Land surveying dates back to ancient times as a profession that combined mathematics, law, history, design, and construction into an art. Flash forward to Colonial America and beyond, can you think of any land surveyors from this period? To your surprise, you may know more land division surveyors that shaped America than you thought.
America’s first president and earliest land surveyor surveyed throughout his life. George started learning the craft in 1749 at the young age of 17 years old. During this point in history parts of America were undiscovered. Washington was an integral part of surveying land that helped the westward explorations and expansions. By the end of his surveying career he completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.
2. Daniel Boone
The American pioneer and explorer, Daniel Boone spent much of his time exploring the American frontier specifically Kentucky in the late 1700s. Boone learned land surveying without any formal schooling and made a living as a deputy county surveyor.
3. Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, America’s 3rd president in 1773 was hired as a surveyor in Virginia. Jefferson came from a land surveying family as his father, Peter Jefferson was called the “land surveyor for the crown.” Thomas Jefferson was the vision behind the Lewis and Clark expedition and promoted surveying during this exploration through the Louisiana Purchase.
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4. Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was yet another president that was a land surveyor. In his 20s Lincoln was hired as a surveyor assistant and held this position for a year. It is said that he stepped away from land surveying and sold his equipment to pay off a debt. After land surveying he went right into politics and ran his first successful political campaign in 1834.
5. Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker was an author, surveyor, naturalist and farmer from Maryland who was born in 1731. For two years, Banneker did survey work for the capital in 1789 by planning and surveying Washington, D.C.
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Famous Land Surveyor FAQs
Want to know more about the history of land surveying in the United States? You’d be surprised to learn how much land surveying played a huge part in our nation’s founding. These facts and more we reveal by answering some frequently asked questions.
- Who Was the First Land Surveyor?
- Who Invented the Survey?
- Which President Was a Land Surveyor?
- How Many Surveyors Are on Mount Rushmore?
- Who Surveyed the United States?
- How Long Was Abraham Lincoln a Surveyor?
Who Was the First Land Surveyor?
One of the earliest known land surveyors in America was the nation’s inaugural president, George Washington. Prior to his career in politics, Washington studied surveying and geometry in school instead of enlisting in the Royal Navy.
Tutored by surveyor and cartographer Joshua Fry, Washington surveyed the parts of northern Virginia at 17 and became Culpeper County’s official surveyor. By the mid-1700s, he had surveyed most of the state of Virginia. And by the end of the century, he surveyed 200 tracts of land and amassed 65,000 acres.
However, it’s truly difficult to know who the first land surveyor in the world was. As one of the oldest known professions, surveying dates back to 3,000 B.C. when the first known land ownership record was placed on the Egyptian land register. The register listed landowners and their properties based on simple geometry and declarations of believed boundary lines.
Who Invented the Land Survey?
It’s impossible to know who invented the land survey. The practice dates back to Ancient Egypt when a land registry was developed around 3000 B.C. Circa 2700 B.C., surveying was done to help build the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Using primitive tools like measuring ropes, plumb bobs, stakes, leveling tools, and other instruments, Egyptians developed their waterways and reestablished boundary lines after each annual flood of the Nile River. They began surveying land for taxation purposes around 1400 B.C.
The groma instrument was developed in the early part of the first millennium B.C. And prehistoric surveyors using rope and peg geometry built Stonehenge circa 2500 B.C.
It wasn’t until the Roman Empire began dividing their land and developing a tax register for conquered territories in 300 A.D. that basic measurements were established and land surveying was officially recognized as a profession.
Which President Was a Land Surveyor?
There were actually three United States presidents who were land surveyors!
- George Washington: The inaugural President of the United States is one of the country’s most famous and earliest land surveyors. As Surveyor General of Virginia, he was integral in surveying the state and helping to develop the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. His surveying history also helped to promote westward expansion.
- Thomas Jefferson: The third President of the United States learned and mastered many trades, including surveying. His father was also a planter and surveyor. In 1773, Jefferson became the official surveyor of Albermarle County, Virginia. Jefferson also promoted westward expansion and surveying through the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country at the time. He sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition to explore the new land.
- Abraham Lincoln: The 16th President of the United States was another jack of all trades who self-studied surveying and law simultaneously. Around 1831, Lincoln made his home in New Salem, Illinois, where he would serve as the village’s postmaster and, later, Menard County’s surveyor before deciding to become a lawyer.
How Many Surveyors Are on Mount Rushmore?
Three. Mount Rushmore is sometimes jokingly referred to as, “Three surveyors and another guy.” Indeed, while all four men carved into the Black Hills were United States presidents, it was mere coincidence that three were former surveyors.
Of the four in the sculpture, the three surveyors were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. That leaves Theodore Roosevelt as the only non-surveyor president.
Who Surveyed the United States?
The United States is estimated to span 3,796,742 square miles. It would be impossible for a single person to have surveyed the entire country. Not to mention, our nation’s history saw the formation of all 50 states come at different times in its development. A lot of people are to thank over the years for having contributed to the surveying of the United States.
For example, George Washington surveyed much of Virginia himself. He laid the groundwork for determining boundaries for Washington, D.C., which was completed by Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott. British soldiers, Colonel Henry Bouquet and Ensign Thomas Hutchins, were instrumental in studying paths of soldier relocations during the French and Indian War.
Using their system of measurement, Thomas Jefferson developed the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), which was used to explore the newly acquired land under the Louisiana Purchase during the Lewis & Clark Expedition. This was roughly 828,000 square miles (or 530 million acres) of land!
Hutchins later became the U.S. Surveyor General and was the first to implement the PLSS to survey parts of the Midwest. Since then, the PLSS has been the main tool used to oversee westward expansion all the way to the coastline, helping to establish states, counties, and smaller jurisdictions.
How Long Was Abraham Lincoln a Surveyor?
The 16th President of the United States was a self-educated man who had numerous jobs before becoming a lawyer and getting into politics. Among them, he was a land surveyor. However, this job only lasted a few years, beginning in 1833.
As Sangamon County Surveyor in Illinois, John Calhoun offered Lincoln a job as his assistant. Lincoln borrowed a few books and studied surveying on his own, as well as with a tutor named Mentor Graham. He later purchased some secondhand surveying equipment to begin his practice.
Lincoln also became Menard County Surveyor while living in New Salem, Illinois. During his time as a surveyor, his projects included town lots, government surveys, road surveys, and private surveys. He later had to sell his surveying equipment at an auction to get through some financial difficulties.
Lincoln simultaneously studied surveying and law. He eventually obtained his law license in 1836 at the age of 25, which set him off on his career as a lawyer before entering politics.