History Corner: Thomas Holme (1624-1695) Pennsylvania's First Surveyor-General Part 2
Professional Surveyor Magazine - March 2001
Silvio A. Bedini
Thomas Holme (1624-1695), was an English-born member of the Society of Friends who fought in Ireland with Cromwell's Parliamentary army with the rank of captain. In the program of resettlement he served as an admeasurer, receiving some four thousand acres of land as his allotment for military service. He met William Penn in Ireland, who appointed him surveyor-general of the tract of land that had been granted to Penn and became the province of Pennsylvania. Holme laid out the plan for the city of Philadelphia and produced the first detailed map of the province, and in 1683, a map of the city. In addition to surveying and map-making, Holme served the proprietors of Pennsylvania in a number of other capacities.
Surveying Philadelphia and Further
During the next decade and a half, Holme's work embraced far more than his plan for Philadelphia, for to him fell also the duty from Penn or his commissioners to survey and set out city lots, in addition to lots in the Liberties (suburbs) of Philadelphia, which were allowed to holders of city lots. In 1682 only Broad Street and High Street, the axial streets of Philadelphia, were named. He also was required to lay out tracts, townships and manors in the three counties of Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks.
Deputy surveyors functioned under Holme's supervision, and upon completion of each survey or re-survey by his subordinates, he recorded an accurate account of each in the Secretary's office for fourteen years. The chief responsibility for the surveying of the province rested on Holme throughout that period except during his absences on two sojourns in England in 1688-89 and 1690-94.
Penn appointed Holme one of the commissioners of property and he was elected a member of the Executive Council. In 1688 his commission as surveyor general was extended to include the Territories—New Castle, Sussex and Kent Counties in the present state of Delaware. Following his return from England to the province in 1694, the commission was recorded as having the Great Seal affixed to it. In the course of his work, Holme became a major landholder, owning a considerable number of lots in the city, 100 acres in the Liberties of Philadelphia, and great tracts in the county.
Holme was active in many aspects of the life of the new province, including acting as Penn's agent for the purchase of Indian land, having a prominent role in legislative affairs, and remaining actively involved in the Society of Friends. He was a member of the first Assembly of Pennsylvania which met at Upland (now Chester) on December 4, 1682, served several times on the Provincial Council between 1683 and 1686, and as acting president of the Council and acting governor. He also was a member of the committee that drafted the Frame of Government of 1683 and the committee that was appointed the following year to consider the boundary dispute with Lord Baltimore. Holme was involved as well in the negotiation of several Indian treaties. One of these, concluded in 1685 while Holme was president of the Council, formed the basis of Penn's claim to the city of Philadelphia and adjacent country as far west as the Susquehanna River.
In general, Holme had become a highly respected uncontroversial gentleman of the colony, but he was not without faults. In 1687 his deputy Thomas Fairman presented a grievance to the Provincial Council against Holme and when Holme died he also declared that Holme had left an unpaid debt of l50 pounds owed to Fairman. Although Penn at another time had described Holme as "sober, wise and loving," in June 1685, Penn asked Thomas Lloyd, president of the Provincial Council to speak to Holme because of "the reports that come hither of his drinking collations, by which we are most displeased and dishonored." Penn had received a report that Holme would not survey land until his thirst had been slaked. This particular party for Holme and his assistants cost the landowner twelve pounds.
After Holmes's death, surprisingly William Penn bitterly accused him of having cheated him, but there is no evidence to support such a claim. It is possible that Penn had expected Holme to confiscate and return to him land that had been taken up but not seated within the three years required. Penn also may have expected all overplus land brought to light by resurveys to be conveyed to him. If so, however, the fault was not with Holme, for he ordered no surveys without orders from the Proprietor after the directive was given.
Wide Range of Responsibiities
From the time of Holme's tenure, the surveyor was responsible for carrying out the wishes of the Penn family concerning the settling of the colony. In addition to running the lines for lots and streets, Holme was often asked to decide on the site for a town, the orientation of the streets, and the placement of public buildings, decide on the use of timber, resolve possibly conflicting claims of settlers, and sometimes whether an inhabitant should be allowed to develop a lot that he had purchased in a lottery.
Holme's maps were important in the early development of the colony. Holme's well-planned town of Philadelphia with its parks and wide streets and many vacant lots attracted settlers and tradesmen, and the map of the province with descriptions of its natural resources and inhabitants probably had the same effect. The city map was titled "A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia …" and was first printed in A Letter from William Penn … to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders (London, 1683) and circulated widely in England and on the Continent. It was also used as a reference for the colonists and settlers in matters of legal jurisdiction. As the first maps of the colony, they attained considerable significance because they were reasonably accurate and formed the basis for the promotion of initial colonization in Pennsylvania.
An Epochal Record of the Province
Holme's first detailed map of the province was titled "A Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pensilvania in America, Divided Into Countyes, Townships and Lotts … ." London [c. 1687]. It was sold by P. Lea at "ye Atlas and Hercules in Cheapside" and was dedicated to William Penn by John Harris, with an inset of the city of Philadelphia that was the focal point of the map. Penn had ordered Holme to produce this map of the area for the purpose of promoting the colony to prospective European investors. Based upon Holme's seven sheet wall map that was used in the chambers of the proprietors and land owners, new information about lots and landowners was added to this second edition published by Philip Lea and distributed throughout Europe and America. This map is important because it notes the lots and names of landowners in Bucks, Chester, and Philadelphia counties sold up to that time. The date when the map was reproduced in printed form for the first time is not known. Although latitudes and longitudes are lacking, the map is nevertheless a comprehensive and epochal record of the first wide surveying of the province.
Holme's death occurred on his own plantation in Dublin Township, Philadelphia County in the early spring of 1695. At some time before his death, he had set aside one acre of ground on his Well Spring Plantation to be reserve for use as a burial ground for himself and his descendants. This cemetery is part of the five hundred acre tract purchased from Samuel Crispin in 1686 in a clump of trees on the left situated about a hundred feet from the road. After driving north on Roosevelt Boulevard to the Pennepack Circle then turning right on Holme Avenue, at Pennypack Park, Holmesburg, Philadelphia, the ancient burial ground known as the Old Crispin Cemetery is halfway between the Boulevard and Holmesburg. It is in this burial ground that Holme is buried, as well as his daughter Esther Crispin and Silas Crispin. In keeping with Quaker procedures, Holme's grave originally was marked simply only by a large field stone.
Paying Tribute to Holme
In 1863, more than a century and a half after Holme's death, a monument, in the form of a square marble obelisk, was erected to Holme's memory by the Trustees of the Lower Dublin Academy, a corporation which since 1794 has managed the school first built there in 1723 on land set aside by Holme's heirs for that purpose. The site of his grave was verified by deepening the excavation required for the foundation of the monument. At a depth of a little over four feet was found a hollow space several inches deep, wherein lay "an almost perfect skeleton of a man at least six feet in length … the skull and head bones with jaws … perfect." The remains were re-interred in an appropriate receptacle placed in the stone foundation of the square marble shaft that rises about six feet in height. One side is inscribed "In memory of Thomas Holme, died 1695, aged seventy-one. Surveyor-General of William Penn." He drafted the plan and laid out the City of Philadelphia. The inscription on the other side states "He became the proprietor of 1,646 acres of land in one tract by grant of Penn in 1684, named his Well Spring Plantation, of which this ground is a part." The cemetery had remained abandoned for many years until 1924, when a member of the Crispin family arranged to have the entire area cleared of underbrush and a substantial fence installed around that portion used for burial. Since then, the cemetery has been turned over to the City to maintain. Not long ago, a bill petitioning the State to establish the cemetery as a historical shrine passed both Houses unanimously, but was vetoed by the governor. Sic transit gloria mundi!
Silvio Bedini is an Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.
» Back to our March 2001 Issue