Surveying the Holland Purchase: Part 1

The tract of land called New England, granted in 1620 by King James I of England to the Plymouth Company, extended from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific ocean. This grant was substantially confirmed by William and Mary in 1691 by a second charter specifying the territory granted as lying between 42 deg. 5 min. and 44 deg. 15 min. north latitude.


King Charles I had granted to the Duke of York and Albany the province of New York extending to the Canada line in 1663. Its eastern boundary was a line 20 miles east of the Hudson River, but neither its extent westward nor its southern boundary was definitely stated. Under these conflicting grants, a dispute subsequently arose between Massachusetts and New York as to the extent of their respective territorial rights and jurisdiction. This controversy was not settled until several years after the Revolution.

After the American Revolution, the majority of land in the New World became public domain. The Land Ordinance, passed in 1785, permitted the selling of public lands. The newly established federal and state governments were eager to sell their surplus lands to replenish their empty treasuries. In consideration of earlier crown grants, certain states argued over the ownership of some eastern lands. The land ownership dispute over the west Genesee lands was solved by an agreement on December 16, 1786, in Hartford, Connecticut, in which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was given preemption right to its claimed land, and the State of New York was granted jurisdiction over it.

Robert Morris Acquires the Land

In 1788, two New England businessmen, Nathaniel Gorham and Oliver Phelps, bought from Massachusetts more than six million acres of the preempted land. These land speculators could not make regular payments; therefore, in 1790, about two-thirds of the land reverted to the Commonwealth. In 1791, Robert Morris, a prominent land speculator, purchased from Massachusetts more than four million acres in five tracts of the reverted land. During 1791 and 1792, Morris sold tracts 2–5 to six bankers from the Netherlands but kept the eastern tract number one for himself. Part of it is known as the Morris Reserve.

During the early 1790s, some of the six Dutch bankers bought several other tracts in New York, including the Adgate, the Servis and part of the Steuben Patents, amounting to 80,000 acres in the Utica region and about 120,000 acres around what is now Cazenovia. In addition, the Dutch purchased more than 1.5 million acres of land in Northwestern Pennsylvania, east and west of the Allegheny River. Later, they also obtained some acreage through exchange in New Jersey. To administer their more than five million acres of land, the Amsterdam bankers formed the Hollandsche Land Compagnie, which in the United States became known as the Holland Land Company, in 1795.

Terms of the Holland Land Purchase

The purchase of the Genesee lands was not final until September 15, 1797, when Robert Morris obtained title to the land from the Seneca Indians. The Senecas received $100,000 in trust and kept approximately 200,000 acres for their reservations (Frank H. Severance, ed., Recalling Pioneer Days, 1922, p.53). The purchase negotiations between Robert Morris and the Holland Land Company included the surveying of the four tracts. However, Morris, by then in dire financial circumstances as a result of his numerous unwise land investments, could not pay for the entire survey. The Holland Land Company ended up paying most of the bills.

In 1794, Joseph Ellicott, a rugged 6'3" surveyor, accepted employment with a combine of six Dutch banking houses. His task was to mark out some of the 1.5 million acres of land in northwestern Pennsylvania recently purchased by the wealthy Dutch financiers. To Ellicott, with 10 years of experience measuring land on the frontier, the assignment seemed routine. However, what emerged was a close association with the Holland Land Company that, except for the year 1796, would continue without interruption until 1821. Begun in the Philadelphia office of the Dutch proprietors, this relationship would bring wealth, power and fame to Joseph Ellicott. It would also have extensive effects on the history of western New York.

Ellicott's Brothers Were Surveyors

Before 1794, the Ellicotts had been typical of many families that left Europe and ventured to America. Joseph's ancestors were farmers, artisans and millers, his generation being the first to become surveyors. Joseph's father had four sons who inherited the family talent for mathematics and science. Andrew, the eldest, lived an active public life: he accepted a commission of captain and later became a major in the Maryland militia. Fascinated by mathematics, Andrew chose surveying as a career. Physically suited for the work, he was a large-framed individual and had a strong constitution. Despite a scanty formal education, he developed into an exceptionally capable surveyor. Andrew's career as a surveyor spanned more than a quarter of a century. He started in 1784 as a part of a group that extended the Mason-Dixon Line.

Other commissions to survey land followed. In 1789, President Washington appointed Andrew to fix the southwestern boundary of New York and thus settle the disputed ownership of Erie. Joseph and Benjamin Ellicott helped Andrew with this survey, which firmly established Andrew's reputation. While he was in the area, Andrew made the "first actual measurement of the entire length of the (Niagara) river and of the falls and rapids from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario." Shortly after that survey, President Washington selected Andrew to lay out the federal capital city that Major Pierre L'Enfant had designed. Andrew started work in 1791 and brought in Joseph and Benjamin as assistants. The three brothers did the bulk of the surveying. In 1794, Andrew helped lay out Erie, Pennsylvania.

Following Andrew's leadership, Joseph selected surveying as a profession. Andrew's teaching had been so effective that Joseph adopted his older brother's habits of painstaking and meticulous work. For 15 years, Joseph surveyed land throughout the frontier. In 1785, he assisted Andrew in marking off the western and northern borders of Pennsylvania. Four years later, he and Benjamin helped Andrew lay out the western limits of New York State. Then, in 1791, Joseph Ellicott struck out on his own.

The Project Begins

Joseph Ellicott was well prepared in 1794 for that new venture with the six Dutch banking houses. By training, experience, ability, temperament and ambition, Joseph had exactly the qualifications needed by the Dutch owners. He was on the threshold of an association that became a long-term relationship, a situation unforeseen at the time, even by the canny bankers of Holland.

Theophile Cazenove, representative of the Dutch investors with a headquarters in Philadelphia, assigned Joseph Ellicott, who had surveyed for the Company in Pennsylvania, to superintend the surveying of the Genesee lands. Cazenove supplied Ellicott with a sketch that outlined the separate tract, which was most likely the first map of the Holland Purchase (Letter from Cazenove to Ellicott, July 25, 1797, Robert W. Bingham, Reports of Joseph Ellicott, 1937, p. 4).

Without much delay, Ellicott set out to traverse around Lake Ontario and the Straights of Niagara. He also started procuring camp equipment, horses, boats and provisions for the grand survey. The survey arrangements were made in close cooperation with Robert Morris and his surveyor, Major Adam Hoops. Hoops hired Augustus Porter, a well-known surveyor from Connecticut, who had assisted Andrew Ellicott in correcting the Gorham and Phelps Purchase boundary lines in 1791. Later Porter surveyed the Purchases and in 1794 prepared a map for it (Frank H. Severance, Buffalo Historical Society publication, Vol. 7, 1904, p. 292). Porter also surveyed the Triangle Tract, and in 1796 he was the Chief Surveyor of the Connecticut Western Reserve. Porter started surveying on the Holland Purchase in September of 1797.

Ellicott's Initial Traverse

Ellicott reported on his traverse to Theophile Cazenove on November 19, 1797. In this letter he complained of having experienced "much fatigue on account of the foulness of the weather during the latest part of the survey and in walking through the snow from the western boundary of the preemption a distance of nearly two hundred miles." Later Ellicott submitted his first "Field Book containing a survey (carefully made) of the courses and distances (observations and remarks) along that part of the shore of Lake Ontario, the Straights of Niagara and the shore of Lake Erie that bounds the purchase" (Severance 1922, p. 52). Ellicott also prepared what he called a "topographical map," which showed the boundary lines of the Purchase and their interferences with neighboring tracts.

The actual procurement of provisions for the Grand Survey was contracted on December 7, 1797, to Thomas Morris, son of Robert Morris. Ellicott, the meticulous planner, was anxious to make early purchases of all necessary merchandise, because, he said, the shop keepers will be "selling out in the summer at a most enormous advance" (Bingham 1937, p. 9). Ellicott's attention expanded in every unexpected direction. For instance, his specifications for the purchase of pork thus followed: "The Pork shall be of good merchantable quality, well put up and salted in good clean tight substantial barrels, containing Two Hundred neat Wt each; there shall not be in each barrel more than three shoulders without legs and two heads without ears & snouts" (Bingham 1937, p. 10).

For the purchase of food $5,160 was deposited in the Bank of Albany. The estimate of camp equipment was $7,336 and $250 for wine, spirit, brandy and medicine.

Personnel Needed for the Survey

Ellicott's estimate of the number of persons required for the grand survey was 150. This figure included two transit engineers to handle the instruments, at least 10 deputy surveyors, axmen, boatmen, store managers, cooks, messengers and others. As the survey progressed, Ellicott regularly hired other temporary help. Although Ellicott had already been surveying in the western New York woods for months, on May 10, 1798, he received his official instructions from Theophile Cazenove. Cazenove explained that the managers of the Holland Land Company entrusted Ellicott with the survey with great confidence resulting from Ellicott's former exertions on behalf of the Company, which "received so many proofs of his talents, integrity, prudence and activity."

Cazenove further explained:

It is understood that your compensation shall be at the rate of eight dollars per day. To your vigilance alone the direction, management and superintendence of this great and important Survey is trusted. The … large body of surveyors, employees and hands, … the purchasing and forwarding of all the wanted provisions … have also been left to your care alone … The most important objects of your mission and which you will have to perform during the present season are: (Bingham 1937, pp. 22-23)

1) To ascertain the boundary lines of the several Indian reservations in conformity with the treaty held in September 1797. Prudence requires the demarcation line to be fixed in such an ostensible and solid manner as to prevent for a long series of years disputes between the settlers and the Indians; (Robert W. Bingham, Cradle of the Queen City, 1931, p. 151)

2) To ascertain the boundary line of the land reserved by the State of New York from Niagara along the Straights and part of Lake Erie …; (Bingham 1931, p. 153; Bingham 1937, p. 24)

3) To ascertain the boundary line of

the several tracts of land purchased by the Holland Company and by Wilhelm and Jan Willink, … and to ascertain also the amount of acres contained in each of those tracts agreeable to the several contracts; (Bingham 1931, p. 153; Bingham 1937, p. 24)

The Willinks wish their 300,000 acres to be laid out in Townships of 5 miles square, if it is at all possible and, if possible, the surveying account to be held separate; (Bingham 1931, p. 155)

4) To have the whole of the land contained in … the several tracts … accurately surveyed and laid out into towns of six miles square, with a map of each town accompanied with field books descriptive of the land, waters, mill seats, plains, valleys, mines, minerals, etc… .

It is particularly recommended the lines to be marked with the greatest solidity and designated with accuracy in order to prevent decay and disputes … The greatest care is also requested in regard to the description of the Townships, … that is to say faithful, precise, and deserving the public confidence. The Company has it in contemplation to have an authentic copy of the Survey deposited in the land office in New York, where every purchaser of the company's lands may at all times have recourse to for the verification of their titles. (Bingham 1937, p. 25)

Among other miscellaneous assignments, Ellicott was charged to chart the course of the Genesee River; to make arrangement with William Johnston, Indian interpreter, to keep the lands on both sides of the Buffalo Creek out of the Indian Reservation (Bingham 1931, p. 156) and to find out Phillip Steadman's legal right to and value of the 500 acres granted to his uncle by the Senecas in 1763 because the Holland Land Company intended to purchase it. Such were Joseph Ellicott's instructions for the grand survey of the Holland Purchase.

Meanwhile, Joseph Ellicott was feverishly preparing for the grand survey, which officially started in March 1798. His list of principal surveyors included his brother Benjamin, who was a transit astronomical engineer, assistant surveyor and draftsman. Among others were Augustus Porter, Richard M. Stoddard, George Burgess, Ebenezer Carey, Amzi Atwater, Warnham Shepard, John Thompson, John Smedley and George Eggleston. Some surveyors were working for $3 per day and others for $4, whereas Benjamin received $4.50.

Diverse Backgrounds of Surveyors

The surveyors were of various training and experience. Some of them may have used books such as Machey's Longitudes, Hutton's Logarithms and Gregory's Astronomy, but most of them were probably familiar with Samuel Moore's An Accurate System of Surveying. Each surveyor had two flagmen, chainmen, axmen and packhorse men. The groups first started working at the southwest end of the Purchase with Range 15, Township 1, and proceeded eastward.

In addition, Cazenove sent from Philadelphia two French cartographers, Haudeceour de Jaumeville and Alexandre Autrechy, to aid Ellicott. Both men, who started working in the woods in May 1798, performed special services for the Company. Hauduceour surveyed the area and collected information about a canal that was planned between Lakes Ontario and Erie by the Niagara Canal Company, chartered on April 2, 1798. The canal was to run mostly in the bed of the Niagara River, with walls raised for a length of six miles. Hauduceour prepared a large map and an extensive list of observations. Both items are part of the Holland Land Company map collection (Letter from Cazenove to Hauduceour, May 20, 1798, Bingham 1937, p. 30). Autrechy, who participated in some surveying, was at his best drafting, "a business that he performed with great taste and elegance," according to Ellicott (Letter from Ellicott to Cazenove, September 25, 1798, Severance 1922, p. 73). With his several brilliantly executed maps, richly embellished with his trademark-blue color, Autrechy made lasting contributions to the cartographic treasures of the early western New York Frontier.

Ellicott's Stringent Expectations

Joseph Ellicott had taken unusual care in his survey preparations. To begin with, he ensured accuracy of the measure of one foot, which was not standardized at that time. To make certain that each of his surveyors used an exactly matching unit, he attached to every field book a 12-inch ruler made of brass. The chains were to be carried horizontally, and at the end of each six miles they were to be compared with a standard one (Paul D. Evans, The Holland Land Company, 1924, pp. 198-199; Bingham 1937, pp. 83-84).

Ellicott had also introduced a more comprehensive system of recording field notes. He expected exact descriptions of all topographical observations, and notes were to be taken on the ground. This included the contents of bodies of water; the nature of streams and rivers; the variety of vegetation, especially types of trees; wildlife and the quality of the soil (Evans 1924, pp. 199-200). The field notes remain an important source of material for archaeologists and biologists as well as surveyors.

Ellicott was just as particular about the specificity of surveying instruments. He did not trust the circumferator that depended on the magnetic needle. He explained that with the needle "it would be impossible to run lines of their length to any tolerable degree of certainty" (Letter from Ellicott to Cazenove, October 18, 1797). Therefore, Ellicott had his brother Benjamin build a transit instrument during the winter of 1797–1798 because the only transportable one in the United States was being used by Andrew Ellicott at Natchez on the Mississippi River (Bingham 1937, p. 15). To accommodate Benjamin's instrument, a vista had to be cut through the forest wide enough to provide a clear and uninterrupted view (Orsamus Turner, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, 1849, p. 408).

Because the survey cost was to be the responsibility of Robert Morris, Ellicott submitted the plan to Morris's surveyor, Adam Hoops. Hoops did not like the plan because it "excluded economy" and because it was too detailed and time-consuming. To counter the Ellicott plan, Hoops suggested that the entire territory should be laid off into "convenient districts," which were to be divided to 500-acre lots by "a capable surveyor and some hands" (Joseph Ellicott Correspondence, Book One, pp. 39-40). To facilitate his plans, Hoops asked Seth Pease, an accomplished surveyor, to come speedily as he had a surveying job for the whole season. Unfortunately, Pease was busy surveying in the Schenectady area and Hoops had to wait his turn.

Pease, a native of Connecticut, surveyed extensively in Massachusetts, New York and for the Connecticut Land Company in Ohio, where he assisted Augustus Porter. His 1798 map of the Connecticut Western Reserve is well known. He also surveyed parts of the early City of Cleveland. On the Holland Purchase, Pease surveyed from July 1798 to January 1800. His diary, some correspondence and other manuscript material between 1796 and 1800 are available.

Progress of the Grand Survey

The grand survey progressed slowly. The eastern meridian of 12 mile line was established by Benjamin Ellicott with the assistance of Augustus Porter. Benjamin took an oath on June 14, 1798 "before the magistrate to perform that duty truly and faithfully" (Letter from A. Hoops to Ellicott, June 14, 1798, Bingham 1937, p. 63). The meridian line also formed the eastern boundary line of the Holland Purchase and the eastern line of Range 1. It was "formed by astronomical observations, that began … on the 11th day of July with all possible care and exactitude planting monuments of stone at the end of every 80 chains from the commencement of said meridian marked with progressing numbers … to Lake Ontario," explained Joseph Ellicott to Cazenove. (Bingham 1937, p. 67) When completed, Benjamin Ellicott erected a large (5 x 4 x 1

2/3) monument thus engraved:

on the South side: Penna lat. 42

on the West side: W & J Willink

S.E. corner

on the East side: No. 1 S.W. corner

and on the top: Meridian 12 Miles west of G & P S.W. Corner

In Joseph Ellicott's own words: "This boundary line being of the first importance to be properly executed so as to forever prevent persons claiming on either side the other land's has … it is presumed this boundary will stand for ages" (Bingham 1937, p. 67).

Meanwhile, Hoops seemingly reconciled with Joseph Ellicott's survey methods, but he was still waiting for Pease. According to his diary, Pease showed up in the middle of July 1798 and was generally surveying under Ellicott's instructions. Hoops was not the only one waiting for Pease. James Rees, who represented the several proprietors who bought land from Robert Morris along the eastern border of the Holland Purchase, was also waiting for him (Letter from Rees to Pease, January 7, 1799). Pease was to re-survey the traverse of the Genesee River, which was incorrectly done, which affected the boundary lines of the neighboring tracts (Letter from Rees to Pease, December 12, 1798). Included were:

•100,000 acres for Watson-Craigie& Greenleaf

•33,750 acres for Andrew Craigie

•50,000 acres for Samuel Ogden

•50,000 acres for Garrett Cotringer

•100,000 acres for Alexander Hamilton

•175,000 acres for Samuel Sterett

•10,240 acres for Thomas Morris

•9,600 acres for Jones and Smith

•40,000 acres for Robert Morris, mortgaged to the Holland Land Company

•86,793 acres for LeRoy, Bayard and McEvers, known as the Triangle Tract

Pease was to run each of the boundary lines and fix up "durable posts at each corner of every tract, marked with the initials of the owners name." If he were to discover any deviation he was to fix the posts where they ought to be. Pease was also to take careful field notes and prepare a large map of all tracts, and smaller maps of the individual tracts for the proprietors who shared his expense.

In addition, Pease was to survey the Canawagarus, Big Tree, Little Bears, Squacky Hill and Gardeau Reservations, each of which was to be at least two square miles. All of these had been previously surveyed for Robert Morris by Augustus Porter. Nonetheless, Ellicott was aware of some discrepancy of the eastern boundary line and wanted it corrected (Letter from Rees to Pease, December 26, 1798).

Ellicott's Extreme Dedication

It seems that Ellicott was involved in everything. He traversed the entire territory with tireless energy and incessantly described plans and proposals, reiterated suggestions and profusely circumscribed in his never-ending instructions every bit of detail that seemed to be of any importance. If not physically, in his mind Ellicott walked the most hidden corners of the densely wooded wilderness, as he described, in his utterly illegible letters of countless pages, the duties of every surveyor, assistant, draftsman, store keeper and any other able soul.

For instance, on November 5, 1798, Ellicott instructed Pease:

"To take twelve days of provision and go to the Niagara River and proceed to survey down the shore of the Lake and River to the Great Falls of Niagara, … ascertain the width of the River from the west side of the Fall to the east Fall, and also the width of the island that separates the waters at the summit … Then repair to the landing opposite Queenstown, lay off the front street of the town and other streets … Mark the corner of the blocks by stones. Also number the stone's 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, … progressively to the out boundary of the town … lay out a cemetery, etc. and so on.

"When that business shall be finished proceed to Tuscarora Village and there lay out two square miles of ground including that Castle, and if it is possible get the Indians to agree … to the boundary lines … repair at a convenient speed to Buffalo Creek where you will probably find other instruction."

Of course, when Pease returned he found further instructions in a letter dated November 6, 1798. In it Ellicott told him to lay down the New York Reservation along the Niagara River, as stipulated by Simeon DeWitt, Surveyor General of New York State, in accordance with the law passed by the legislature on April 6, 1798. Pease also was to make a map. Then Ellicott requested that Pease "calculate the contents of the water in Chautauqua Lake, as it would be necessary for Mr. Morris."

Problems Faced by the Surveyors

Despite all the detailed planning and meticulous instructions, the survey did not progress without problems, most of which were beyond Ellicott's control. Inclement weather, rain, hail, snow or high winds, let alone the summer drought took an extraordinary toll on the dwellers of the woods. Often the surveying crews had to wade through swamps, waist deep in mud and water. Ironically, at some camp sites water was scarce. In his diary, Pease complained that "we camped with such water as we could procure by scratch down in a hole made by a tree that had fallen down, which was muddy stuff at best" (Seth Pease's Diary, August 1, 1799). At the next camp the crew could not find water at all. Under such unfavorable and unhygienic circumstances it was little surprise that a number of employees developed recurring fever. Injuries on the job also claimed some men, and others were unfit for duty or left for home. Then there was the problem with packhorses, some of which got distempered and others constantly wandered away or ran off. Ellicott paid several times for the retrieval of runaway horses.

Further problems were caused by the Indians who, during the winter of 1797, reconsidered some of their requests regarding the location and size of certain reservations. For instance, the Buffalo Creek and the Cattaraugus Indians wanted more compact sites by the lake and by the creek. The Alleghanies wanted their reservation laid out in half-mile strips on both sides of the river. Ellicott called the plan "a ridiculous reservation" that, in the long run, would hurt the Indians and it be detrimental to the proprietors of the adjoining lots. These issues were discussed at a Council of Buffalo Creek between January 21 and 26, 1798, but it took many more consultations before the surveys could be done.

Franciska Safran is Holland Land Company Records Curator at Reed Library, State University of New York College at Fredonia.

John E. McIntosh, Jr., is a licensed surveyor and President of the McIntosh Group of Companies in New York.

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