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Surveying: The Art of Measuring Land, Part One

This is the first of two posts outlining traditional 18th and 19th surveying methods.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, surveying is the art and science of measuring land. More precisely, it is “a means of making relatively large-scale, accurate measurements of the Earth’s surface.”  The authoritative 18th century treatise on surveying, entitled “The Compleat Surveyor or the Whole Art of Surveying Land,” was published in several editions by William Leybourn from 1679 through 1722. (A digitized copy of the 1722 edition from the collections of the University of Michigan may be found here.) This volume was so popular that George Washington (1732-1799) borrowed a copy from a neighbor, Colonel William Fairfax of Belvoir (1691-1757), and never returned it! It was not until 2018 that the volume was actually returned to Mount Vernon.

So, what are the elements and steps in an 18th century land survey? For the purposes of this blog we will use surveys and maps drawn by George Washington housed in the collections of the Library’s Geography and Map Division. The two maps below are excellent examples of young George Washington’s cartographic skills.

At the age of 16, George Washington accompanied the official survey party that demarcated the area to become Alexandria, Virginia and prepared this map. Washington, George. <em>Plat of the land where on stands the town of Alexandria</em>. [N.P, 1748] Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3884 .A3 1748 .W3 Vault

At the age of 16, George Washington accompanied the official survey party that demarcated the area to become Alexandria, Virginia and prepared this map. Washington, George. Plat of the land where on stands the town of Alexandria. [N.P, 1748] Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3884 .A3 1748 .W3 Vault

Drawn by the young George Washington at the age of 17, the map above shows the city street grid and lot ownership based on the July 1749 sale of lots, including the lot sale price as expressed in Spanish pistoles rather than Virginia or British currency. Washington, George. A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven. [1749] Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division . Washington, George. A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven. [1749] Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3883 .A3G46 1749 .W3 Vault

Drawn by the young George Washington at the age of 17, the map above shows the city street grid and lot ownership based on the July 1749 sale of lots, including the lot sale price as expressed in Spanish pistoles rather than Virginia or British currency. Washington, George. A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven. [1749] Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3883 .A3G46 1749 .W3 Vault

In July 1749 George Washington was commissioned as the official  surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia. Between 1749 and 1752 Washington performed 199 professional land surveys, the vast majority of which were actually not in Culpeper County. Rather, Washington’s surveys were largely in the northern portions of the Shenandoah Valley which was land also owned by the Fairfax family. In 1747, John Warner published a map (see image below) entitled “A Survey of the Northern Neck of Virginia” which demarcated more than five million acres of land given to the Fairfax family and others by King Charles II of England. Eventually, through marriage and inheritance, the land came into the  possession of Thomas Lord Fairfax (1693-17891). The large land grant, as shown on the heavily annotated  map, encompassed all of the land between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Unfortunately, we do not know exactly who annotated the map but many of the annotations appear to relate directly to the Fairfax family.

King Charles II land grant to the Fairfax family comprised more than five million acres lying between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Warner, John. A survey of the Northern Neck of Virginia. [N.P. 1747], Manusctript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3880 1747 .W33 Vault

King Charles II land grant to the Fairfax family comprised more than five million acres lying between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Warner, John. A survey of the Northern Neck of Virginia. [N.P. 1747], Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3880 1747 .W33 Vault

Shortly after the map was published, Lord Fairfax began selling tracts of land to potential settlers. A prospective landowner would obtain a survey warrant from Lord Fairfax at the Northern Neck Land Office located at  Greenway Court (the location of which is also annotated on the map) for a set amount of acreage.

After a survey warrant was issued a licensed surveyor, such as George Washington, and the prospective landowner would travel to the location of the tract where the surveyor, in conjunction with the landowner, would measure and mark out the set amount of acreage.

It is important to note that the surveyor and the prospective landowner may have negotiated the exact boundaries of the set amount of acreage. If, for example, the prospective landowner was looking for land that could be used for farming, the two parties (the surveyor and prospective landowner) may have jointly decided to situate the set amount of acreage on level dry land as opposed to land with poor drainage. The surveyor would then prepare a “plat” or large scale map of the land as well as a textual description. The document was, essentially, a deed to the land. A 1750 plat and description for John Lindsey, completely in the hand of George Washington, may be seen below.

Washington, George. Plat of survey for John Lindsey of 223 acres in Frederick County, Va. 1750. Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G3883 .F8B5 1750 .W3 Vault

Washington, George. Plat of survey for John Lindsey of 223 acres in Frederick County, Va. 1750. Manuscript map. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G3883 .F8B5 1750 .W3 Vault

18th century surveying in the colonies was, compared to surveying methods in Europe at the same time, relatively crude. While European surveying sometimes involved the use of transits, theodolites, and even star charts, colonial surveying used the traditional “metes and bounds” method. In other words, the surveyor and prospective landowner would pick out a starting point and, by using a traditional 66 foot long Gunters Chain (see image below)  demarcate the boundaries of the property.

A 66 foot long Gunters Chain used in 18th century metes and bounds surveying in the colonies. This item has not been digitized. Gunter, Edmund. [Gunters Chain.], Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G9900 18-- Vault.

A 66 foot long Gunters Chain used for 18th century metes and bounds surveying in the colonies. This item has not been digitized. Gunter, Edmund. [Gunters Chain], Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. G9900 18– Vault.

In addition to the Northern Neck, the vast majority of private land lying east of the Ohio River was surveyed using the traditional metes and bounds method. It was not until the new United States adopted the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), as outlined by the Land Ordnance of 1785, that public lands were surveyed using methods more sophisticated than the metes and bounds system.

The next post in this series will explore the Public Land Survey System in greater detail.

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