Seth Pease 1764-1819

Astronomer Surveyor of the Public Lands, Part 1

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Seth Pease (1764-1819) was among the most distinguished of the early American surveyors, for he had the additional skills of a professional astronomer as well as a surveyor. Born in 1764 in Suffield, Connecticut, he was the fifth of the eleven children of the shoemaker, Joseph Pease, a descendant of Robert Pease who had emigrated from England in 1634 and settled in Salem, Massachusetts. In addition to shoemaking, Joseph Pease also owned a sawmill, which at times was operated by his sons. He married Mindwell King in 1756 and for thirty eight years served as Suffield’s town clerk and was its first Judge of Probate.

Although the Pease family genealogical records state that Seth Pease attended Yale College, in the archives of Yale University there is no record of his attendance nor graduation. Where he studied is not known, but he had excelled in mathematics which led him to choose astronomy and surveying as a career. In 1785 young Seth was teaching an evening school in Suffield, and at the same time from 1785 to 1788 with his brother Royal he operated his father’s sawmill in the town. On December 21, 1785 Seth was married to Bathsheba Kent, and thereafter apparently moved to Salisbury, Connecticut for a time. They became parents of four children, Betsey (1786) who married Noah Fletcher and was residing in Washington, D. C. in 1868, James (1788) who remained unmarried, Gamaliel (1790), and Alfred (1793).

The earliest records of Pease’s career relate to his work as a surveyor during 1794 and June and July 1795 for an employer named Tibbetts of Condeskeeg Plantation in wild lands of what is now the state of Maine. Surviving among Pease’s papers is a faded account and survey book in which he noted he had contracted with one Tibbetts to pilot him into the woods, to bake for his party, and to bring supplies to the surveyors up from the Penobscot River. He added a complaint that the rum Tibbetts had sold him was lacking in quantity and had been very much watered. Thereafter Pease was engaged extensively in surveying public lands that were being offered from time to time, first among them, those of the Connecticut Land Company in the Western Reserve territory.

The Western Reserve
Following soon upon the victorious conclusion of the American Revolution, much of the New World’s land became public domain. As soon as the 1785 Land Ordinance passed, permitting the selling of public lands, the Federal and state governments that had been newly established were eager to replenish their emptied coffers by selling their surplus lands. In consideration of earlier crown grants, arguments arose between certain states over the ownership of some eastern states’ lands. The original colony of Connecticut by its charter was granted a strip of land about seventy-five miles wide which was stated to be "extending from ocean to ocean." In 1786 Connecticut ceded the bulk of its western lands to the fledgling U. S. Congress, reserving for itself a sizeable strip in what became northern Ohio. The strip lay between the shores of Lake Erie and the 41st parallel, just south of present Youngstown. It ran 120 miles west from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to a point just beyond Sandusky. At first this strip was known as "New Connecticut" or as Connecticut’s "Western Reserve." Now it is no longer a geographical division in its own right, but a part of Ohio and the principal seat of Ohio’s heavy industry.

Due to overlapping land grants issued by the British crown, and after more than a century of argument over ownership of western territory, Connecticut discovered itself to be in possession of more than three million acres of wilderness west of Pennsylvania. Connecticut’s plan was to sell the land and use the income as investment capital for a public school system that would be supported from the investment’s annual yield. In 1795 Connecticut sold the huge expanse on an "as is" basis to 35 buyers, seven of whom were appointed directors who incorporated themselves as the Connecticut Land Company.

A system for making fair distribution of the land was required, but first the region had to be explored, classified and measured, and also it was necessary for someone to venture into the region to move out the Indians who had not been party to or had not acknowledged the 1795 Treaty of Greenville.

Astronomer & Chief Deputy
Early in 1796, Seth Pease joined the first surveying expedition that set out for the Western Reserve from Buffalo under General Moses Cleaveland, and was among the first surveyors of the Western Reserve. From 1789 until then Pease had been surveying in the New York area, before being contracted by the Connecticut Land Company. He was to be the third in command of the survey parties to be sent to "New Connecticut," assigned as astronomer as well as chief deputy of Augustus Porter, the principal surveyor. As Pease reported his assignment in his journal:

"I began my journey, Monday, May 9, 1796. Fare from Suffield to Hartford, six shillings, expenses four shillings six pence. At breakfast expense two shillings. Fare on my chest from Hartford to Middletown, one shilling sixpence."

At this time, when first employed by the Company, the 32-year-old Pease was outranked in years and prestige by most of his crew, who were older and included several captains and majors. In the field Pease soon proved that despite his youth he ran the detail with a pleasant firmness combined with formality and respect, which was reflected in the steady stream of written directives he addressed to members of the crew and distributed by means of runners. When he returned to the Reserve in the following year, it was as the principal surveyor.

In order to make the distribution of the lands possible for sale following survey, a crucial need was to lay out the townships and the lots and to produce maps which would serve the critical need of informing settlers about frontier lands and attracting them to come and buy and settle there. The surveying party’s first assignment was to proceed to lay off the area into sections to be distributed among the stockholders.

General Cleaveland’s party numbered 52, including a few women and children as well as teamsters and cooks. They proceeded to Buffalo, where Cleaveland made a treaty with the Indians’ chief, and obtained from them a grant of land east of the Cuyahoga and the Portage. Seth Pease noted in his journal that in addition to goods and two beef cattle, the Indians received one hundred gallons of whiskey. "Fire water, then, as now, forming an important element in relations with `the noble red man.’"

The party arrived at the western border of Pennsylvania early in July after having traveled through the wilderness from eastern New York and through woods and along the Lake Erie shore. They landed at the mouth of Conneaut Creek, which was less than two miles within what became the state of Ohio. A member of the party wrote:

"It was then a mere sand beach overgrown with timber, some of it of considerable size, which we cut to build the house and for other purposes. The mouth of the creek, like others of the lake streams in these days, was frequently choked up with a sandbar so that no visible harbor appeared for several days … ."

A Noteworthy Celebration
Shortly after reaching Conneaut, they pitched their tents on the eastern side of the creek. They were the first party to have arrived in the Connecticut Reserve. Surveyors in the party included Augustus Porter from Salisbury, who for the pr
evious seven years had been surveying in the vicinity of Buffalo, Amos Spafford, John Milton Holley, Richard M. Stoddard, Moses Warren and Seth Pease. Each surveyor was supported by two flagmen, chainmen, axemen and packhorse men.

Appropriately it was on July 4, 1796 when Pease, while casting about the area for a landmark, literally fell over the cornerstone marking the northwest boundary of the state of Pennsylvania, confirming that their destination had been reached. The monument had been set a short distance away from the high Lake Erie shore. In his journal Pease noted that the stone "had been clearly marked on the north side and on the south, Pennsylvania forty-two degrees north latitude, variation seven minutes thirty seconds west, &c." on the said line by the commission of 1785 and which they used as the starting point of their surveys in "New Connecticut."

As he stumbled on the stone, Pease shouted his discovery. Those who had come by land gathered round the marker and when they had assembled, "they gave three cheers at precisely at 5 o’clock, P. M." They marked the occasion of the first landing with speeches, gunpowder and toasts. As Cleaveland reported in his journal:

"The day memorable as the birthday of American Independence … And memorable as the day on which the settlement of this new country was commenced, and in time may raise her head amongst the most enlightened and improved states … The men under Captain Tinker, ranged themselves on the beach and fired a Federal salute of fifteen rounds and then the sixteenth in honor of New Connecticut. We gave three cheers and christened the place Fort Independence, drank several pails of grog, supped and retired in remarkable good order."

While surveying in New England in earlier years, Pease had become accustomed to working with existing boundary lines and corners, but he discovered that surveying in the Connecticut Reserve was an entirely different matter. The land was totally without markings except for a square line of blazes outlining salt lands purchased by Moses Warren. Therefore Pease had no guide and was forced to rely entirely on the stars.

While Cleaveland was leading the party into the region, Pease had left it to travel to Philadelphia to meet with David Rittenhouse, the noted American astronomer and instrument maker. His mission was primarily to purchase surveying instruments and field equipment for the surveyors. As astronomer and surveyor, Pease had been made responsible for purchasing the surveying compasses for use by the survey crews, and also for the calculations and survey adjustments of the survey parties. It was recorded that before having entered upon his duties as astronomer surveyor with the Connecticut Land Company, Pease already had spent six or eight months in Philadelphia with Rittenhouse, perfecting himself in surveying techniques and in making astronomical observations, and in other duties of his office. Among accounts of the purchases he had made in Philadelphia at this time, he noted in his journal some entries that provide an indication of the prices charged by Rittenhouse for his instruments and repairs: Hutton’s Table 4-1/2 Dollar. Compass 20 Doll.; Quadrant , 14 Doll. Compas, 20 Doll.; Levels 2-3/4 Doll.; One Compass, 26 Doll; Repairing Compass, 11.00 D.

Because Cleaveland had made a satisfactory bargain with the Indians at Conneaut, the surveyors set out to seek Pennsylvania’s western boundary. The boundary monuments were found still to be well preserved. Ten years before the arrival of Cleaveland’s surveyors, Andrew Ellicott had extended the line from the north bank of the Ohio to Lake Erie. His men had cut a wide swath from twenty to thirty feet wide through the timber from river to lake and erected stone monuments at irregular intervals with the letter P carved on the stone’s top side, so that the surveyors were thrilled to find the first marker. The plan was to run south on this boundary to the 41st parallel, then run their own southern boundary west from it for 120 miles. Pease, as the party’s astronomer, made use of the trip south over the Pennsylvania border to check the variation in his compasses.

The party ran the south line of the Western Reserve stopping at the 41st parallel, not the full 120 miles, but just far enough to provide them with a line from which to begin on a few vertical range lines. When this line was re-surveyed in 1881, nineteen of the original markers were discovered to have remained in the vicinity of the border, some being used in the foundations of houses and barns, while others were on exhibit as relics. Only two remained in their original position. The re-survey revealed that the line had not been quite straight, and that it was bent a few seconds in two places. Considering the instruments available. however, and the circumstances of the survey, its accuracy nonetheless was impressive.

Having found the cornerstone at the 42nd parallel on his way into the Reserve, Pease then traversed the lake shore from this stone "to the stone at the north end of the Pennsylvania line." "That afternoon," he recorded in his journal, "we began to measure the east line of New Connecticut. We run about two miles south and encamped by a pool in a swamp. Plenty of gnats and mosquitoes, poor water. Friday, 8th. — We run about five miles. We crossed Creek Independence. Land about middling. Went back one mile to camp; poor water."

It took the surveyors two weeks to trace the line south to the corner — 67 miles and 4,541 feet to the 41st parallel. On Thursday, July 21st, having reached the corner, they encamped beside a pool in a swamp and prepared to make an observation of the polar star to check the variation of the compasses. Porter and Pease "fixed the quadrant for an observation of the sun at noon. The day was fair and their observation was good. In the evening we again took the variation by the star, and Mr. Pease observed several of the stars for the latitude. After comparing observations they made the latitude to be forty-one degrees twenty seconds north … . a chestnut post was then set on the south side of latitude forty-one degrees north, variation one minute twenty one seconds east, west side is southeast corner New Connecticut. — July 23, 1796, on north side, sixty-eight miles Lake Erie, east side, Pennsylvania."

On July 23rd, after seventeen days of running the line, as noted, the surveyors installed a wooden post at the intersection of the 4lst parallel and the Pennsylvania line. The surveyors were concerned because they noted that their instruments kept showing variations, but they did not have time to prove their work. When the entire survey had been completed, they discovered to their dismay that it was a half mile out of position.

According to Porter’s narrative, "Mr. Pease had fixed the southeast corner of the Reserve, and had run a line due west there from 24 miles, having at the end of each six miles started a surveyor with his party due north for the lake, as had been proposed, he being himself with the party running the fourth and last meridian, which crossed the Indian trail we were on, less than a mile west of the salt works, and from five to eight miles north of the 41st parallel. On reaching the trail, finding from its appearance that we had not yet passed, he followed it eastward for the purpose of meeting us, and did meet us at the spring, less than a mile from his meridian line. This meeting was an important matter with Mr. Pease, for he had delivered over to the other surveyors all the provision except for a very small supply, estimated to be sufficient to subsist on until the return from the south."

They divided the party into four crews, then drove these range lines north to the lake, but they had become concerned over the disparity displayed by their compasses. Pease worried whether they were converging seriously as they went nor
th. The four crews completed the first four vertical ranges and began to run parallels to slice the ranges into townships.

Three days later, Pease and the other surveyors began the monumental task of dividing the land into imaginary squares each side of which was to measure five miles. As the surveyors running the horizontals cut their way through the forest, however, they became aware that the tops of the townships did not measure exactly five miles wide. Those compass variations which had worried Pease were making the north-south lines converge and diverge. These small differences in the size of the townships at the south end of this wide land were not serious, but the differences would increase as the surveyors worked their way north to Lake Erie.

Journals kept by several of the men documented the perilous nature of the undertaking and the hazards and difficulties they constantly encountered. The terrain was rough, food was in short supply, drinking water was poor, and voracious insects endlessly tormented the workers. Sickness prevailed, and the men were plagued by dysentery and fever. Pease was not immune, and he too became ill after having spent a day slogging through a swamp. But they persevered until the middle of October. Then, with winter approaching, Pease and most of the party went home.

Pease returned the following spring, leading a party of 63 men to continue the survey. The work was still dangerous and in the course of it seven members died, four from drowning and the other three from illnesses. Often a half dozen or more of the men were down at the same time with dysentery or other illness. Pease’s diary recorded that the leader himself was tormented by a series of illnesses that included toothache, fevers, chills, headache and backache, which sometimes made him unable to work. He had to contend with a number of other problems as well, including bad weather and inferior supplies, and at one point he found it necessary to disarm a group of intoxicated Indians.

While Cleaveland and his surveying party were suffering from ague, dysentery, hunger, and low pay, and the crews were beginning to wonder why they had accepted this work at three dollars a week, the stockholders of the Connecticut Land Company were becoming more and more impatient as they waited for the men to bring back maps of the completed survey. As the stockholders reviewed other maps, such as one by Thomas Hutchins, they began to realize that the land involved was vastly in excess of the three million acres. Meanwhile, there was an growing concern also over the inaccuracy in the available maps of the area.

But by the time that Pease and his party had completed their second season in the Western Reserve, they had succeeded in surveying that portion of the Reserve east of the Cuyahoga River. The results of their labor was incorporated into the first map of the Western Reserve, a map drawn by Pease and engraved and printed in 1798 by Amos Doolittle in New Haven, Connecticut, to whom Pease had applied to prepare a plate for his map.

Amos Doolittle
Amos Doolittle (1754-1832), was one of the earliest American engravers on copper and was entirely self taught. After having served an apprenticeship with a silversmith, he established his own business as an engraver. When he marched to Cambridge in the spring of 1775 as a patriot under Benedict Arnold, he visited the site of the battle of Lexington and upon returning to New Haven, he made an engraving of the action. It was his first attempt in that art, and it is believed to have been the first historical engraving made in America. In the course of his career, Doolittle made some famous plates of early Yale, and of events of the Revolution.

Pease’s first map of the Western Reserve measures 18 by 31 inches and bears the notations of longitude west from both London and Philadelphia. Although the map bears no date, it has been assigned the date of 1796, a date which is borne out by the correspondence between Pease and Doolittle. The engraving of the map was completed by Doolittle in 1798. On February 1798 he wrote to Pease that he had received his letter of February 5th relating to engraving a "Map of New Connecticut" and that he could set about the work immediately. Although Doolittle had not seen the copy, on the basis of Pease’s letter, he estimated the cost to be eighty dollars. He informed Pease that in the expectation of having a map to engrave he had prepared a plate and polished it for the work. He added that he would lay aside other work until the map was finished, which he said would be in four weeks from the time he received the copy. He wrote later that the plate was nearly finished and that he had promise of the paper required for the printing by the middle of the following week. Doolittle already had received a list of the names of the towns but had lost it and asked Pease for another copy. On April 15, 1798, Doolittle sent several copies of the completed map to Pease, explaining that "there has been a number of gentlemen sent in names to certain Towns in which they were interested. I have taken the Liberty to Engrave on the Plate and trust it will meet with your Approbation." He promised the shipment of 500 copies would be made within the following week.

This was the first printed map of the Western Reserve, produced in 1798 based on Seth Pease’s manuscript map "A Map of the Connecticut Western Reserve from actual survey." It was issued in two sheets or halves, the left sheet covering the Western Reserve west of the Cuyahoga River and the right hand sheet covering the rivers and lands east to the Pennsylvania border. The sheets were designed to be joined together. The western sheet showed the lands unsurveyed, since the lands west of the Cuyahoga were not yet open for settlement in 1796, while the eastern sheet showed the lands surveyed into five mile square townships. The western sheet bore the map’s title information and the publication line was on the eastern sheet.

Next to be produced was "A Map of the Connecticut Western Reserve From Actual Survey of Pease" updated with information added in 1807/08 by Abraham Tappan.

A Keen Overseer
Although the second survey party in the Western Reserve was under the leadership of the Reverend Seth Hart, Pease remained in charge of the outfitting and launching and most of the work. He moved out of his home in Suffield where he had spent the winter months and headed for Schenectady. On June 1st he noted in his journal, "Entered Cuyahoga mouth at 3 hrs 22 min pm." He began to work in his new role in an organized manner, checking out all supplies left over from the previous year, setting men to planting a large garden to provide food for them in the future, and organizing the men into crews, each headed by a surveyor, while keeping all assignments clear. Pease retained a mental accounting of supplies and where to put them so that if teams were on schedule, they would run right into their replacements. He also made provisions for taking great care of the four horses, Hannah, Mary Ester, the Morton Mare and the Stow Horse.

As the work progressed, Pease himself took charge of one of the four survey parties. As a consequence, his headquarters had to be always in motion. Yet, even as he worked his own line, he succeeded in retaining a complete mental image of what was in progress in all other parts of the survey. And as he moved, he not only directed the surveying, but also the supplying of the crews by making arrangements for supplies to be leapfrogged ahead of the crews. While his mind was overseeing these broad aspects of the work, he also kept an eye alert for small relatively unimportant details, such as the fact that on one occasion Warren’s crew had left a frying pan behind on the west bank. He wrote succinct messages to his crew, which were delivered by runners.

For example: "Mr. Stoddard: You will proceed up the river to our headquarters,
though I am at a loss at present where it will be fixed, but you may take the line between 10th and 11th ranges, and I will give you notice on that line at the nearest corner. We shall go as far as possible with our boats. If you should not arrive here (Cleveland) so as to be there in about 30 days, I think you had better not go up river, unless you receive another line from your humble servant, SP

"Mr. Tinker: I wish you to return and bring another boatload of stores as soon as possible. You will take four hands, and have such men return as are best pleased with the business of boating. I wish you a prosperous voyage. SP."

Concerned for the technical precision of the survey, Pease worried constantly about the dubious precision of the unreliable compasses, as he jotted in his journal:

"The south line was run as follows: from the Pennsylvania line to the fifth mile, one degree, twenty minutes; should have been one degree, twenty-five minutes. From the fifth mile to the ninth miles, one degree, twenty minutes, should have been one degree, thirty-three minutes. From ninth to thirteenth, I expect was very near the truth. From thirteenth to fifteenth miles, two degrees, two minutes, ought to have been one degree, fifty.

From observations made on the various compasses, I find I cannot reduce them to a common standard, being differently affected at different places. Of two compasses on the Cuyahoga River twenty miles south of the lake, one needle was to the left of the other ten minutes. At Cleaveland the one which was to the left stood fifteen minutes to the right, though they were not compared precisely at the same time of the day. The magnetic needle is not always parallel to itself in the same place, which renders the compass inaccurate for long lines. The variation is so irregular that it admits of no calculation, and must be determined by observations made upon the heavenly bodies."

The compasses continued to constitute a constant worry for the surveyors. The more predictable compasses became favorite instruments, and when the surveyors who were handling these became ill, other surveyors lost no time in borrowing their compasses. Ultimately, the fever and ague struck this second surveying party, but Pease managed to keep the work going. Even though the instruments were the best obtainable at that time, they varied widely and the compass errors were considerable. Those used by Porter and Holley on one observation varied 53 minutes east, Spafford’s 43 minutes. As a consequence of the variations, the meridians lines were made to converge and diverge, and they varied as much as a half mile between the south line and the lake.

Errors in measurement also were frequent for other reasons. The cause of some was because the measurements were made using the old fashioned surveyor’s chain, which was subject to expansion in the heat. Many of the inaccuracies also derived from sheer carelessness of the men of the supporting teams. When they were not actually being observed by the surveyor, the chainmen were not always careful. They might fail to stretch the chain tight to its full length, or to hold it level; they might stick the chain markers carelessly in the ground, or they might bend the chain around an obstacle or even a fallen tree. In difficult terrain, while crossing a swamp or a gorge, for example, sometimes they would hold the chain up in the air and drop a pin on approximately the correct spot. Each of these mishandlings produced errors of a few inches in every chain length so measured, and a great margin of errors crept into surveys due to these rough measurements.

Upon his arrival at the Cleveland site, Pease demonstrated his system of anticipating group needs hitherto not noted. As an example, he selected lots 97 and 98 and converted them into a central cemetery. As time passed, however, despite this arrangement, graves were to be found scattered across the Reserve. The work progressed despite the prevalence of sickness and death. Towards late summer, sickness increased and boatloads of men were sent east in early autumn. Several of the surveyors took their pay and made their way home on foot. Pease kept his eye on the weather, which could suddenly immobilize his survey party for the winter, and pressed the surveying of the best towns into lots so that the Land Company could sell off its reserved townships and earn some income. At the beginning of October 1797, Pease loaded up the remaining boats with sick men and horses and "left the mouth of the Cuyahoga at about 10-1/2 a.m. Wind fair." Arriving at Hartford, Connecticut, Pease submitted his report of sicknesses and casualties, but as usual the Company stockholders were more interested in results and action.

To be continued…

Silvio Bedini is a Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of more than 300 articles and monographs published in scholarly periodicals, and has recently completed his 23rd book.

Training of early surveyors varied. Some, such as Seth Pease, probably had access to Machey’s Longitudes, Hutton’s Logarithms and Gregory’s Astronomy. It is likely that more of them were familiar with An Accurate System of Surveying by Samuel Moore. Published in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1796, it is believed to have been the first totally American work on the subject. Moore had practiced surveying for more than thirty years before writing his book. Wishing to share his knowledge with others in order to upgrade the current prevalent unsatisfactory methods of property surveying, half the book is concerned with mathematics, the remainder with mathematical division of lands, and a final chapter deals with the surveying compass, describing how to determine variation of the magnetic compass needle, how to ascertain local attraction, and how to determine the true meridian in the field. Image courtesy David Lee Ingram.

A 1.319Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE