LAND SURVEY BY GEORGE WASHINGTON
What was one of George Washington's first jobs?
Survey of 330 Acres in Augusta County for Edward Hogan, 1 November 1749, George Washington (1732–1799), Manuscript 7 7/8 x 12 ¼, Northern Neck Surveys, Land Office Records, Record Group 4, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription)
American history tends to focus on George Washington as a leader of the Continental army during the Revolution, and as our nation's first president. Less emphasis has been devoted to Washington's early career as a land surveyor. Born on a Tidewater plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, he developed an interest in land at an early age, perhaps drawn to the surveying instruments owned by his father. Augustine Washington died when his son George was eleven. Even without the support of his father, young Washington showed promise in math and geometric drawing. Evidence reveals that at age fourteen Washington was drawing the terrain of Mount Vernon as well as mapping adjoining fields. Although George did not have a formal European education, he did study surveying with the son of Colonel William Fairfax, a relationship that would prove advantageous to both George and his older half-brother Lawrence Washington.
Land ownership in Virginia was obviously important to settlement of the region as well as necessary for the prosperity of the colonial planter. Prospective settlers in the Northern Neck were required to obtain a survey warrant from the Northern Neck Proprietary Office for a set amount of acreage in a specific location. The survey warrant, issued directly from the Northern Neck Land Office to the county surveyor, instructed the surveyor to make a "just and true" survey of the land, thereby officially determining and limiting its boundaries. Because they were responsible for laying out the land claims, surveyors had a unique role in Virginia society. Their appointments guaranteed a certain social prominence, since nearly all parties interested in gaining title to an area of land were required to deal with the surveyor. Surveyors were also among the best-educated Virginians and were often in the best position to purchase land for themselves. It was not unusual for surveyors to acquire large estates from the many opportunities they had to patent land in their own names. In addition their intimate knowledge of the land and official capacity as representatives of large landholders such as the Fairfaxes made their participation politically and practically essential to large land companies such as the Loyal Land Company of Virginia, the Ohio Company, and the Mississippi Land Company. In July 1749, at seventeen years of age and largely through the Fairfax influence that he had cultivated, Washington secured an appointment as county surveyor for the newly created frontier county of Culpeper, where he served until November 1750. He then continued to work in the Northern Neck with the permission of the Fairfax family from November 1750 to November 1752. During his three years on the frontier he established a reputation for fairness, honesty, and dependability, while earning a very decent living.
When examining Washington's survey, it is important to understand the language of the land description. Until about the beginning of the nineteenth century, land that was parceled out, sold, or granted was described using the system of metes and bounds. This system, still used today in Virginia and a few other states, describes land by having a known landmark for a place of beginning, and then follows a line according to the compass-needle, or the course of a stream, or track of an old roadway. This plan has resulted in much confusion and litigation at times when landmarks decay and/or change. The metes and bounds procedure of mapping land originated in England in the 16th century, and during this time “Edmund Gunter is credited with inventing an accurate measuring instrument called the chain. A Gunter's Chain was 22 yards long, four perches (the traditional unit of measurement, also known as a Rod or a Pole). His chain was divided into 100 links, marked off into groups of 10 by brass rings. On the face of it, the dimensions make no sense: each link is 7.92 inches long and its full length is 66 feet. In fact, he had merged two otherwise incompatible systems, the traditional English land measurement, based on the number 4, and the newly introduced French system of decimals based on the number 10: 10 square chains made an acre” (Norejko, Richard, Metes & Bounds, April 2003, The Kansas Association of Mappers, www.kam.to/kam/services/news/mar_2003.pdf)
• Deed— a writing or document executed under seal and delivered to effect a conveyance, especially of real estate.
• Chain— instrument used to measure land.
• Metes and Bounds—system of describing a parcel of land using landmarks and physical features of the land.
• Pole— a varying unit of length, particularly one that equals a rod (about five meters).
• Survey— to determine the exact form, boundaries, position, extent, etc., of (a tract of land, section of a country, etc.) by linear and angular measurements and the application of the principles of geometry and trigonometry.
• Waste land— ungranted land or land that has reverted to the Crown.
• MAPPING AND CREATIVE EXPRESSION: Have students discuss the terminology Washington uses in his survey description. Clarify any terms students do not understand. Divide class into two groups (mappers vs. describers). Students will then work in teams either to create a map from Washington's survey description or to write a description of Washington's survey using his map. Teams can then compare their work and discuss the process. Students should answer questions like what kinds of instruments would you need in order to do this for “real,” how long would it take, what kind of training would you need, etc. Have students compare Washington's work, training, and equipment to what is required today.
• MAPPING AND MATH: Have students calculate the amount of land that is shown on Washington's map by using math skills to determine the area of the map. Have students look at a current Virginia map and locate the region Washington surveyed.
Research and Discussion Questions:
• Have students research about how and why land is deeded. Before they begin, have the class make predictions about the process involved in order for early Virginians to secure land. Have students suggest what kind of people would be involved in the process and what their role would be. Have students investigate “metes and bounds” and “rectangular survey” systems, and discuss how they relate to Virginia; does one system have an advantage and why?
Sifton, Paul G. “The Walker-Washington.” US Library of Congress Quarterly Journal 24, no. 2, (1967): 90–96.
Wright, Esmond. “Washington: The Man and the Myth.” History Today 5, no. 12 (1955): 825–832.