Robert Brooke, Father and Son, Surveyors of Virginia

"I have often regretted that after so many Years as these Countrys have been seated, no Attempts have been made to discover the Sources of Our Rivers, nor to Establishing Corespondance w'th those Nations of Indians to ye Westw'd of Us, even after the certain Knowledge of the Progress made by French in Surrounding us w'th their Settlements."-Spotswood, Official Letters, iii.295


In the late summer of 1716, Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood led an armed expedition of 63 men across the piedmont and over the Blue Ridge mountains to the waters of the Shenandoah River. The mounted company of gentlemen traveled in style; the entourage included servants, dogs, and pack horses laden with food and strong drink. Although a few cynics dismissed the excursion as a mere "picnic," it proved to be a popular and romantic journey to the colonists, and was given credit as the first step towards settling the Virginia frontier. Because their horses had to be shod for the journey, Governor Spotswood later presented each gentleman with a small gold horseshoe "studded with valuable stones resembling the heads of nails" and bearing the inscription "Sic juvat transcendere montes." One of the celebrated "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe" was Robert Brooke of Essex County. He benefitted from the popularity of the expedition, the fraternal connections formed with the other participants, and the topographical knowledge gained from the journey. Moreover, Robert Brooke and his son would make vital contributions to Spotswood's desire to discover the rivers' sources and "correspond" with the Indians.

Robert Brooke owned "Farmer's Hall," a 600-acre plantation along the banks of the Rappahannock River. His father was a Gentleman Justice, whose duties included the issuance of marriage licenses, witnessing recordations of deeds and land sales, levying taxes, and other responsibilities. Although Robert Brooke undoubtedly inherited his father's character and ability, he apparently was not content to remain on his plantation. Beginning with Spotswood's expedition and lasting until his death, Robert traveled throughout the frontier and wilderness of colonial Virginia, exploring, surveying, and mapping lands both for the Crown and early speculators. His firsthand know-ledge enabled him to greatly improve his family's fortunes, for "no one knew better than the surveyor what desirable lands remained unpatented, were likely to escheat… or had been abandoned by absentee heirs."

Robert began his professional career as de-puty clerk for Essex County, where he received a percentage of the Clerk's fees for copying and recording deeds and preparing estate inventories. These duties may account for his fair handwriting, and certainly helped prepare him for his life as a surveyor. At least one historian believes he may have assisted the Essex surveyor during his deputy clerk days, and that may have been how he discovered his true calling. In 1726 he was appointed County Surveyor for Essex, a job which entailed marking lines, running boundaries, and supervising road crews. His instructions were issued from Williamsburg, the colonial capital, where he met the finest surveyors of his time-William Mayo, Peter Jefferson, Benjamin Winslow, John Savage, and Joshua Fry. They may have given advice on obtaining land as well, for in 1726, Robert Brooke's name appears, with five others, on a petition to the Governor and Council, seeking 50,000 acres of land in the Valley of Virginia, the first reference to that wilderness since Spots-wood's journey. But he remained busy in the tidewater region; Brooke's workload was effectively doubled when he was appointed surveyor of the new Caroline County, and his family was growing.

Although no birth dates were provided, we know from his 1736 will that Robert and his wife Phoebe had eight children, none of them yet "of age." He wrote out his will anticipating the dangers that characterized surveying a wild frontier: "For as much as I intend in a few days to set out on a journey in order to finish a survey of 60,000 acres granted by order of Council to the Honorable John Tayloe and Thomas Lee, Esqrs., and Colo. William Beverley, Gent., 23 April 1735, in which tract Mr. William Russell and myself are by agreement to have each of us 12,000 acres from which survey, if I never return home."

Although he returned unharmed, this commission led to more professional challenges. As part of a boundary dispute between Lord Fairfax and the English Privy Council concerning the Northern Neck proprietorship, a complete survey of the territory was ordered. This considerable undertaking required tracing the Potomac River to its headwaters, tracing the north and south branches of the Rappahannock to their headwaters, measuring the boundaries of the Northern Neck counties, and running the western boundary connecting the Rappahannock and Potomac headwater sites-the Fairfax Line. The rivers and waterways were surveyed in 1736 and 1737, but the Fairfax Line wouldn't be run for another ten years.

The exacting task of tracing the course of the Potomac to its headspring was undertaken by William Mayo and Robert Brooke acting for the Crown, and Benjamin Winslow and John Savage acting for Lord Fairfax. They began at its confluence with the Shenandoah river, marking a group of trees there, and followed their instructions to "run the Courses, and Measure the Distances thereof to its first Spring" and "return an Exact Plat, shewing all the Streams runing into the same on either side, together with a fair copy of their Field-Notes." Sadly, the original notes and sketches were lost, and its only surviving form was the final compiled map. But Robert Brooke was not done surveying the river, he was enjoined to prepare a map of the Potomac waters adjacent to Prince William County, even though he was surveyor of Essex and Caroline counties at the time. On the 24th of May 1737, Brooke wrote from his home in Essex to Colonel William Beverley, one of My Lord's commissioners, that despite a "Feaver" he was hurrying to finish the Prince William survey and would try to "get a fair plan of it" by the time of next court but "must be in Caroline all next week." Beverley, less than sympathetic, replied: "I am very sorry for your so great indisposition-I heartily wish you a speedy recovery & pfect health-We should be very glad to have a plot of potomack as soon as possible, and I was in hopes we might have had it this week or the beginning of next, and as the duties of your offices interfere with each other, I think that of least consequence ought to give way to the greater, but this I leave to your own Judgement." Brooke made the deadline, for in the next session of the Virginia Council, his payment for "Surveying Potomac River, the boundary of Prince William County" was awarded, along with the money owed for tracing the Potomac to its headwaters.

An Enviable Reputation
After these two large assignments, Robert Brooke seemed to stay closer to his family and his plantation; surviving plats are from Essex, Caroline, and Prince William counties. He died in 1744 leaving "an enviable reputation as surveyor," more than 8,000 acres of Virginia land, and most importantly, another fine surveyor: his eldest son Robert.

An accomplished surveyor in his own right, Robert was appointed County Surveyor of Essex and Caroline after his father's death. Like his father before him, young Robert was also chosen to make a journey in auspicious company. In the spring of 1744 he was one of "seven flaming fine gentlemen" selected to accompany Virginia commissioners to the frontier town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There they would be joined by delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Six Nations of the Iroquois to negotiate a new land treaty. Virginia's senior commissioner was Thomas Lee of Stratford, presently to become acting governor, and his second was Colonel William Beverley of Orange County. The Virginians' journey began aboard the yacht Margaret, up the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, where they were "entertained by Governor and Madam Bladen. At Philadelphia old James Logan personally conducted them through his library; they hearkened to the Presbyterian preacher, Gilbert Tennent; and they took tea with the prominent Jewish merchant, Solomon Levy." At last arriving in Lancaster, the delegations settled down to arbitration. In due time, Commissioner Thomas Lee was able to report that Virginia was now bounded on the west "by the South Sea…including California."

Meanwhile, back in London, the Privy Council finally took up and adjudicated Virginia v. Fairfax. "The decree entered on April 11, 1745, found that the Northern Neck proprietary included all the lands between the rivers Potomac and Rappahannock lying east of a straight line from the head spring of Potomac, as established by the survey of 1736, to the head spring of the Rappahannock." It was now necessary to survey the Fairfax Line. Commissioners were appointed, and they in turn selected four surveyors: Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas Jefferson), Benjamin Winslow, Thomas Lewis, and Robert Brooke. From the Rappahannock head spring, the surveyors struck a northwest line which took them up and down mountains, through swamps, creeks, and thickets, all the while chaining the distance for 76 miles. Nearing the Potomac head spring, they sent Benjamin Winslow scouting for the trees marked ten years earlier. When he succeeded and returned to tell them, Thomas Lewis wrote "This piece of good News was So very agreeable yet it Seemd [to] Inspire every one with New life & vigour & was then Resolved to Run a traverse to the Spring head…"

When the entire party arrived at the copse of marked trees, Robert Brooke beheld his late father's carved initials. The team ran a corrected line back, and closed within 100 yards of their beginning point. The map prepared by Peter Jefferson and Robert Brooke "introduced topographic details of the little-known northern region between the Blue Ridge and Alleghenies that were a valuable addition to Virginia's cartography."

Securing Virginia's Future
The Brooke men's surveying careers can be measured by how much they were trusted by others, especially their professional peers who shared mutual cares, labors, and dangers. Although surveying Virginia's highways, byways, and wilderness kept them away from their families for extended periods, both men were loving husbands and fathers. Robert Brooke-father and son-were equally at ease with powerful colonial officials and settlers as well as Indians of the frontier. Both men, through their surveying, mapping, and ambassadorial contributions helped secure Virginia's future.

Mary Munson Rouse Root is a licensed land surveyor, the Editor of Backsights (Journal of the Surveyors Historical Society), and an 11th generation Virginian.

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