The Jefferson Stone

Silvio Bedini is a Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution. For the past eighteen years he has authored the History Corner column in this magazine. Bedini has specialized in the history of surveying and mapping in this country. His numerous scientific publications include histories of surveys, biographies of surveyors and descriptions of the equipment that surveyors have used (much of it handmade). With the addition of his latest book, I am even more certain that there is no aspect of surveying that does not interest him.

The Jefferson Stone is the story of the establishment of the first geographical reference meridian in this country. This book focuses on multiple aspects of the project, from President Thomas Jefferson's reasoning as to why such a meridian was needed, to the particular troubles of the surveyor who did the initial work, to the history of the actual monument itself. It is a fascinating story, indeed.

Jefferson's desire to establish an American prime meridian was one of his many ideas to further the independence and recognition for the young nation. He wanted as little reliance upon England as possible. His interest in exploration and mapping America is well known. What is less well known, but explained here, is that he did not want the new maps drawn of this country to be based on the Greenwich Meridian. Jefferson wanted the maps to be based on an American meridian located in Washington, D.C.

The task of establishing such a meridian was assigned to Isaac Briggs, the Surveyor General for the Territory of Mississippi. Briggs did the work for the President as a sort of "test" of his instrument before he headed south. After Briggs made the observations, he left the job of setting the monuments to Nicholas King, Surveyor of the District of Columbia.

King set three monuments, the primary one—the Jefferson Stone—being the point of intersection of the meridian line in question and a line that ran through the center of the President's house.

The idea of establishing an American reference meridian was eventually dropped in favor of all countries using a single meridian. The monuments, however, became entangled in a confusing and interesting history. The Jefferson Stone in particular came to be involved in several significant events in Washington. (A current photo of the stone can be found on page 12 of this issue.)

The stone was first used as the bench mark for the construction of the Washington Monument. During one of the periods when construction on the Washington monument was halted, the Jefferson Stone was removed by the Corps of Engineers while they working on a project to clean up the area. When work was resumed on the Washington monument years later, settlement elevations were checked against what was thought to be the bench mark. The engineers were astounded to see that the Washington monument had settled eight inches. It took awhile for them to figure out that they had the wrong reference point, and that the right one had actually been destroyed.

The next time the Jefferson Stone came to the attention of officials was during the Potomac Flats law suit. This suit concerned the ownership of land adjacent to waterways in the vicinity of the Jefferson Stone. The monument had been used as a bench mark for riparian boundary control. When it was again discovered by the government to be missing, the Attorney General of the United States ordered that it be reestablished. This was done in 1899 by the Corps of Engineers. It is this second generation monument that one can see today on the lawn near the Washington monument.

Of all audiences, surveyors in particular will enjoy and appreciate The Jefferson Stone. But more than the history of the structure itself, the book is the story of the whole process of establishing, then reestablishing, survey control in the nation's capital. It is a well-told and well-illustrated tale with many interesting participants. Bedini has spotlighted the important contributions of the surveyors who really understood the value of the work of establishing the monument and knew exactly what the monuments marked. Some things never change.


Patrick Toscano is the City Surveyor for New Britain, Connecticut, and the Book Review Editor for the magazine.


» Back to our January 2000 Issue