Women surveyors make their mark on an ancient profession

During March, we’ll be commemorating Women’s History Month 2023 by telling the stories of some of the women who have helped shape the Bureau of Land Management's mission, vision and values for more than a century. We’ll begin in 1918 at the General Land Office, which along with the U.S. Grazing Service, eventually merged into today’s BLM. We’ll honor others throughout the decades and to today, where women are still making history throughout the agency.

Land surveying is deeply rooted in the world’s history. The earliest land survey monument dates back to Rome, around A.D. 77, according to the University of Chicago. When Rome fell, experts say surveying went by the wayside until the 1500s to 1600s. During our nation’s early days, legislation called the Land Ordinance of 1785 was signed, thus beginning the country’s ability to record property boundaries, subdivision lines and related details. Thus, the groundwork was laid for what would become the Bureau of Land Management’s Cadastral Survey program. 

The women in the accompanying photo below were among the BLM’s first female surveyors. These women were hired by the General Land Office when word spread about the increasing number of homesteaders moving West. While the names of the four women in the photo have been lost to history, based on what was happening in the country at the time, we can perhaps deduce what led to these women’s employment when women in general were often considered fragile and lacking stamina. 

A group of people in uniform posing for a photo
A 105-year-old photo of four unnamed General Land Office female surveyors.

The bureau’s women surveyors began work in Idaho in 1918, at a time when the country was engulfed in World War I, which required many men to fight in Europe. In addition, the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as the Great influenza epidemic, was just beginning to reveal how deadly this disease would be throughout the world. These two major events, while terrible for the country, may have provided women the chance to demonstrate their strength and competence, and how willing they were to do what was considered a “man’s work.”  

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