George Washington's first career as a surveyor from 1747-1752 was brief but successful, endowing him with an intimate knowledge of the backcountry and its inhabitants, a small fortune in land, and a reputation for courage and integrity.

Surveying represented a respectable profession in 18th century America and held the promise of social and financial advancement. Over the course of fifty years, Washington completed numerous surveys, many documenting the settlement of the largely uncharted territory along Virginia's western frontier, with others laying out the very boundaries and even agricultural fields of his continually expanding Mount Vernon plantation.

George Washington drafted this survey for Barnaby McHandry in 1749. Signed "Washington, SCC" (for Surveyor of Culpeper County), this survey details 400 acres on the border of Augusta County, Virginia, along the Cacapehon (Cacapon) or Lost River [MS-5828]

Early Education

George Washington's remarkable abilities as a surveyor began at a young age.

During his early teenage years, he completed many school exercises in penmanship, comportment, and mathematics. Some exercises, such as the Art of Surveying and Measuring Land, provided instruction for the pages of practice surveys that Washington drew as a boy, and included samples taken directly from William Leybourn's The Compleat Surveyor of 1657. Washington must have considered Leybourn's volume an important reference since the inventory of his library included a later edition of the same work.

Whatever formal training Washington received in the "mystery" of surveying was complemented by practical experience in the field.

Surveying at Hell Hole

George Washington's 1745 plat of Hell Hole (Library of Congress)His first attempts at measuring land occurred in familiar territory at Mount Vernon.

In 1747, Washington surveyed five acres for A Plan of a Piece of Meadow called Hell Hole, Situate on the Potowmack near Little Hunting Creek. Early the next year, he drew A Plan of Major Law[rence] Washington's Turnip Field inside an ornamental compass.

Breaking into the Business

Washington's big break as a surveyor came later that year when he was invited co join a survey parry organized by his neighbor and friend George William Fairfax of Belvoir.

Lord Fairfax

Fairfax assembled an experienced team to layout lots within a large tract along the western frontier of Virginia. ln addition to closely observing the work over the course of one month, Washington gained important experience living on the frontier.

At the end of the first day, a tired young Washington was shown "a bed of straw with one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas etc." Upon getting up the next morning, Washington made a promise "not to Sleep so from that time forward chusing [sic] rather to sleep in the open Air before a fire."

Surveying in Western Virginia

Washington's career as a professional surveyor began in 1749. He received a commission from the College of William and Mary to become surveyor for the newly formed Culpeper County, probably at the behest of William Fairfax who was then serving on the Governor's Council.

Washington immediately traveled to Culpeper, the county seat, to be sworn in. Within two days, he completed his first survey measuring a tract of 400 acres for Richard Barnes. At seventeen years of age, he was well on his way to a lucrative career.

By 1752, Washington had completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,00 acres. Among them was a survey of 269 acres for William Naylor on April 12, 1752. In accordance with a warrant he had received from the proprietor's office (Thomas Lord Fairfax), he surveyed "a certain tract of waste land" along the Cacapon River, approximately 20 miles west of present day Winchester, Virginia.

along the cacapon river

Although George Washington abandoned his position as an official surveyor in 1750, he continued to work diligently over the next three years at his new profession.

A Unique Set of Skills

Map of Washington's land ownings along the Potomac River (MVLA)

In October 1750, Washington evidently relinquished his position as county surveyor. He continued professionally for two more years, mostly in Frederick County, before receiving a military appointment as adjutant for southern Virginia. Other factors such as his own awareness of diminishing amounts of desirable land in Virginia and the death of his half-brother Lawrence in 1752 may have contributed to Washington's disillusionment with surveying as a career.

Surveying for Himself

Although Washington did not survey professionally after 1752, he continued to utilize his surveying skills. He completed at least 50 more surveys, often for the purpose of acquiring new land for himself, defending his property boundaries, or dividing his holdings into profitable farms. At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.

He continued to survey as late as November 5, 1799 , when he "Set out on a trip to Difficult-run to view some Land I had there & some belonging to Mr. Jn° Gill who had offered it to me in discharge of Rent which he was owing me." George Washington's death five weeks later at the age of 67 was the conclusion of a remarkable and experienced surveying career spanning a half-century.

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