section lines of the Upper Peninsula could begin. Mile by mile, Burt, John Mullet and other United States deputy surveyors ran their lines and filled in the "unknown" portions of the map of Michigan's north country. These surveys were made over extremely difficult terrain, which included the great Tahquamenon swamp, but Burt and his companions continued until in 1842 they reached the Chocolay River--the boundary of the existing Indian treaties.
    By this time, the state had Dr. Douglass Houghton’s famous report on the geology of the Upper Peninsula, which described extensive copper deposits. The Indians were called in for a treaty that would open the lands to the expected rush of copper miners. Under the Treaty of LaPointe, the Chippewa ceded these valuable lands, and the task of surveying proceeded.
    In due time their work brought them to the area where Burt made the official discovery of iron ore on the Marquette Range. Here, Burt noted that roads would have to be built out to Lake Superior so that the ore could be exploited. He also called attention to the need for a canal around the rapids of the St. Marys so that the iron could reach the forges and smelters of the industrial regions.
    Meanwhile the Copper Country needed orderly surveys, especially since hundreds of would-be miners and fortune hunters were staking out claims all over the Keweenaw and Ontonagon areas. In running the town and section line in this copper region no man equaled William A. Burt’s work, either in miles covered or in accuracy. This despite the fact that even the veteran Burt found the work the most difficult he had ever attempted. The country was virgin wilderness; there were constant compass needle variations; and worse, "the thick forest prevents the rays of the sun falling on the Solar Compass in many places and in the early or latter part of the day high hills and knobs sometimes intervene between the instrument and the sun."
    That's the story of William Austin Burt....surveyor extraordinaire!

Some of the text on this page was adapted from Dunbar and May's Michigan A History of the Wolverine State, as well from as the November/December 1994 collectors edition of Michigan History Magazine: Forging America's Future, 150 Years of Michigan Iron.  Thanks are extended to John S. Burt, who contributed to this web page via his article in the 1994 Michigan History magazine, entitled, "Boys, look around and see what you can find."

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl (soils@msu.edu) for more information or permissions.