Among his many skills, George Washington was a well-respected land surveyor. After the death of his father in 1743, eleven-year-old George Washington did not attend school in England like his older half-brothers, but had private tutors and may have attended school in Fredericksburg. The subjects he studied included geometry and trigonometry, which prepared him to become a surveyor, a skilled profession that could be financially lucrative. Becoming a surveyor was no small accomplishment in Washington’s day as surveyors were responsible for determining the legal boundaries of property claimed by European settlers in colonial Virginia.
Early in 1748, having completed only a small number of practice surveys, Washington accompanied his neighbor George William Fairfax and a county surveyor on a month-long surveying expedition west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1749, Washington was appointed surveyor for the newly established Culpeper County, probably as a result of his connections to the powerful Fairfax family. Between 1750 and 1752, he continued to survey land near the western area of Lord Fairfax's Northern Neck Proprietary. As a surveyor, Washington earned a reputation for fairness, honesty, and dependability.
Washington produced almost 200 surveys, but only about 75 are known to exist today. On November 1, 1749, he completed this survey for Edward Hogan of 330 acres on the Cacapon River (now in West Virginia) in what was then part of Augusta County. Washington would have used a surveying compass and chain to determine the distances and the boundary lines. An assistant would notch, or mark, the trees that were identified in the survey to show the boundaries (in this survey, Edward Hogan was the marker). The distances were measured in poles. One pole equaled 16 1/2 feet and corresponded to 25 links on the surveyor's chain (known as a Gunters chain). A full chain with 100 links equaled 66 feet (4 poles).
Citation: Survey of 330 Acres in Augusta County for Edward Hogan, 1 November 1749, George Washington (1732–1799), Northern Neck Surveys, Land Office Records, Record Group 4, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
History: USI.1, USI.6, VS.1, VS.6
Earth Science: ES 1, ES 8
Look at It: Look at the land survey. What do you notice about it? Why would land surveys be important in 1749?
Current Connections: George Washington began working as a surveyor while he was only seventeen. What type of job do you think he would hold today, if he were a modern day teenager with similar interests?
STEM Stat: Typical training for land surveyors included classes in geography, geometry, navigation, and trigonometry. In 18th century America, the typical surveying technique was the “metes and bounds” method. The surveyor and landowner would determine a starting point and use a 66 foot long Gunters Chain to indicate the boundaries of a property. The chain would be added to as needed. What issues or problems do you see with this approach? How might these potential issues be resolved using modern surveying equipment such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or Geographic Information System Mapping (GIS) in which multiple forms of a data are used to create and analyze accurate maps?
Food For Thought: Surveyors, like a young George Washington, might have been asked to shift boundary lines for a variety of reasons. How could a surveyor avoid being drawn into property disputes? How would you handle that situation?