As a young man, George Washington worked as a surveyor. In 1752, he surveyed "a certain tract of waste land" along the Cacapon River, approximately 20 miles west of present-day Winchester, Virginia.

Tools of the Trade

The circumferentor and chains were essential tools for Washington's survey fieldwork (MVLA)

The circumferentor and chains were essential tools for Washington's survey fieldwork (MVLA)

When Washington arrived at a site, he immediately set about running survey lines, applying the methods and instruments commonly used by colonial surveyors of the time.

In the field, his basic equipment included a "circumferentor", or plain surveying compass, mounted on a Jacob's staff or tripod, and one or more survey chains. The circumferentor, a brass encased magnetic compass with perpendicular sights attached, was used by Washington to determine the bearings of boundary lines.

As he traversed the tract, two hired "chainmen" measured the distance between points, using a standard chain of 33 feet (two poles) in length. George Washington referenced natural landmarks, such as "two white Oaks (Point B), two Maples (Point D), and red Oak white Oak & saplings on the point of a hill (Point E)," to denote the corners of the tract. William Naylor acted as "marker," following the chainmen and notching trees along the boundary lines. As he surveyed, Washington made a rough sketch and description of the tract in a field notebook that he carried.

Platting the Measurements

Upon returning from the field, Washington accurately "platted" his surveys using similar drafting instruments [W-1369/A]

Upon returning from the field, Washington accurately "platted" his surveys using similar drafting instruments [W-1369/A]

Once his work in the field was complete, Washington platted the finished measurements. Using drafting instruments, including a proportional compass, protractor, and ivory plotting scales, he made a scaled drawing and detailed description of the tract. He then computed the total area in acres using arithmetic and geometric formulae.

The final step was to date and sign the completed document and record the names of the three members of his survey team. For the plat below, Washington was paid 2 pounds, 3 shillings. A copy of the completed survey was then sent to the proprietor's land office at Belvoir for issuance of a grant. 

Washington's Survey of "A certain tract of waste land" on the Cacapon River

Washington's Survey of "A certain tract of waste land" on the Cacapon River

Washington's Surveying Career

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