History Corner: George Gilpin of Alexandria, Virginia, Part 1

George Gilpin (1740-1813) was not a butcher, a baker nor a candlestick maker, but he occupied what seemed to be an endless list of occupations in Alexandria, Virginia, where he spent most of his life. He was born in Elkton, Cecil County, Maryland, the youngest of three sons of Samuel Gilpin, and a grandson of Joseph Gilpin. They were descendants of a family famous in the annals of Westmoreland in England; at the time of King John their ancestor Richard de Gylpyn was granted land for his valiant slaying of a wild boar later blazoned on his family crest.

Started As Wheat Merchant

Young George was raised chiefly by his brother Thomas until at some time prior to the American Revolution he moved to Alexandria, where he settled permanently and at first established himself as a wheat merchant. In 1770-1771 he was appointed city inspector of flour. On July 12, 1774, he was among the first members of the Committee of Safety of Fairfax County that was formed at the Alexandria Courthouse. The resolutions adopted on that occasion were drafted by George Mason, author of the Bill of Rights. In December, Gilpin was selected as a member of a committee of five directed by the Committee of Safety to assist "in measures of relief for the poor inhabitants of Boston who were sufferers from the Boston Port Bill." In March 1775 he was re-appointed city inspector of flour, and in July 1775 he was promoted from major to colonel of a regiment of Fairfax militia. He accompanied General Washington to the battle of Dorchester Heights and fought beside him through the campaign in New Jersey and at the Battle of Germantown.

George's brother Thomas, who lived in Elkton, became one of the casualties of the times and a martyr of the Revolution. A Quaker with strong convictions against the bearing of arms, Thomas was sent into exile at Winchester, West Virginia, because of the claimed notorious disaffection to the colonial cause. When George visited Thomas and his fellow exiles in 1777-1778, they deputized George to intercede on their behalf before the Congress, then meeting in York, Pennsylvania, and also the Council of Pennsylvania at Lancaster, and have their cause dealt with equitably. George succeeded in obtaining some amelioration of the severity of their treatment, but was unable to obtain their release. It was only some time after Thomas died in March 1778, that the Council of Pennsylvania, unable to sustain the charges against the exiles, allowed them to return to their homes.

When the war ended, Gilpin returned to his home in Alexandria and immediately became active in a wide range of local affairs and the improvement of the community. He was appointed inspector of flour and tobacco for the port of Alexandria from 1781 to 1785 and served as justice of the peace for Fairfax County. When the Virginia Assembly provided by statute for the extensive enlargement of the city of Alexandria, Gilpin was appointed by the Virginia Legislature commissioner in charge of paving and grading of the streets, a position he apparently retained with interruptions until 1801 and later. In 1786 he was elected high sheriff of Fairfax County. During the next several years other civic responsibilities were added, such as serving on committees favoring ratification of the Constitution, supporting the location of the national capital on the banks of the Potomac, as trustee for a lottery to raise funds for street paving, and becoming a trustee first of the town of Mathildaville and then of the town of Tobacco at the Potomac's Great Falls.

In Business With George Washington

Meanwhile, Gilpin was also Alexandria's leading surveyor and, when the Potowmack Navigation Company was organized in 1784-85 with General Washington as its president, Gilpin was one of the company's four directors. The others were Governor Thomas Johnston of Maryland and Governor Lee of Virginia, and Colonel John Fitzgerald. Gilpin was involved in the engineering work from the beginning until well in the 1790s, when the project ended. He surveyed for the project from the southern branch of the Potomac to its source in order to ascertain the river's power for canal navigation. He traveled to Seneca Falls to hire workmen and supervised the construction of locks around the Great Falls.

The Gilpin and Washington families were closely associated, for Gilpin was descended from an English branch of the Washington family and was married first to Catherine Peter, and after her death to her sister, Jane Peter. They were cousins of Martha Dandridge Washington.

Helped Washington Obtain a Level

In September 1785 Washington noted in his diary that he had dined with Gilpin, and in early November he borrowed a scow from him. As work on the canal was about to begin, suitable instruments were required, and Washington turned to Gilpin to acquire them. In October 1785, in a letter to Gilpin discussing the removal of mud from the Potomac riverbed to have its efficacy as fertilizer tested, Washington went on, "I will avail myself also of your kind offer of getting me a Water level with a staff made, in the best manner. I have joiners that could execute the Wooden work as well as it could be done any where, but my Smith is too great a bungler to entrust anything to him that requires skill, or exactness, for which reason, if you conceive, by furnishing me with the Iron part of the level, I could not get the Wood well put to it here. I would thank you for the whole compleat, & will pay the Workmen who do the separate parts, with pleasure. Conceiving that the length of the level contributes to the truth of it, I beg if the whole is made with you, that mine may not be less than four feet." In a letter written a week later, Washington told Gilpin he was pleased that he would provide a level.

The figures shown here appear to be the telescopic level made in the 1780s, signed by Benjamin Rittenhouse, made for General Washington, and later presented by Washington to Gilpin. It was offered for sale among Gilpin's effects at the time of his death in 1813, and purchased from the sale by Thomas Ellicott (1777-1857), a nephew of the surveyor Major Andrew Ellicott. The instrument descended through several generations of his family, and it is believed that it was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

First Telescopic Level Made In America

The instrument is of considerable historical importance, for it appears to be the first telescopic level made in America. The level's brass tube is held in two brass collars that enable the tube to be rotated but cannot be reversed. It can be leveled by means of an adjusting screw and a bubble level in a brass tube, but there are no divided circles. The instrument measures 26 inches overall and it is fitted with an objective having a clear aperture of 2.2 cm. The tube's outside diameter is 3 cm. The tube containing the bubble level is top-mounted and measures 11.5 inches overall, with the bubble opening 3-1/8 inches. It was made to be mounted on a tripod, not a Jacob staff. After the work on the Potowmack Canal ended, Washington presented the level to Gilpin, who continued to use it in his surveys.

Silvio Bedini is a historian emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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