The History Corner: Robert H. B. Brazier: Civil Engineer, Cartographer and Surveyor
Professional Surveyor Magazine - November 2003
Silvio A. Bedini
Deserving of much greater acknowledgment than he had received in the history of cartography and surveying of North Carolina was Robert H. B. Brazier ( — d. 1837). Born in Great Britain at an unknown date and of unknown parentage, he received professional training under the Scottish civil engineer John Rennie (17621-1821), who is remembered chiefly as the designer of the Southwark, Waterloo and London Bridges, and the London and East India Docks. At the instigation of Peter Brown, in July 1819 Brazier emigrated to North Carolina in company with the Scottish engineer Hamilton Fulton. Soon after arrival he entered upon a contract with the commissioners to serve as assistant to the principal engineer. It was not until February 1820 that Brazier's contract was confirmed by the board of internal improvements, months after he already had been at work under Fulton, who had been appointed principal engineer.
Fulton and Brazier labored for the next six years to bring to completion the ambitious plans of Archibald D. Murphey and others for developing a network of navigable watercourses and canals to be connected by turnpike highways. Meanwhile, due to Brown's endorsement the two British engineers found themselves under heavy fire from Brown's political opponents. "During this period Brazier had produced a "Plan of the Neuse River From Stones' Mills to Major Turner's Ferry showing the proposed situation of the Locks and Dams Surveyed under the direction of Hamilton Fulton, Civil Engineer of the State of North Carolina, by Robert H. B. Brazier, 1819." In the autumn term 1824 of the Wake County Superior Court, Brazier was naturalized as an American citizen.
For quite some time, in the hope of stabilizing his position in his profession in America, Brazier had been seeking more congenial working conditions. When in 1822 he learned that the chief engineer of the state of Virginia had died, he applied for the position to the state board for public works. He was unsuccessful, however, and remained in his position in North Carolina.
Between the years 1820 to 1823 Brazier had suffered repeated reductions in salary and a deteriorating relationship with the board of internal improvements had developed. Despite these problems, he completed surveys and produced maps, plans, profiles, and transverse sections of the principal North Carolina water courses from Yadkin River east to the Roanoke Inlet.
Finally, after a dispute over his expense accounts, Brazier resigned as assistant engineer effective February 19, 1824. He then wrote to the board what the board of internal improvements chose to describe as a "disrespectful" letter in which he demanded settlement of a controversial account. Brazier finally brought a lawsuit against the board, and was awarded damages in 1825.
In 1825 Fulton was forced to resign under political pressure and the Neuse Navigation Company, as well as other similar companies, went out of business. During the next two years Brazier kept himself occupied making patent drawings and undertaking private surveying assignments, including the survey of the Buncombe Turnpike. Then he cautiously resumed another contractual agreement with the board, and in the spring of 1827 he began his survey of the state's swamp lands. The board considered him the state's assistant engineer under Alanson Nash, who had been hired from New York following Fulton's departure from the state. In late 1827 Brazier presented his report of the swamp lands to the General Assembly of North Carolina and his expense accounts to the state board of internal improvements and then terminated his connection with the board.
During the next several years Brazier had a difficult time, supporting his family by means of private surveying and by delineating survey plats for landowners in Wake County and surrounding counties. Typical of his piecework were his survey plat made in 1832 of the 7,383 acres of the Jeffreys tract in Wake and Franklin Counties, the map he made in 1831 of the route from Raleigh to Cobb's Mill, and his plan of the Rolesville tract in Wake County he made two years later.
When during this period the position of principal engineer of Virginia once again became vacant, Brazier promptly applied. Despite the impressive support he received from state officials and leading citizens, however, his application failed. He managed to obtain some work in Virginia, meanwhile, and completed a plan of the Blackwater River as well as a survey of a proposed line for a canal from Blackwater River to Pagan Creek near Smithfield.
It was at this time that Brazier undertook his greatest work. In 1821 and again in 1822 he had served as one of the commissioners appointed by the General Assembly to lay out a new map of the streets of Fayettesville. Brazier produced a handsome plan of the town which was published by John MacRae in 1825. It was during this project that he had become acquainted with MacRae, who was the legislator, newspaper publisher, and postmaster of Fayettesville.
In about 1825 MacRae had conceived the notion of producing a new authoritative map of the state of North Carolina, and a year later he presented his proposal to the General Assembly and won its approval and support. In 1829 MacRae proceeded to hire Lieutenant William Henry Harford of the U.S. Corps of Engineers to produce the projected map. When nothing came of his efforts, MacRae then turned to Brazier.
Brazier immediately went to work and had completed most of the surveying required for the map by 1831, and his finished manuscript was ready for the engraver in 1832. Published in Philadelphia in 1833 by Henry Schenk Tanner, it bore the title "A New Map of the State of North Carolina Constructed from Actual Surveys, Authentic Public Documents and Private Contributions." The map was carefully drawn and elegantly executed, and it was the first authoritative work of the state to appear since the map of the state by Price and Strother had been published in 1808. Brazier's original manuscript maps and surveys have been acknowledged to be characterized by beauty of line and delicacy of color. Brazier's map of North Carolina remained the standard authority for cartographers until 1857, when it was superseded by the map compiled by Samuel Pearce and William D. Cooke.
Despite this major achievement, soon thereafter Brazier's career went into rapid decline. From the time of his separation from the board of internal improvements and after his work with MacRae, Brazier suffered one disastrous financial reverse after another, from which he never recovered. His mortgage on his Raleigh property had been foreclosed in May 1830, and both his real and personal property had been lost. In 1833 the charitable fund of the Christ Church in Raleigh had to come to the aid of his family in an effort to enable it to regain some form of financial solvency. In 1834 Brazier joined eleven other associates in an unfortunate speculative venture in Fayettesville, but this speculation failed to recoup his fortunes. In 1835 he was again obliged to seek assistance from Christ Church.
Then, during a severe ice storm that battered the region over the Christmas holidays of 1836, Brazier fell from a pair of high steps and died of the effects in Raleigh. He was survived by his wife and young son. The brief obituary notice that appeared in the Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Gazette for January 10, 1837 stated,
In this City, on Thursday night last, Mr. R. H. B. BRAZIER, Civil Engineer, &c. During the cold weather of last week, Mr. B. Fell from a pair of high steps, and fractured his leg so badly that he died from the effects of it.
Although the vicar of Christ Church wrote that Brazier had come to his death "by his own folly and wickedness," he did acknowledge that the cartographer "was a most excellent draughtsman with the talents of an angel!"
Silvio Bedini is an Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., author of more than 20 books, and a Contributing Writer for the magazine.
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