Early American Surveyors: Mapping the Wilderness

Excellent as they are, even the exhibits at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History can tell only a part of the fascinating role of the surveyor in American history. A museum exhibit at its best, even with the acknowledged expertise of Smithsonian curators and designers, can do little more than ex-plain the purpose and characteristics of each of the surveyor's tools and its importance in the evolution of surveying instrumentation. But the country's development is inextricably bound together with the assignment and clearing of its land and with the art of surveyors who measured and set its boundaries. English adventurers and pilgrims who were lured to the New World by the promise of land and riches, or freedom from oppression, little imagined the wilderness that would confront them on arrival. It was the task of surveyors to establish boundaries for the would-be landowners, a task for which they were ill-equipped.

An interesting comparison can be made between the precision instruments used today and the relatively simple and inaccurate instruments that were avail-able in the Colonial period. By the early seventeenth century, surveyors in England were equipped with comparatively sophisticated theodolites and circumferenters. This type of equipment was eminently suitable for surveying lands that had been cleared for centuries, but the same equipment was rarely useful in the American wilds. The surveyor in America was forced to rely on the plane table, the plain surveying com-pass, and Gunter's chain. The plain surveying compass was relatively little used in England but provided the Colonial surveyor with a basic tool for his work, and was more adaptable for surveying through forested regions where the terminal points were not visible.

A major difficulty was the lack of skill and experience with such conditions, for the texts on surveying were generally concerned with practices to be followed in the motherland. It was not until 1688 that a text written specifically for surveying in America was published. This was Geodasia, or the Art of Surveying and Measuring of Land made Easie, by John Love. Earlier in his life the author had worked as a surveyor in North Carolina and Jamaica, and was familiar with the problems in the Colonies. His small volume described the advantages and disadvantages of the instruments avail-able, and pointed out that only the needle of the circumferenter could be used. As a consequence, the instrument was useless in regions where iron ore deposits existed. He noted that in the New World the preferable instrument was the plain compass and provided specific instructions for the laying out of large and small tracts. Love's text was widely used by Colonial American surveyors and had considerable impact on the art.

No Brass

The early surveyors had to import their instruments from England at consider-able cost, and it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that Colonial craftsmen were able to produce them. No brass was produced in the Colonies until 1837. It had to be imported in sheets or ingots as ship's ballast. Consequently, brass surveying instruments, whether imported or made domestically, were extremely expensive.

The New England Yankees found an ingenious solution, however. Known for their skill as whittlers, and having a variety of hardwoods in nearby forests, they copied the instruments in wood, using apple, black walnut and cherry. The major difficulty was reproducing the engraved compass rose of the brass instruments, and even for this they found a practical substitute. They used the engraved paper compass cards and needles being produced for marine compasses, and designed their wooden instruments to the appropriate size.

The wooden instruments were relatively crude in appearance but capable of providing almost as much accuracy in the field as the more elegant brass instruments. The earliest of these wooden instruments was produced in Massachusetts in the second quarter of the eighteenth century and they continued to be made and used for almost a hundred years. Some may have been made by the surveyors who used them, but generally they were produced for sale by local makers of navigational instruments who also made marine compasses.

The brass instruments made in America usually were produced by clock-makers and silversmiths until, by the mid-eighteenth century, a new category of craftsman came into being in the Colonies. These were makers of mathematical instruments. Since there was never a sufficient demand for surveying and most other mathematical instruments in America until late in the eighteenth century, those who specialized in instrument making supplemented their income by selling imported goods and other materials.

Virginia Beginnings

The Colonial surveyor first achieved importance in the province of Virginia. It was the practice of the Virginia Company of London to award one-hundred acres to all who purchased a share of its venture, and fifty additional acres for every person brought to the new colony, so that most surveys were based on multiples of fifty acres. This was in marked contrast to New England, where the land was parsimoniously granted on the most rigid of terms. In Virginia the land was virtually free; the major costs being for surveying it and obtaining a patent. Speed was of the essence in executing the surveys, and surveyors achieved greater recognition and status than in other colonies or even in England. They were not privately employed at first, but were public officials. As officers of the state, their place in the administrative hierarchy was somewhere between that of the lawyer and the clerk of the county court. A position of public trust, the office of surveyor was controlled by official appointment, with the fees and practices carefully regulated. Because of their unusual status, and because they practiced an "art" alien to the occupations of most of the colonists, surveyors were often liable to be suspected of chicanery and self-service. Since they were involved in every aspect of land speculation, establishment of boundaries, community planning, and laying out of farms and plantations, surveyors exercised considerable political power in the early period. At the same time they were involved in a ceaseless series of controversies, and became the target of both government and landowner suspicion. The influence of the surveyor in Virginia began to wane near the end of the eighteenth century.

Most of the early grants in Virginia were laid off near the water courses, so surveyors frequently ran a line from an obvious point along the shore inland for one-half the distance of the acreage of the grant. This measurement would serve as a base line from which another line was run a mile from each end and at right angles to it. The two terminals were connected and the course was indicated by marking trees along the route. Later surveys were conducted in a similar fashion. When possible, the surveyor used a natural landmark. The presence of woods or other obstacles might mean the line would be extended to the next permanent object. In time, these errors caused disputes and other problems that required a resurvey, especially since after free land .was no longer available and boundary definitions were of much greater importance. Consequently the inaccuracy of the early surveys was not due as much to instruments as to the surveying practices.

Severe Hardships

Historical accounts have given little attention to the character of the pioneer-ing surveyors and the conditions under which they were forced to work. The Colonial surveyor had to have an iron constitution, boundless energy, and an abundance of health. Generally he was a man of rough and ready ways, who was capable of living without the company of other people for months at a time. He responded to the challenge of the wilds and was intrigued by the mystery of unknown lands that stretched endlessly in all directions. Accounts of hardships and hazards are buried in field books of early surveyors and in letters to their loved ones. Often when their provisions had run out or were lost in the course of their difficult travel, they were forced to subsist on the raw flesh game or even resort to sacrificing their own mules for food. Working in virgin forests, they constantly faced threats from wildlife and generally slept in hollow trees to protect themselves.

For example, the account of Thomas Lewis, a surveyor employed to help run

the line of the Fairfax Grant in 1746, noted that "Several of the horses had like Been Killd. tumbling over Rocks and precipices and ourselves often in the outmost Danger." His record shows that as they progressed, the surveying party ran out of food for the horses. With their own provisions sufficient for no more than one day, they were forced to move forward as quickly as possible, increasing the dangers they faced. They were in desperate need of water and could find only a puddle in which bears had been wallowing. At other times they were forced to work through similarly difficult conditions, always alert for the presence of unfriendly Indians who disputed the claims of the white man to their land.

First Professional Survey

The first truly professional survey in the American Colonies was undertaken by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon for the proprietors of Pennsylvania in 1763. Trained in England, they brought with them new sophisticated instruments and confirmed their field work with astronomical observations. Thereafter the major state and continental boundaries were executed with astronomical observations to establish latitudes and longitudes. Few in the Colonies were competent to undertake these projects. Notable among them was David Rittenhouse, maker of clocks and surveying instruments, and self-taught astronomer, of Philadelphia. Rittenhouse had undertaken the survey of the Pennsylvania-Maryland line on behalf of the Pennsylvania proprietors prior to the advent of Mason and Dixon. He had also helped survey the boundary between New York and Pennsylvania in 1786. On the latter project he worked with Major Andrew Ellicott, who was later responsible for establishing most of the state and national boundaries of his time.

Ellicott was one of the few men in the young republic who had been professionally trained in the sciences and earned his income in the pursuit of them. In 1784, he retraced the line between Pennsylvania and Virginia, and in the following year he was one of those appointed to establish Pennsylvania's western boundary. In 1791, President Washington selected him to run the line of the western boundary of New York State to determine whether the town of Erie fell within the confines of Pennsylvania or New York. By this time Ellicott was recognized as perhaps the most competent and skilled surveyor of the time and one of the very few men experienced in the use of sophisticated astronomical instruments for determining longitude and latitude. In 1790, Washington appointed him to survey the ten mile square of the Federal Territory selected for the establishment of a new national capital, which was to become Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Feature

A life-size diorama of a scene from this survey is a featured attraction at the Smithsonian. Ellicott is shown on a promontory over the Potomac River using a transit and equal altitude instrument of his own construction. Beside him is Benjamin Banneker, the first black man of science, making notes on a pocket slate. Inside the case and in another next to it, are the instruments used by Ellicott in making this survey as well as others.

The most accurate scientific instrument of that period was the zenith sector, a telescopic instrument used for measuring the zenith distances that come within its arc, and for discovering the aberrations of the stars and the mutations of the earth's axis. It was used to determine the parallels of latitude by repeated observations of a number of fixed stars near the zenith as they cross the meridian at differing hours. The sectors used by Mason and Dixon had been brought with them from England and returned with them. Lacking others, Rittenhouse made one for his own use and another for Ellicott.

The role of the surveyor in the shaping of America assumed increasing importance as the Colonies merged into a new nation. Our country sought identity not only by means of its new form of government but also by its geographical definition. This definition was achieved by a handful of competent, hardy souls who stubbornly defied the hardships of the field and sacrificed home and hearth to accomplish their goals. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the letters that Ellicott wrote to his beloved wife Sarah at night by candlelight in his field tent or beside the campfire. Though the hills were inhabited by bears, wolves, and rattlesnakes, he wrote, it was fleas that he dreaded' 'much more than the hardships attending such an expedition." He wrote of the longing he had for his family, from whom he had been separated for months. He expressed his concern over the illness of a child, and his powerlessness to provide aid or comfort. He noted how several of the men of his party had been hurt or killed by falling trees, and how they had to bury their dead companions. However, there was always a note of encouragement so that his wife would not worry.

Isolation and Slow Pay

The physical isolation of the surveyor in the field was made even more poignant by the lack of news of his family, his community, or the events taking place elsewhere. Ellicott was not a demonstrative man, and in fact was accused by his associates for lack of warmth, but his letters and communiques prove otherwise, and provide a reflection of the life of the surveyor in eighteenth century America. To add to Ellicott's problems, he was generally employed by a state or federal government, and payment was always slow in coming. Frequently he was not paid at all. On several occasions he was forced to sell his astronomy and surveying texts or his instruments to feed his family. Fortunately, most of the instruments he used on his major surveys have survived, and are displayed at the Smithsonian.

The Museum's curators have been collecting early scientific instrumentation for the past century, and new treasures are acquired from time to time. Some-times these come from colleges and universities, which have had the instruments stored away for decades. At other times these artifacts of the past come from private donors who realize that the safest disposition of an important historical piece is the Museum, where it will be permanently preserved and displayed.

Full Story Untold

But the saga of the surveyor and the surveying art in America has never been fully told, primarily because it would re-quire an exploration of primary sources stored away in county and state archives. The tools made and used by surveyors form a category of scientific history that has received almost no attention until recently. Also, an intensive study of the plats and maps that the early surveyors produced would be required. The story, when told, would feature and celebrate those stout hearted men who sacrificed home life and faced daily danger and incredibly severe hardship in making their contributions to the shaping of a nation.

About the Author

Silvio A. Bedini is a Smithsonian Institution historian who specializes in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored several books.

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