Celebrating the Most Renowned American Surveyor
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His life story simmers in the stew of fable, history, scholarship and legend. At any one point during his life, George Washington was a militarist, diplomat, distiller of spirits, statesman, innovative farmer, legislator, but most importantly to our mutual interests, a surveyor of property.
The early part of September found a group of like-minded folks gathered at the birthplace of George Washington in what was, at the time of his birth, the Colony of Virginia, British America. This pastoral setting, now George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Virginia, was the site of the annual Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous. For three days, participants were both educated and entertained by some of our country’s foremost experts in all things Washington.
In addition, the methods, dress and instrumentation of 18th century surveying were experienced "hands-on" many times over to the delight of the attendees. Beyond the learning, that strong dose of fellowship was prevalent as it always is at a rendezvous. Ladies and gentlemen associated with universities, the Library of Congress, the National Park Service as well as collectors, authors, reenactors and yes, surveyors, all shared knowledge of the fabled figure.
Each Rendezvous offers an optional extra day’s event outside of the structured schedule. This year featured a day trip to Mount Vernon. After a major urban adventure, the group of volunteer explorers arrived at the gates of Washington’s home and final resting place. Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union are proud of the recent renovations and addition. Most especially they are eager to show off the new multimedia, multibillion dollar Ford Museum(see "Compleatly Surveying at Mount Vernon," January/February, 2007). An ironic way of celebrating a man’s life is to begin with contemplation at his grave site only to return to and reside temporarily at the place of his birth. Our group of surveying historians left the grounds impressed, humbled and amazed at what the estate had to offer.
Master Teachers and Tools of the Trade
The following day, after being formally welcomed by the National Park Service, the educational portion of the Rendezvous was under way. Surrounded by an impressive array of authentic instruments, tools and other measuring paraphernalia, Milton Denny opened with a discussion on "The Colonial Land System and the Building of America". He discussed standards of accuracy, instrumentation, and the actual duties of the colonial surveyor. Mr. Denny then spent the next two days loading, moving and unloading that collection of tools in order for participants to have the opportunity to use them in actual field work conditions. In addition, being the only current maker of fine Gunter chains, Mr. Denny produced a historically correct replica of George Washington’s two-pole chain with the distinctive monkey-foot tallies. This chain along with a set of Washington-style chaining pins or darts were housed in a handmade wooden box and donated to the Society. This beautiful set turned out to be one of the most popular items offered at the fund-raising auction. As at every Rendezvous since 1997, Denny went far beyond what was expected of him and for this, the members of the Surveyors Historical Society extend their gratitude.
Ed Redmond, Cartographic Reference Specialist for the Library of Congress followed with a fine presentation of the survey drawings and maps of George Washington. Included were standard plats of survey, field surveys, military fortification plans, route maps and city subdivision plans. In his lifetime, George Washington surveyed more than 80,000 acres in 37 different locations. Of the approximately 150 known remaining maps and the 90 maps and atlases in his collection at his death, perhaps the most interesting is one begun in 1760. In that year, Washington copied a "Plan of Mr. Clifton’s Neck Land from an original made by T.H. in 1755…" On the back (verso) was a jumble of seemingly incomprehensible lines. Now think of a section of land. The Library had a map that contained the north half of the section and one of the southern quarter sections. The other quarter section had long since been torn away and given up for lost. For 70 years, the missing quarter section had been in the archives of Mount Vernon, identified with a somewhat misleading label. When finally the four quarter sections were united, all line work matched perfectly. But, most amazingly, the verso is a progressive map of many various surveys and land acquisitions that continually, graphically illustrate the final 39 years of Washington’s life. It is believed that the last survey he performed five weeks prior to his death is portrayed on this unique map.
North Carolina educator and surveyor Larry Sears focused on young Washington’s professional development and surveying career. Still preserved are young George’s handwritten (ages 12, 13 and 14) "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," as well as two volumes of copybooks, including exercises in geometry and plane trigonometry. One of the more important glimpses into the adolescent George’s thoughts is the diary he kept during the over mountain journey he took in 1747 in the company of his benefactor, George Fairfax. The arrogant young rascal relays a stressful account of the sleeping arrangements out in the wild (lice, filth). Over time, he will become accustomed to these hardships. Sears concluded with an interesting review of the three-year career of the Surveyor of Culpepper County. Washington worked full time in the honored profession from 1749 to 1752. He did take a brief hiatus in 1751 to accompany his brother to the island of Barbados in a fruitless quest to improve Lawrence’s health.
The remaining portion of the day was filled with a tour of the grounds and experiencing the offerings of this National Monument as well as colonial surveying exercises. Dodging earnest young Boy Scouts vying for a surveying merit badge, our crusty old group ran out Mr. Denny’s traverse course using compass, chain and pins. After calculating closure (or it should be said misclosure), our gang of would-be colonial surveyors now realized why Washington never ran that last leg and merely reported the forced closed direction and distance. Living history demonstrations were also provided by some esteemed guests. The Continental Department of Geographers as well as the SHS Reenactors’ Forum (featuring the boys from Michigan) showed off their goods and knowledge. Imagine spending an afternoon with a Burt solar compass! Also taking place on this beautiful, busy afternoon was the annual Swap Meet offering a huge selection of vintage books, instruments, tools, collector coins, prints, art and any imaginable item related to surveying past.
That evening picnic included Dave Ingram’s famous barbequed chicken. On hand was a large display of a portion of Dale Beeks’ instrument collection available for sale.
Continuing education during the evening’s gathering was a demonstration given by Robert Cagle and yours truly. Using what appeared to be a fishing pole, a sight vane nailed to a board and many candles, the objective was to determine the variation on the needle of the compass by sighting Polaris. The Park Service prepared a massive bonfire. Torrents of rain began to fall around dark. While the rain affected some the planned evening activities, it never put a damper on the surveyors’ fun or spirit.
One of the major aspects of Washington’s career was hi
s leadership of the Continental Army in our country’s revolution. For this occasion the General dispatched one W. Scott Breckenridge Smith, of the aforementioned Department of the Geographer. On Saturday morning his duty was to enlighten us as to the aspects of colonial military surveying. Captain Smith of Thomas Hutchins’ survey party gave a hearty presentation on the duties, hardships, instrumentation and methods of the patriot surveyor in that great struggle. The Society was fortunate to have the participation of this learned group. We look forward to joining with them again in future Rendezvous activities.
Mr. Ed Redmond once again briefly presented examples from the Library of Congress of some important and unique maps by Washington. Immediately following was his colleague Richard W. Stephenson, a 45-year veteran with the Library of Congress. Mr. Stephenson introduced us to another reenactor, Virginian and direct contemporary of Washington, Dr. Thomas Walker. A true renaissance man, Dr. Walker was not only a successful surgeon, he also excelled in being a painter, politician, soldier, merchant, and again, importantly a surveyor and map maker. During his life, Walker was a commissary to the Continental Army, a neighbor to Joshua Frye and Peter Jefferson, even attending to the elder Jefferson on his deathbed. Walker explored the Ohio Territory as well as present day Kentucky having built the first residence in that place. This, he did 20 years before Daniel Boone’s forays. At age 64, Dr. Walker joined Daniel Smith (1779) in the survey to extend the line between then Virginia and North Carolina, now Tennessee and Kentucky. Beginning at a point just east of the Cumberland Gap and proceeding west, they marked that line, finally terminating at the Tennessee River in March 1780.
Andrew Packet, formerly with the Park Service at the Birthplace National Monument concluded the lecture portion of our gathering with an emotionally charged, heartfelt explanation of George Washington, the mortal. Mr. Packet was the project coordinator on a marvelous product of the Park Service entitled "How Math and Science Changed George Washington’s Life" (included in the Rendezvous handout binder). Packet knows the Indian fighter/planter/ General/agriculturalist and statesman much like one knows a close friend sans all myth. It could safely be said that George Washington could very well be Mr. Packet’s best friend. It is uncanny the amount of intimate knowledge one individual can have about another individual never having met him. It will always stay with me that the speaker’s definitive conclusion of Washington the man was that he was "eccentric over his reputation". A brilliant observation, it is an apt explanation of Washington’s legendary integrity and character.
Meeting co-organizer David Ingram presented what is usually (maybe not authentically) characterized as young George’s first survey map. Unfortunately, other than the "Potomack" being labeled, there is no other indication as to the location of the parcel. Dave assembled contemporary maps of all the areas the aspiring surveyor had resided over the year of the map. Evidence was mighty conclusive that we stood on the ground the future president had stobbed off as a child. Moving outside and using a tie to a creek flowing into the Potomac River, we each had an opportunity to chain (33′ per pin) one of the first lines George practiced on. However, we waited our turn and cheered as two young fellows, having just completed their Boy Scout Surveying merit badges, performed a period correct measurement on the entire line. With all the measuring done over the one course, we all wore out that piece of ground by the time the banquet was scheduled to begin that evening.
There is often a surreal element to SHS banquets. Within one room are folks authentically garbed in representations of some three centuries of dress. This year featured foods of the region within the setting of Stratford Hall Plantation, Robert E. Lee’s ancestral homeplace. Following dinner, all were honored by the presence of the retired first president himself, the gentleman Washington, (Mr. Don DeHaven of Berryville, Virginia). We were fortunate enough to catch each nugget of his life that may have been missed over the previous two days. Then commenced the auction. Always a rollicking affair, an eclectic group of items (most, survey related) were carried away at bargain prices. Win/win situations are always the best.
Kudos go out to Chas Langelan of Maryland and to Dave Ingram of Virginia for all the work they have put in over the last year. Chas had organized the Mason/Dixon rendezvous (2002) and Dave worked out the complexities of the Fairfax Line and Rendezvous 1999. Very few can ever realize the amount of effort these two fellows made toward the success of this year’s event.
Thanks should also be given to the Roger Woodfill for the inclusion within the complimentary packets of the bronze collector coin and to the Surveyors Historical Society for the George Washington Atlas. The coin features the Virginia surveyor standing behind his father’s compass as a child. One should notice that the direction George faces is complimentary to pair with the Lincoln coin of Rendezvous 2000 in a grouping.
The atlas is a finely printed collectible reproduction of a 1932 bicentennial publication produced under the auspices of the President of the United States. The bulk of the atlas contains maps produced by Washington as well as contemporary maps tracing the many routes of his ventures in war and in his peaceful vocations.
Five long years ago, while still a ranger with the National Park Service, the aforementioned Andrew Packet had an idea and offered an invitation to the Surveyor’s Historical Society to celebrate Washington’s life in this setting of his birth. What a great idea! The Park Service was marvelous to work with. Dave Leclerque, Vidal Martinez and Pocahontas Schurtz were all quite helpful and ironed out the little wrinkles that happen during these gatherings. The Society says thanks.
Arriving at the meeting site on the final day, we found a large tree had fallen, partially blocking the entrance to the meeting venue. It so happened that the tree that had come down in the night was a cherry tree. I cannot tell a lie; it is difficult to tell what is myth and what is history when dealing with Gentleman Washington’s life. Those three days spent in Virginia, do help though, just a tiny little bit.
Bart Crattie is a Land Surveyor registered in the States of Georgia and Tennessee. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Surveyors Historical Society, an international organization centered around the history of that profession.
A 2.027Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE