Publications: CW Journal: Past Issues: Summer 2001|
by Ron Bailey
A study in the tools of
the instruments of the colonial surveyor's kit included items
ranging from iron measuring chains to steel-tipped pens
to the brass-bound compass. --Tom Green
In 1746, on a slope of the Blue Ridge, a man carved his initials into
a tree. Tokens neither of vandalism nor sentiment, they marked the beginning
of a boundary. The whittler was Colonel Peter Jefferson, a gentleman,
landowner, county official, and land surveyor for His Majesty King George
II. He stood more than six feet tall, and his son, Thomas, later recalled
that he had the strength of three men-an advantage for a man of his
Colonel Jefferson often had to run survey lines straight through obstacles.
It meant clambering over rocks, crawling through brush, and wading through
icy streams. Another surveyor, Thomas Lewis, described working with
him: "It was with the greatest Difficulty we Could get along-the
mountains being prodigiously full of fallen Timber & Ivey as thick
as it could grow, so interwoven that horse or man Could hardly force
his way through it. . . ."
Peter Jefferson had been born thirty-eight years before at Osborne's,
below Richmond, Virginia, a scion of established Tidewater stock. As
a young man-improved largely by self-education-he moved west to the
Piedmont and Goochland County, newly created and named for Governor
William Gooch. There he spent ten years acquiring and developing property
along the James River. Among his near neighbors was the county surveyor,
Before coming to the Old Dominion at age forty, Mayo had surveyed the
West Indian island of Barbados, to the acclaim of settlers and the government.
In 1728, he was selected to help survey the line between Virginia and
For his Goochland County duties, Mayo needed an assistant and Peter
Jefferson, suited to the work, got the job. In Virginia, there was no
formal course of study to become a surveyor. Young men could read such
books as John Gibson's Treatise on Surveying or John Love's GEODESIA,
but hands-on practice was essential. Peter Jefferson learned his profession
on the job.
The fundamental job of a surveyor was to transfer land from the crown
to private ownership. The process started with a settler's selection
of a tract. The county surveyor recorded it in an entry book, and commonly
sold the applicant treasury rights at the rate of five shillings for
every fifty acres. These rights had to be submitted to the secretary
of state's office in Williamsburg.
The secretary of state issued a warrant for the amount of land to which
the claimant was entitled. The warrant was given to the county surveyor,
who would, in time, survey the tract. Once the fieldwork was completed,
the surveyor drew a plat and wrote a description of the property.
The survey plat and description were copied and entered into the county
survey book, and the originals were sent to the secretary of state.
Upon entry of the warrant, survey plat, and description, the secretary
issued a land patent signed by the governor and marked with the colony's
As an assistant county surveyor, Peter Jefferson not only surveyed
tracts for other claimants, but also acquired landholdings himself.
In 1734 and 1735 he patented about 1,000 acres in Goochland County,
including the land on which his son would build Monticello.
Using a compass, a
surveyor guides two chainmen on a scramble through the brush of
a hillside, a challenge much like what they would have experienced
on the colonial Virginia frontier. Dave Doody
In 1739, Jefferson wed Jane Randolph, a cousin of his close friend,
William Randolph, and began construction of a house on a tract
along the Rivanna River, a tributary of the James and the main
highway of commerce from the village of Charlottesville. Jefferson
named the place Shadwell, after the parish in London where Jane
had been born. His surveyor's income enabled him to build a comfortable
wood frame home with barns and outbuildings. In that home, Peter
and Jane Jefferson's third child, and first son, Thomas, was born.
By then, more settlers were moving into the western sections of Goochland,
and in 1744 the House of Burgesses, meeting in Williamsburg, passed
an act dividing it into two counties, the new one to be called Albemarle,
after another governor William Anne Keppel, the second earl of Albermarle.
Peter Jefferson became an Albemarle County justice of the peace and
judge of the court of chancery. The county surveyor position went to
Joshua Fry. Jefferson became his assistant, and, when Fry was elected
county militia lieutenant, Peter became the lieutenant colonel. Thereafter
he was addressed as "Colonel."
Within a few months of these events, the Jeffersons moved back to Goochland
County to live at Tuckahoe plantation. Its owner, and his friend, William
Randolph, a widower, had died, leaving three orphans. Colonel Jefferson
assumed responsibility for the care and rearing of the young Randolphs,
while he pursued his surveying.
Part of the colony, the Northern Neck between the Potomac and Rappahannock
rivers, was a proprietorship, where the land claim laws differed. In
the seventeenth century, King Charles II had granted the peninsula to
several of his supporters. Thomas, Lord Fairfax, took it over in the
eighteenth century, and it became known as the Fairfax Tract. Its lands
were disposed of, not by the colonial government in Williamsburg, as
elsewhere in Virginia, but by the proprietor, Lord Fairfax. He appointed
the county surveyors within the Fairfax Tract, and lands were surveyed
and sold upon his order.
The problem of knowing where a tract of land was situated created problems.
The Fairfax Tract, for instance, was to begin at the headwaters of the
Rappahannock River. At the time Charles II made the grant, the position
of the headwaters was not known. Lord Fairfax claimed that the headwater
of the Rappahannock was the Rapidan River, and that all of the lands
within the forks of the Rappahannock were part of the Fairfax Tract.
A commission was formed to resolve the question of the boundary line
between the crown lands and the Fairfax Tract. Joshua Fry was appointed
to represent the interests of the king. Fry, in turn, recommended that
his associate, Peter Jefferson, serve as one of the two surveyors for
the crown. The other was Robert Brooke. Captain Benjamin Winslow and
Thomas Lewis were appointed surveyors for Lord Fairfax.
The basic instrument used by colonial surveyors was the plane surveying
compass or "circumferentor," as it was commonly called in
England. This was a circular brass or wooden box, housing a magnetized
needle set on a bearing. The needle swiveled to magnetic north, and
around it was a dial commonly graduated into 360 degrees.
The face of the instrument was engraved with a compass rose showing
the letters of the four cardinal points set at the points of 90-degree
quadrants. The letters for east and west were often reversed, making
it easier to read the orientation of a line directly from the compass.
The needle, dial, and face were protected by glass held in place by
a brass ring or by glazier's putty.
The compass was mounted on a base, which extended into two arms
set opposite each other. At each end of the arms were sighting
vanes. Each vane was cut into a large sighting oval and a narrow
slit. The oval was on top of the slit on one vane, and the slit
was over the oval on the other vane. Often a thin wire or horsehair
was stretched over the oval, providing more precision. The surveyor
sighted the compass by peering through the slit in one of the
vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other
vane with a target or object in the field.
Willie Balderson, portraying the surveyor, and Brian Simpers,
serving as his tally man, determine the bearing of a survey line
with a wooden plane surveying compass. Dave Doody
Although surveyors used a plane surveying compass to determine the
bearing of a survey line, distances were measured using a chain. Carrying
the chain and measuring the distances along the survey lines was done
by laborers, called chainmen.
A full surveyor's chain consisted of one hundred equal links and was
sixty-six feet long. Each link represented a decimal of the chain, and
twenty-five links equaled an English statutory pole. The standard chain
equaled four poles. Eighty chains equaled one mile.
Although the full chain was standard equipment in England, dragging
a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia's forests
was impractical. A long chain would hang on brush or logs and the dense
vegetation often made it difficult for the chain carriers to see each
other. Colonial surveyors like Peter Jefferson used a half-or two-pole-chain,
which had fifty links and was thirty-three feet.
To measure distances, the lead chainman walked toward the mark that
the surveyor had determined with his compass. The rear chainman played
out the chain, keeping the rear end of the chain over the beginning
point. At the end of the chain, the lead chainman stopped and stuck
in the ground an iron or wooden pin about twelve inches long.
As soon as the lead chainman set the pin, the rear chainman moved to
that spot, and the process began again. As he advanced along the survey
line, the rear chainman picked up the pin that the lead chainman had
left. Chainmen carried ten pins, and when all ten pins had been collected,
the chainmen knew that they had measured five full chains if they were
using a half chain, or ten full chains with a full chain.
Much of the country through which the Fairfax Line passed was densely
wooded and mountainous. In his journal of the expedition, Lewis described
the hardships of running a straight line through heavy brush and across
boulder-strewn hillsides. On one mountain slope the surveyors were so
"often in the outmoust Danger this tirable place was Calld Purgatory."
At another location, the surveyors had to cross a stream, which Lewis
called the "River Styx" because of its dismal appearance.
The far bank was so steep that the packhorses slipped and many fell,
along with the baggage on their backs, into the river. Lewis wrote:
"We got all our Bagage over as it Began to grow Dark So we were
Obliged to Encamp on the Bank & in Such a place where we Could not
find a plain Big enough for one man to Lye on. No fire wood Except green
or Roten Spruce pine no place for our horses to feed."
Often their equipment broke and had to be repaired. Some days food
ran low and on others they found no water to drink. After four weeks
of trial and tribulation, Peter Jefferson and company reached the Potomac.
Because of a compass error, they had come out south of the spring that
was the headwater of the Potomac. This meant that they had to run the
line a second time, in the opposite direction, to the point where they
Moving to the headwaters, the men drank a toast to King George and
started back Thursday, October 23, 1746. The return journey was as difficult.
Several men, including Peter Jefferson, became sick. Brooke fainted
in the middle of a swamp, nearly drowning in the shallow, brown water.
Fry-Jefferson Map, with a cartouche depicting a prosperous colony,
was the finest of colonial Virginia and often prominently displayed
in the homes and offices of enterprising Virginians. -Colonial
One night the surveyors became separated from their baggage party and
were forced to sleep in a cold rainstorm with only handfuls of wet leaves
for shelter or warmth. But all was not hardship. On October 30, 1746
the men celebrated the birthday of King George, drinking a toast to
his health and firing nine guns in his honor.
Three weeks after leaving the headwater spring, the surveyors reemerged
in the grove of trees on the side of the Blue Ridge where they had begun
their survey, and where Jefferson had carved his initials.
The four surveyors reassembled in January at Tuckahoe. There, using
paper purchased from William Parks in Williamsburg, they prepared a
map of the Fairfax Line.
Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson were selected three years later to extend
the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. As Thomas Jefferson
wrote, his father "being of strong mind, sound judgement, and eager
about information, . . . read much and improved himself, insomuch that
he was chosen, with Joshua Fry . . . to run the boundary-line between
Virginia and North Carolina."
Beginning where the 1728 survey of Mayo and others had stopped, Fry
and Jefferson carried the line ninety miles into the mountains to the
In 1751, they collaborated on a map of Virginia. It was the first map
to show the Appalachian Mountains running in the correct direction,
and it became the standard cartographic reference of Virginia in the
The year it was published, war broke out with France. The Jeffersons
moved back to Albemarle County and Fry was appointed military commander
of the provincial forces. His second in command was a young man who
had been a county surveyor within the Fairfax Tract, George Washington.
A few months later, Fry was thrown from his horse and killed. Washington
succeeded him as commander of the Virginia Militia, and Peter Jefferson
assumed the post of county surveyor for Albemarle. In 1754, Jefferson
became a one-term member of the House of Burgesses.
Peter Jefferson is best remembered as the father of Thomas Jefferson.
The accomplishments of the son are monuments, and the legacy of the
father is far more than some initials carved into a tree on the side
of the Blue Ridge. He was responsible for surveying tens of thousands
of acres of frontier wilderness. He served his king and country, and,
with Fry, accurately mapped Virginia.
On July 13, 1758, Peter Jefferson wrote his will. To son Thomas he
left the pick of the choicest of the family's 7,500 acres. He died that
Ronald Bailey is executive
director of the planning commission in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,
and wrote the book Frozen
in Silver, the Life and Frontier Photography of P. E. Larson,
published by Ohio University Press. This is his first contribution
to the Journal.