George Washington (1732-1799) Surveyor and Cartographer, Part 1

Although Colonel Henry Lee's eulogy "To the memory of the Man," described George Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," he was, in fact, first of all a professional surveyor. As a boy and youth probing the secrets of the continental frontier, his work reflected all the characteristics which became recognized as the essential traits of the new profession of the civil engineer. The need to collect all ascertainable facts before reaching conclusions, and the utilization of natural resources for producing useful results, were among the characteristics of the successful frontiersman.


A Career for a "Gentleman"
George was born on his father's estate, later known as "Wakefield," situated between Bridges Creek and Popes Creek, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Born to a man of property and good family, Washington pursued the mathematical sciences at an early age. His father, Augustine, and his elder half-brother appear to have been his principals, if not his only, early teachers. When George Washington's father died in 1743, young George was only eleven years old, and the question of his education and his future eventually became a family concern requiring serious discussion. When in 1747 he had reached the age of fifteen, it was decided to hold a family conference to plan his career. Having the social status of a "gentleman," the most likely opportunities were in either the army or the navy, and there appeared to be few if any other choices worthy of consideration. At this time there were no scientific schools for technical training. A scientific education could be achieved only by study at home or enrollment in an English or European university, the costs of which exceeded his means.

There was no doubt that young George's personal inclinations were for either a military career or possibly a life at sea, such as attracted many boys of his age and in his time. His elder half-brother Lawrence had served under Admiral Vernon in the British service, and there was consideration of a plan that George might go to sea. Such a plan, however, was promptly discouraged by a disapproving mother because of information she received from her brother in England.

By nature George was like most boys of his age and time, impulsive, venturesome and curious, and the standard education of a colonial country school was less than satisfactory. It is estimated that the major part of George's schooling totaled seven or eight years. After due deliberation, all that seemed to be left was a career in surveying, which lacked the glamour and potential excitement of the military or a life at sea, but nonetheless promised adventure in the wilderness of the continental frontier. Immense tracts of land remained comparatively unknown wilderness in this time; often the grantee was uncertain of the extent of his boundaries or whether in fact he owned the land to which he laid claim. As a consequence, surveying was a lucrative profession, and of much consideration. It also carried adequate weight socially inasmuch as it required substantial knowledge of the people and of the country. George's developing interest in surveying and in the wilderness of the Allegheny Mountains may have derived from his mother's urging to direct his thoughts "to those darkling forests that stretched illimitably away to the westward of their Virginia home."

Early Tools and Training
Washington's training as a surveyor was limited to the resources available. At Ferry Farm, the home of his elder half-brother Augustine, he had found surveying instruments that had belonged to his father. Included were a brass plain surveying compass, a jacob staff, surveying chain and poles, and probably an English text on the art. He had learned the purpose of Gunter's rule and how to use it in surveying from his copy of The Young Man's Companion in Four Parts … and he acquired some of the rudiments of the art from friends and acquaintances. In time he acquired a substantial knowledge of trigonometry, geometry, and the rudiments of surveying from Henry Williams, with whom he continued his studies.

At the age of thirteen Washington already had begun to run lines at his home and neighboring plantations of his kinsmen. Subsequently he received further instruction from surveyors in his region, including George Byrne, George Hume, and James Genn, the licensed surveyor of Westmoreland County. As a consequence of this training, he mastered neatness in writing and precision in drawing at an early period, which were reflected in all of his surveys.

By the time that he was fifteen in the fall of 1747, Washington had become sufficiently proficient in the rudiments of surveying to undertake surveying for remuneration, and was receiving small sums for surveys for family friends and neighbors. In fact he was sufficiently successful as to earn enough to enable him to make loans of small sums to young friends and relatives. In these early years of his surveying, all of his surveys are in terms of degrees, and never in minutes as well.

At "Belvoir," the nearby Fairfax estate, Washington had developed a friendship with young George William Fairfax, and in 1748, when Lord Fairfax sent James Genn to survey his Shenandoah lands for tenantry, Washington, then sixteen, and young Fairfax were allowed to accompany him into the Blue Ridge Mountains to explore and map this less known frontier of Fairfax land. Washington's notes of the journey record the wide range of problems, discomforts and hazards they encountered. After the major part of the field work had been completed, George used as an office a small brick house near Greenway Court about twelve miles from Winchester, and there he worked up his notes and plats. They were gone for a month, and gained valuable experience. From his journey and survey in the South Fork Valley, Washington had an early encounter with the hardships and hazards of the highland frontier. During this period he maintained a detailed account of his field activities in a working diary that he referred to as A Journal of My Journey Over the Mountains. On the fifth night of the journey, for instance, he recorded that his bed consisted of:

… nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together without Sheets or anything else but only one thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c.

Several sample entries from the Journal provide an indication of how he worked:

March 29. This morning went out & Survey'd five Hundred Acres of Land & went down to one Michael Stumps on ye So Fork of ye Branch on our way Shot two Wild Turkies.

March 30. This Morning began our Intended Business of Laying of Lots we began at ye Boundary Line of ye Northern 10 Miles above Stumps.

March 3l… . we then went to our Business run of three Lots & returnd to our Camping place at Stumps.

April 2. Lot 12th Michael Stumps Begins at an Ash at ye Foot of ye Mountain Corner to Lot 11 & Running along ye Line So 55 Et 274 Po: to a Pine thence No. 25 Et 320 po to 2 Pines thence No. 65 Wt 188 po to ye Low G [low ground] 280 po to 2 Sycamores & a White Wood tree standing on ye Fork … .

Washington completed the survey of the 20 Fairfax lots near the South Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River in seven working days. Averaging between 400 to 500 acres each, they made a total of almost 10,000 acres. These lots were laid out with only three lines surveyed on each square lot. The closing line was not surveyed, but sometimes the bearing and distance were completed on the closing line.

Despite his youth, he was already earning his own living and undoubtedly contributing to the support of his mother and her four small children. He had already purchased five hundred and fifty acres of wild land in Albemarle County with his earnings. By the age of twenty-one he owned 1,558 acres of land purchased from his own earnings.

In the following year Washington was appointed surveyor for the county of Culpeper. The College of William and Mary had been given the office of Surveyor General of Virginia with the privilege of appointing county surveyors after examination and test, one-sixth of whose revenue reverted to the College. In the records for Culpeper County for July 20, 1749:
George Washington, Gent, produced a commission from the President and Masters of William and Mary College, appointing him to be surveyor of this county, which was read and thereupon he took the usual oath to his majesty's person and government and took and subscribed the adjuration oath and test, and then took the oath of surveyor, he became an officer of the colony.

He was seventeen years of age at the time. In the same year he produced "a Plat of the land whereon stands the Town of Alexandria." In actuality he was actively engaged as a professional surveyor for only four years from 1747 to 1751, but he continued to make use of his invaluable knowledge of the land throughout his life, often for measuring and platting his own property, as well as for military planning.

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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