Did you know that George Washington was a land surveyor? Young George Washington learned the art of surveying from his brother Lawrence and from established regional surveyors. By 1746, barely into his teens, he began running lines for farms near his home. His first known survey, of the Ferry Farm, is dated 1747, and amazingly, is still in existence.
In 1749, at the young age of 17, future President Washington was appointed the Surveyor General of Virginia. As surveyor for Culpeper County, Virginia, he became the first official county surveyor in the colonies. At that time, the colony of Virginia was planning to promote expansion by offering speculators a thousand acres for every family they could convince to move to the colony. Before the land could be distributed, it was necessary to survey it. In 1750, at the age of 18, Washington was invited to assist in the surveying and platting of lands along the Shenandoah Valley, where he worked under experienced wilderness surveyors. The skills learned during this time would prove essential to his developing surveying career.
As settlers pushed inland, the need for accurate surveys and maps grew. County and colony (and later state) boundaries, as well as boundaries between individual land plots, needed to be drawn. At this point in time, numerous educated colonial landholders turned into surveyors, including not only George Washington but also future President Thomas Jefferson. Between 1747 and 1799, Washington would survey over two hundred tracts of land. Like most surveyors of this day, he also held substantial amounts of real estate, including more than 65,000 acres in 37 different locations. His skills in land surveying certainly helped him become a profitable land speculator.
During the French and Indian War, Washington served as a lieutenant colonel, thanks in part to the mapmaking and backcountry skills he had gained from surveying. During the war, he was responsible for constructing a chain of forts covering over 400 miles, as well as the layout and construction of roads in the vicinity. To this day, one of these roads is still known as “Washington’s Road.” He was also involved in the awarding of land claims to veterans of the war, all of which lay West of the Ohio River and none of which had been surveyed at that point in time. In fact, a complete survey of that area so that lands could be dispersed did not even begin until 1770.
Even after becoming President, George Washington remained involved in surveying matters. Concerned about the accuracy of the maps available to the Continental Army, Washington created the office of Geographer to the Army. In 1777, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, he appointed Robert Erskine to begin a complete survey of the nation, resulting in the development of the first official maps of the United States. These surveying and mapping projects, supported by Washington, would help greatly in military operations and other activities in the new nation, as well as laying the groundwork for future surveys.