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

The image of George Washington the young surveyor has become an icon of American history. Already engaged in surveying professionally by the age of fifteen, in the course of time he had surveyed some two hundred tracts containing more than 66,000 acres of land.
The position of the colonial county surveyor was no sinecure. Much hard work was involved, with travel, and with mistakes that occasionally occurred and had to be repeated, such as when a rodman, "either stupidly or maliciously, cut his pole only fifteen feet long, instead of sixteen and a half feet, as required by law," producing confusing results until the error was discovered. The contents of "A Book of Surveys Begun in 1749," preserved among some eighteen thousand examples of Washington's penmanship in The Library of Congress, reflects his industry already at the age of seventeen. The earliest of his survey drawings that is known is a survey of Mount Vernon made at the age of about fifteen. A later drawing of much interest is his "A Plan of my Farm on Little Hunter Creek & Potomack River of 1766."
In addition to his surveying responsibilities, Washington continued his interest in the military and in 1752, at the age of twenty, he secured a commission as major and adjutant general for one of the military districts of the province. By 1753 he rose to the rank of major and was selected by Governor Dinwiddie to take a message to the French commander on the Ohio to inquire his authority for invading British domain and to determine his future plans. It was a perilous journey and delicate mission, and it took him on a 600-mile trip over the mountains into the wilderness. By early January 1754 he was once more in Williamsburg with his report as well as a manuscript map. Although his report had been quickly assembled, it was concise, sensible, and the desired information was clearly stated. As he described what he had written:

There is nothing can recommend it to the Public, but this. Those Things which came under the Notice of my own Observations, I have been explicit and just in a recital of: Those which I have gathered from Report, I have been particularly cautious not to augment, but collected the opinions of the several Intelligencers, and selected from the whole the most probable and consistent Account.

The report was considered to be of such sufficient importance and interest that the governor sent it to the printer at Williamsburg, without the map, however, and it was reprinted in 1754 in London by T. Jeffreys with a different map. The knowledge Washington had gained on this trip was of considerable value not only to himself, but also to other colonial authorities in the French and Indian War that followed immediately. The map had considerable practical value due to his knowledge of the wilderness, his power of observation, combined with his facility in map-making acquired as a surveyor.

Surveying Led to Mapmaking
Washington was also an experienced cartographer. The first examples of this work were maps of the town of Alexandria that he had drawn in 1748 after his return from the surveying expedition on the Fairfax lands in the Northern Neck during the previous year. A second map titled, "A plan of Alexandria now Bellhaven" was made by Washington prior to the establishment of the city's municipal government in 1749 and was used for the sale of lots.
In 1755 Washington sent to General Braddock's secretary a map of the so-called "back country," and he also furnished plans of two forts to the governor of Virginia. While it is assumed that Washington produced maps while participating in the French and Indian Wars in 1754, the Braddock expedition in 1755, and various other colonial engagements, the only known authentic military map is his sketch of Fort Cumberland.
The last map made by Washington, "Sketch of the Country Between the Waters of Potomack and those of Youghagany and Monongahela at sketched by Gen.l Washington," probably was one he made in 1784 relating to his interest in inland navigation, especially in connection with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In the course of his life, Washington surveyed more than two hundred tracts containing upwards of 66,000 acres of land, in addition to the surveys of his own property. He owned at one time some 69,605 acres in 37 locations as well as 24 city lots and one whole square.
In 1754 Virginia's Governor Dinwiddie had promised 200,000 acres of western lands to the regiment that Washington commanded in the Great Meadows campaign. One delay followed another until finally, in December 1769, Virginia's Executive Council promised that Washington and his regiment might take up the grant in 20 surveys. Washington unselfishly took upon himself the cost and trouble of making a trip and survey on behalf of the men under his command. In the course of this he managed to purchase a substantial number of surveyed grants for himself. It is not known with certainty which map he used on his journey to the Ohio, but it may have been a manuscript map he copied while in Williamsburg from a map that Dr. Thomas Walker had presented to the Virginia House of Burgesses in December 1769. Walker had organized the Loyal Land Company of Virginia.
There is no doubt that Washington's training and field experience as a surveyor contributed largely to his later success as a military leader who possessed great strategic ability because of his knowledge of the country and how to defend it. In 1754 he had planned and built Fort Necessity, carefully situated to utilize a running stream to provide an essential water supply. It was the first of many other fortifications that he planned. Writing in 1756 about the defense of the western frontier, he urged:

As defensive measures are evidently insufficient for the security and safety of the country, I hope no arguments are requisite to convince of the necessity of altering them to a vigorous defensive war, in order to remove the cause.

As Eugene E. Prussing wrote about Washington:

Outstanding throughout that dreadful time is the constant, faithful foresight, planning, providing and protecting mind of the engineer. The very drafts and plans of the camps and battlefields are often in his own hand. The thoroughness of preparation which enabled him to force the evacuation of Boston, to cross and re-cross the Hudson about New York and the Delaware River at Trenton, and later to send his army from New York to Yorktown without arousing the suspicion of the British, all of these are the work of a great engineer.

Silvio Bedini is an Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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