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

In the long roster of names of men who surveyed and mapped Virginia in its early period, among the most notable is that of English-born surveyor, William Mayo, who settled first in Barbados, where within a decade he married and amassed a fortune in land development before moving permanently to Virginia in 1723. Working as a surveyor in the Piedmont region, he methodically purchased land periodically adding to his holdings. Becoming associated with Virginia's first commissioner, William Byrd, Mayo participated in the survey of the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina.

By 1728, settlement of Henrico County had increased substantially and made it necessary to form a new county, which was named Goochland. Mayo was being considered for the new post, and in May he received the appointment of the first surveyor of Goochland County, and also was elected a member of the first court of Goochland County, posts he retained until his death in 1744.

In 1730 Mayo also was promoted to the rank of major of the militia with the influence of his friend William Byrd, a position that later brought them into even closer association. In 1731 illness prevented Byrd from participating in a planned expedition, but Mayo being free and available, was directed by the Council to run the boundary between Goochland and Hanover Counties.

Processioning Land Bounds
One of Mayo's duties was the processioning of the bounds of the lands in the parish which had to be done every four years to keep the boundary lines clear. In 1731 he ran the boundary line between Goochland and Hanover Counties, and since business was active, he was allowed to take an assistant for the following year. He also proposed to lay out a town to be named Warwick as a port on the James River, but the House of Burgesses rejected it as not necessary. In this period Mayo received by royal grant a tract of land on the James River below Richmond which became the family homesteads for many generations. It was at this time that he married for the second time. Ann Pratt from Barbadoes, came to Virginia to be Mayo's second wife. They eventually became parents of another four children.

By 1731 Mayo owned nearly 38,000 acres and 47 slaves, some purchased directly from Guinea traders. On his two plantations he grew orchards of cherry, peach and plum, kept hogs and cattle, and operated a store and mill. From 1732 until 1739 Mayo operated a land company with George Carrington as his assistant. With Byrd he shared an interest in plants and herbs, and a surviving letter from Byrd related how with considerable secrecy Byrd and Mayo had developed a plan to travel together to look for ginseng. They had learned about the plant's therapeutic value from the Indians, who used its red berries for rheumatism and other pains. From 1732 until 1739, a Mayo land company was operative. In 1734 Mayo obtained an inclusive patent for six hundred acres and eight hundred acres, obtained separately. In 1732 Byrd was appointed a commissioner for the crown to determine the southern boundary of the Northern Neck, Lord Fairfax's proprietary. Mayo was selected as chief engineer, and when the surveyors had completed their work, he was given the task of combining their plats into a single general map which was much admired by Byrd and others, for having been executed "in a Masterly Manner" with what was described as "the almost uncanny accuracy of his work." It was rejected by Lord Fairfax, however, who commissioned John Warner to prepare another. In 1733 William Mayo, now with the rank of major in the militia, joined William Byrd, John Banister, Mumford and Peter Jones on what Byrd called a "Journey to the Land of Eden." This was the surveying trip that in 1728 Byrd and Mayo had planned to return to the Roanoke River to survey the land for which they had already made entries. Following his second marriage in the summer of 1736, Mayo undertook the last two of his great commissions. It was at this time that at Byrd's home, Blue Stone Castle, Byrd and Mayo planned the cities of Petersburg and Richmond. Byrd related that in preparation for the meeting Mayo brought along "a surveyor's tent large enough to shelter a small troop." Byrd and Mayo laid out the foundations of two large cities, one at Shacco's, to be called Richmond, and the other at the Point of Appamattuck River to be named Petersburgh, both shrewdly located at the falls line, which Mayo "offered to lay out into lots without Fee or reward."

Working For "No Fee or Reward"
Within four years Mayo laid out Richmond in a rectangle of eight squares long and four wide, each divided into four lots. Each sold for seven pounds Virginia currency. For laying out Richmond for William Byrd, the first town in the Piedmont, Mayo accepted no pay. Mayo was employed again by the Virginia Council to undertake a survey for the king in the controversy over the Fairfax claim. Associated with him was Robert Brooke, and in 1738 Mayo, Brooke and Joshua Fry petitioned the Assembly to allow them to make a survey of the province. The Assembly demurred, and finally suggested that someone else, without a personal interest, should draw a map, and the matter was postponed for another decade. Meanwhile, Mayo had already made a rough sketch of the colony which Governor Gooch had included with his report to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, dated May 10, 1731 as the official sketch of Virginia, which Gooch admitted was not exact, but the best available at little expense. The unsigned map was for the purpose of depicting the North Carolina boundary and the development of the new counties. It demonstrated a knowledge of the valley of the Shenandoah but revealed little if any knowledge of the lower valley. Nevertheless, it reflected Mayo's superior draughtsmanship.

Mayo was an inveterate trader all his life, and as a consequence, by the time of his death he left a large estate. Because of his advancing age and the increasing volume of surveying work, in 1739 Mayo was allowed to employ Ambrose Smith as an assistant. Settlement of the county had been slow in the beginning. During his first two years Mayo completed only 49 surveys, but soon the pace quickened and he was permitted to hire additional assistants. Mayo was Goochland County surveyor for sixteen years, from 1728 to 1744, during which he played an important role in training surveyors of the middle Piedmont and for establishing the prototype of the larger scale wide ranging frontier office. Regrettably, the county's surveying records have not survived to document his work. As a consequence, his reputation is based almost entirely upon his maps and his work on colonial boundaries, without recognition of the many smaller scale surveys of the enormous territory that was Goochland. Then it constituted a gigantic expanse, cutting through the central Piedmont from a point about ten miles west of Richmond to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mayo's expertise in mapping large territories was gradually recognized and appreciated in Virginia, from the time he helped prepare the 1728 map of the Virginia-North Carolina boundary. Three years later he had prepared for Governor Gooch "a map of the country, not exact, but the best that can be drawn with little expense." By 1737, after surveying the upper reaches of the Potomac, Mayo was ready to draw his masterpiece, which Byrd described as "a very elegant map of the whole Northern neck." A year and a half later Mayo tried to obtain support for publishing a map of the entire colony that was badly needed, and although supported by Robert Brooke, Joshua Fry, and Governor Gooch, the project was postponed for the next thirteen years and then produced by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson.

Peter Jefferson, then a young land developer of the back country and speculator who had moved to Goochland County for the express purpose of developing the region, became one of Mayo's new neighbors. Jefferson was a late arrival in Goochland and soon discovered that one of his neighbors was then recognized as the foremost Virginia surveyor of his time. Mayo and Jefferson soon became acquainted, a friendship developed, and Mayo invited Jefferson to accompany him on some of his later field trips. It is believed that it was from Mayo that Jefferson learned the rudiments of surveying.

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

» Back to our March 2000 Issue