William Mayo (1684-1744) Surveyor of the Virginia Piedmont

Born in Poulshot, Wilts County in southwestern England in 1684, William Mayo was the eldest child of the well-to-do family of Joseph and Elizabeth (Hooper) Mayo. At the age of twenty-five he left England, accompanied by his younger brother Joseph, to seek his fortune in Barbadoes, where a cousin had settled some time earlier. There he established himself as a surveyor, and in due course married the daughter of a Bridgetown merchant.


In 1717 Mayo received a commission to make a map of Barbadoes, which he accomplished with such skill that Governor William Tryon urged the English Board of Trade to purchase it and to grant Mayo a patent enabling him to sell his map on a commission basis. The map also gained him election to membership in the Royal Society of London.

Mayo remained in the West Indies for ten years. It was in about 1719 that Mayo, now nearly forty years of age, with four daughters and with his fortune already made and assured, began to consider moving permanently to Virginia. Finally, in 1723, with his own family and the families of two brothers and a cousin, he arrived in the American colonies. The change from the life to which they had become accustomed was considerable, and the newcomers experienced difficult times at first. They were forced to learn more austere ways of living in unanticipated simplification in relative wilderness, when compared to the sophisticated social life they had left behind in wealthy Bridgetown, whose jewelers and silversmiths almost rivaled those of Paris.

Surveyed Virgina-North Carolina Border
Mayo lost no time in establishing himself in his new surroundings. By December he had purchased a thousand acres on the James River from William Randolph, who with his six sons had become leaders in the settlement of the James and York Rivers. Year after year thereafter, Mayo periodically added more purchases of land to keep increasing his investment.

It is probable that during his first four years in Virginia, Mayo found employment with a local surveyor, or he may have worked privately as a surveyor. The earliest record of his professional activity is an announcement in 1727 by the Virginia Council that Mayo had been appointed to assist the Virginia commissioners in running the unsurveyed boundary with North Carolina. Mayo's membership in the Royal Society undoubtedly played a role in enabling him to secure this important appointment. His personal acquaintance with William Byrd, the Virginia boundary commissioner, also probably influenced the appointment. Mayo and Byrd became fast friends, and a productive long-lasting partnership resulted.

The Virginia-North Carolina boundary line had remained unsurveyed while a dispute raged around it for more than forty years. The survey was fraught with many problems, ranging from the inherent hazards the wilderness contained to the conflicting politics within the Virginia Council and the intercolonial jealousy of Virginia and North Carolina, which appeared to be unsurmountable.

Byrd admired Mayo and was impressed with his skills as a draftsman as well as his hardiness in the field. He gave Mayo the nickname "Honest Astrolabe," which he used frequently in referring to him in Secret History of the Line, his account of the boundary survey. One of the rivers encountered in the course of the work was named for Mayo. At the Great Dismal Swamp, Byrd wrote, the other surveyor "was excused from the Fatigue, in complement of his Lungs", but Mayo persisted through. Mayo, Byrd noted, "endured the same Hardships and underwent the same Fatigue that the forwardest of the Men did, and that with so much Cheerfulness as if Pain had been his Pleasure, and Difficulty his real Diversion." Although others had occasion to find fault with Mayo and his work, Byrd claimed that the success of the mission was due largely to Mayo's competent work, and with the support of a third commissioner, Byrd convinced Governor Gooch that Mayo had been unjustly maligned and "also so fully persuaded of "Honest Astrolabe's" abilities that he perfectly constrained the Commissary [Blair] to appoint him surveyor of Goochland, much to the mortification of his adversaries."

Surveying in the Dismal Swamp
Byrd estimated that surveying the border between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728 covered a distance of over 230 miles and would require sixteen weeks to complete, including the time required to assemble the party, and for travel to and from the boundary lines. The surveyors normally worked six days a week beginning their day at eight or nine in the morning and continuing till near dark. The Virginia surveyors were paid at a rate of 1 pound sterling or 20 shillings per day. Virginia's share of the expedition's cost was just under 1000 pounds sterling, whereas in comparison the Mason and Dixon survey of over 200 miles of the east-west boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland took nearly five years with 1,737 days spent in the field and cost the proprietors over 3500 pounds sterling. These two surveying projects of roughly comparable distance were actually miles apart in surveying techniques, time spent, cost and nature of terrain measured. The different was due to the fact that the northern boundary passed through some of the most valuable real estate in America, while the southern one was drawn through sand marsh and swamp of a barely inhabitable region of poor land and to woods of a self-explored mountain wilderness.

The most important and hazardous part of the 1728 expedition was carrying the boundary line directly through fifteen miles of the Dismal Swamp. When contemplated in 1711, it had been considered to be impossible to cross the swamp, and other means were being sought. In 1728 the North Carolina commissioners still thought the swamp to be impassable and considered a similar plan. Three surveyors, however, Mayo, Irvine and Swann, and twelve assistants carrying instruments, bedding and provisions for eight days ventured to enter the barrier of reeds that were twelve feet tall and vicious "Bamboo briers" where the ground was "so spongy that the prints of our feet were instantly filled with water." The commissioners turned back and circled the swamp area and waited anxiously on the west side for the surveying party to emerge. It was a long and anxious period. On the sixth day without news, guns were fired but there were no answering shots to be heard. It was not until the ninth day, when the commissioners had just about given up all hope, that the surveyors came straggling out to report that the direct route of the line through the Dismal Swamp was fifteen miles, of which ten had been surveyed. Another ten days were required to complete the last five miles. Five and one-half days had been required to survey the first twenty-one miles, including one spot where beaver dams and otter holes had made it impossible to run a direct line "but the surveyors were content to make a traverse."

The surveyors worked under the most difficult conditions, as noted by William Byrd. In his account of the Journey to the Land of Eden, in his History of the Dividing Line, he wrote "…I think I ought to do Justice not only to the uncommon Skill, but also to the Courage and Indefatigable Industry of Maj.r Mayo and two of the other Surveyors, employ'd in this long and difficult Task. Neither the unexpected Distance, nor the Danger of being doubly Starved by Hunger and excessive Cold, could in the least discourage them from going thro' with their Work, tho' at one time they were almost reduced to the hard necessity of cutting up the most useless Person among them, Mr. [John] Savage, in order to Support and save the lives of the rest. But Providence prevented that dreadfull Blow by an unexpected Supply another way, and so the Blind Surveyor escapt."

An official map was prepared and signed and dated on October 26, 1728, the day following its completion. Sometimes as much as eleven miles were surveyed in one day, and it was usual to complete five to eight miles daily. William Byrd's two narratives of the expedition are filled with information about the hazards that the men faced while measuring land in remote areas, but they are written from the indirect and impersonal view of a commissioner who had been given the report rather than in the words of the surveyor in the field. Byrd worried constantly about the well-being of the men and sympathized with their hardships, but from his post of relative ease at the base camp; while Thomas Lewis, weary of body, sat down by the campfire each night after return to camp to pen an account in 1746 while working on the Fairfax Line.

Despite all the problems, the survey was completed at last and constituted the beginning of Mayo's fortune in Virginia. Goochland County developed slowly, and the wilderness state of the region during this period is reflected by the fact that wolf heads were accepted as quit rents. This was a difficult period for Mayo, for his wife had died recently and his children were growing. He was named a vestry man of St. James Parish. Mayo was appointed one of the justices of the peace and also was selected to locate and provide the county with a courthouse.

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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