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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. After establishing himself as a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon, he continued to employ his skills as a surveyor to lay out fields and verify disputed boundary lines. One of the most important tools of the trade was a surveyor's compass. 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.


Brass surveyor's compass composed 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 and quarter directions. Each of the arrow points of the cardinal directions on the compass rose are engraved with feathered decoration and the northern point is distinguished by an engraved fleur-de-lys at its tip. The needle of the compass is made of blued steel, and has an ornate arrow and swag profile at its point while its opposite end is plain. It is held in place by a center pin, which also holds the point of a tapering, copper alloy needle pin. A knob on the reverse of the base plate controls the needle pin, allowing it to fix the needle for travel. The other end of the needle pin is affixed to the face between the east and southeast points. A copper alloy knob atop the center pin holds the needle and needle pin in place. Placed around the circumference of the box is the dial ring. It is engraved with a border of tick marks designating each degree. Every tenth degree from zero to ninety is engraved with the appropriate numeric designation within each quadrant. Every fifth degree, excepting multiples of ten, is designated with a longer tick mark. All of the engraved areas of the face and dial, except for the quarter points of the compass rose, are rubbed with an organic resin to make them more distinct and legible. The box is screwed to the center of a cast brass plate consisting of a circular center with two arms extending from it on opposite sides. Each arm has straight sides with half-round, cove molded shoulders where they join the circular center. A line is engraved down the center of each arm. A vertical, cast brass, straight sided sight bar arched crest and squared foot with beveled edges is screwed into the end of each horizontal arm. At the top half of the southern sight bar is a vertical slit. On the bottom half of the southern sight bar is a vertical aperture with straight sides and half-round arches at each end. The northern sight bar has these two slits placed in reverse of those on the southern sight bar. The adapter which allows the compass to be mounted to a staff is screwed to the reverse of the base plate at its center. The adapter consists of a flat circular plate with quarter round edge, from which projects a hollow cylinder with an astragal ring near its base.

Surveyor's staff composed of a tapering, octagonal, wooden staff with an articulating socket head screwed onto its top and an iron shod point. The socket head consists of a socket intended to receive the base of the compass, a cylindrical cover with open top, a ball bearing with a threaded socket at top, a gear with threaded shaft, and a cylindrical cap that attaches to the staff. The cylindrical cover has a rectangular window on one side intended to allow a threaded screw or driver to communicate with the gear; an arched cover, attached with two small screws, holds the driver in place. The gear originally had eighteen teeth, but at an early point one broke off. At some point after its original construction, a layer of organic wadding, a small wooden disc, and another layer of wadding were added inside the cylindrical cover, between the ball and the top of the gear. A small piece of leather was placed in back of the rectangular opening in the cover for the driver. Printed paper was also stuffed down into the bottom of the cylindrical cap over the top of the staff, and another small piece of paper was found in the first layer of wadding within the cover.





A: Brass, glass, silvering, steel, organic resin B: Wood, brass, iron, leather, paper, organic wadding


Overall (A): 6 1/2 in. x 16 5/16 in. x 6 in. (16.51 cm x 41.43 cm x 15.24 cm)
Overall (B): 52 7/8 in. x 1 5/8 in. x 1 5/8 in. (134.32 cm x 4.14 cm x 4.14 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Judge Charles Burgess Ball, 1876

Object Number


Colors (Beta)

Mount Vernon's object research is ongoing and information about this object is subject to change. For information on image use and reproductions, click here.
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