Skip to main content

The compass is round, and has two "arms" coming out of it. The round part has an "x," marking North, South, East, and West. There's a large brass hand in the middle of the round part. There's also a thin hand. There are small notches all along the edge of the circle.

Each "arm" is brass and has a smaller part at the end that extends upwards at ninety degrees.

Consider the following questions when analyzing the compass

  • What is a compass used for? Why would George Washington want to have a compass when he was a surveyor?
  • Where do you think the compass came from? I.e - did Washington make it or purchase it?
  • Who do you think Washington encountered when he ventured out in the mountains of Virginia? 
  • Washington was a surveyor until 1752. What happened after 1752 that made him stop surveying?

Classroom Materials downloads are ZIP files that include, when available: document images (JPEGs), document transcripts (PDF as well as Word and/or Excel files), and ready to use classroom resources (activities, discussion prompts, lesson plans, etc.). These materials are available for educational uses only. If you would like to reproduce them in any other medium, please contact Dawn Bonner, Manager of Visual Resources.



George Washington's first career as a surveyor from 1747-1752 was brief but successful, giving him a deep knowledge of the Virginia wilderness and its inhabitants, a small fortune in land, and a reputation for courage and integrity. He would use this knowledge during his time in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War to develop strategies for his troops in battle to defeat their enemies. Washington continued to use his surveyor skills his whole life. He completed at least fifty surveys for his own lands as his farm land grew over the years. The surveys were often for the purpose of purchasing new land for himself, defending his property boundaries, or dividing his land into different farming sections.

One of the most important tools of the trade was a surveyor's compass. The compass had of six components: a cast brass box with silvered face and glass cover; a dial ring; a base plate; two sight bars; a staff adapter. Within the box, the silvered face is engraved with a compass rose marking the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) and quarter directions. When mounted on a staff, the compass enabled the user to establish a line from a known reference point to the point of interest and determine its bearing.