When first asked to name a famous land surveyor, most people assume there aren’t any. However, this is far from the truth; there have been, in fact, many famous land surveyors throughout history, though they usually achieve fame for other reasons. The reason for this is that most professionals in the past worked concurrently at several different professions, such as military careers, exploration, surveying and politics (at least three U.S. presidents were at one time land surveyors). Let’s look at a few of the more notable surveyors through history.
Did you know that George Washington was at one time a land surveyor? In 1749, at the age of 17, young Washington was appointed as the Surveyor General in Virginia. In that year, the English colony of Virginia planned to promote expansion by offering land speculators a thousand acres for every family they could convince to move west. Washington wasn’t just our first President; he became the first Registered County Surveyor in America.
Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught African-American mathematician and surveyor, was appointed in 1789 by President George Washington to survey the area which would become Washington D.C. The project to survey the national capital was completed between 1791 and 1793. Like many land surveyors of this time, Banneker also enjoyed several other vocational pursuits, including clock making, astronomy and publishing an almanac.
Another of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was appointed County Surveyor for Albermarle County in Virginia in 1773. As Secretary of State under George Washington, and later as our 3rd President, his appointment of surveyors gave the young nation the direction to promote the settlement of the frontier. One of his Jefferson’s most famous acts as President was to organize the Lewis & Clark Expedition to explore and survey the vast expanse of land acquired from France in 1803, known as the Louisiana Purchase. From 1804 to 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored and mapped the area with considerable accuracy for the time period, allowing for the western expansion of the United States.
Other famous land surveyors
There are, of course, other examples. Daniel Boone, another historical figure famed for his pioneering and exploration, was a land surveyor whose primary efforts occurred in Kentucky to resolve settlers’ claims to land titles. British explorer Captain James Cook not only sailed into every ocean, but he also surveyed the lands he found along the way. The surveying efforts of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon survive in the “Mason-Dixon Line”, the boundary which once delineated the “slave states” from the “free states” prior to the Civil War, and which is still identified today as the unofficial boundary between the South from the North. And at the beginning of his political career, a young Abraham Lincoln was working as a land surveyor when he was first elected to the Illinois legislature—the third famous land surveyor on our list to go on to become a U.S. President.