Thomas Holme (1624-1695) Pennsylvania's First Surveyor-General: Part 1

Thomas Holme, the oldest of three children of the yeoman George and his wife Alice Whiteside Holme of Waterhead, Lancaster County in Upper Lancashire, was baptized on November 3, 1624. He attended dame school and grammar school at Hawkshead in a hilly region with fertile valleys. When Thomas was seven years of age, his father was killed in an accident, after which his mother remarried, to William Collyer of Hawkshead. Holme's career after completion of grammar school is not known, until the summer before he was eighteen. He was converted to the Society of Friends by George Fox, and in August 1649 he married Sarah Croft in Tewkesbury. It was probably at this time that he enlisted in Cromwell's Parliamentary army and in the following month went with the English army to Ireland, taking Sarah with him. It is said that he served as a captain and that in 1654 he had taken part in the Hispaniola expedition under Admiral Penn; in that period naval officers were often taken from the army. It appears that he had gained some engineering experience and also may have received training in surveying during his military years.

In 1659, after the end of the conflict, Holme found himself in Limerick, where he was placed in charge of the repair of Core Castle, for which he was paid seventy pounds. With the rank of captain he served as an admeasurer in a program of resettlement requiring a comprehensive survey. Eventually Holme was granted more than four thousand acres in Wexford in his allotment for military service.

At some point Holme joined the Society of Friends in Ireland, and in attempting to promote the welfare of the Quaker community, he became associated as co-author with Abraham Fuller in 1672 in the publication of a tract on the persecution and suffering of Irish Quakers.

Making "Friends" with William Penn
While young William Penn was in Ireland acting as deputy for his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, in due course he had become a member of the Society of Friends, and soon became acquainted with Holme through the circle of active Friends in Ireland. During the dozen or so years that they were acquainted, they developed a relationship characterized by mutual respect and affection.

In an effort to recover the financial and other debts that the reigning Stuarts owed to his father, Admiral Penn, his son succeeded in obtaining from King Charles II the grant of a large tract of land on the west side of the Delaware River. Previously this land had belonged alternately to the Swedes, the Dutch and the English. The land was ceded to Penn with the proviso that settlers already established there were to be persuaded to sell their holdings and go elsewhere or to remain as peaceful and taxpaying residents of the new province. The king's formal declaration of the patent was dated April 12, 1681, and Penn immediately commissioned his cousin William Markham as deputy governor and sent him to the province. In October he commissioned another cousin, William Crispin, to be assistant to Markham, to serve also as chief justice and as one of four land commissioners. He was also to serve as surveyor general.

In Waterford Holme had become identified as a merchant involved in shipping merchandise to both the Continent and New England at the same time that he was engaged in real estate. Meanwhile, he may have been one of the Quakers who sailed by way of Barbados, where he may have carried on a flourishing trade. It was at Barbados that he witnessed the arrival of the ship bearing Crispin, who with others on board who had become extremely ill and died soon after. The news was brought back to Penn in England, perhaps by Holme. Holme had been considering emigrating to America. It was said that the climate was benign, the land was fertile, there would be no tithes, and there was no interference from government, all reasons that convinced Holme to purchase land in Penn's venture.

Urgently needing a replacement after the demise of Crispin, William Penn immediately thought of Holme, who was then living in Waterford. On April 18, 1682, Penn appointed him surveyor general of the province of Pennsylvania, Penn speaking of him in his commission as "my loving friend Captain Thomas Holme." Holme was then fifty-eight years of age. He sailed several days later on the ship believed to have been the Amity, with his two sons and two of his three daughters; his wife had died some time previously. They arrived at the colony in June.

Several days after his arrival, Holme managed to settle his family temporarily before leaving immediately on a journey into the wilds of the province to carry a message to the Indians that he had brought from Penn in England. The communication was gentle, peace intending and generous, for Penn was eager that all Englishmen and Indians might "… live in love and peace one with another." He wrote that he hoped "the Great God … would incline both you and me to do … [nothing that would redound to] the honor of His name." To impress upon the recipients of his solemn and sacred purpose, he wrote, "The man who delivers this unto you is my special friend, sober, wise and loving. You may believe him." He assured the Indians that when he himself arrived in the province, he would carry on with good faith, would mend any matter that had gone astray before his arrival, and would bring from England to the Indians things that were "useful and pleasing to you." Penn signed this "Your loveing Friend" on April 25, 1582. Holme recorded that he had read the letter to the Indians by means of an interpreter.

Originally Penn had conceived his colony to be neither a town nor a city, but an agricultural community, in which each family occupied enough ground to be entirely self-sufficient. This plan was changed drastically, however, even before Penn sailed for America.

During the first few months after arrival, Holme and his family lived with Thomas Fairman and during his first summer in the province he found much to do in his position of surveyor general. Almost immediately Holme set out to select a site for the city of Philadelphia, accompanied by the commissioners Penn had appointed, William Markham, William Haige, and Griffin Jones. As soon as the site was chosen, town lots were apportioned and the Liberty lands were surveyed. These Liberty lands were a compromise solution to the problem resulting from Penn's promise to give a town lot of one hundred acres to each purchaser of five thousand acres. The promise was predicated upon a town covering an area of ten thousand acres. When laid out, however, the city covered just under thirteen hundred acres. Hence Penn gave each purchaser two per cent of his purchase in Liberty land, and a small town lot for each purchase of one thousand acres. Holme and his deputies had the responsibility for surveying the land, for assuring legal title for all of the purchases, and for laying out the lots and the necessary roads within the inhabited parts of the province.

The plan Holme laid out provided for the development of a town, which incidentally, was to be the first town plan to be produced in the British Colonies in North America. Holme's checkerboard of streets allowed only two or three acres between the street lines and these in turn were subdivided into town lots of various sizes. His plans for the city had to be laid out prior to Penn's arrival from England, including plans for three counties in the regions beyond the city southwardly, westwardly and northwardly. These were to be the first and main divisions of the new province. Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester Counties were to be marked off within the next year and most of the lower limits, such as townships, manors, and tracts were to be established by Holme during the next following two decades. Holme laid out the city of Philadelphia and his other maps with instruments he brought from England. He produced a sheepskin original of the portraiture of the city of Philadelphia, from which plates were engraved in England. From these plates copies would be produced for distribution. This portraiture has been called a masterpiece of subtle design.

Holme was quick to take advantage of one of the peripheral benefits of his office. Since he was familiar with the land that was being bought and sold, and aware of which properties were likely to appreciate in value, Holme purchased and sold land, and at one time owned at least eleven hundred acres plus the Liberty lands and the town lots that went with them. When he died, however, only three thousand acres were listed in his will.


About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

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