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Collection George Washington Papers

Washington as Public Land Surveyor

Washington created surveys and maps from his boyhood through the French and Indian Wars.

Boyhood and Beginnings

George Washington was born February 22, 1732, to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington at Popes Creek Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When his father died in 1743, eleven-year-old George inherited the small Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River where he was then living with his mother and siblings, while his older half brother Lawrence Washington inherited the larger farm at the junction of the Little Hunting Creek and Potomac Rivers that he renamed Mount Vernon. As he grew to maturity, young George had little use for the meager prospects at the Ferry Farm plantation. After flirting briefly with the idea of a career in the Royal Navy, he began studying geometry and surveying, using a set of surveyor's instruments from the storehouse at Ferry Farm.

Among the earliest maps attributed to Washington are sample surveys included in Washington's so-called "School Boy Copy Books," housed in the George Washington Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. The schoolbook includes lessons in geometry and several practice land surveys Washington prepared at the age of sixteen. These include a survey of the turnip garden belonging to Lawrence Washington, on whose Mount Vernon estate he had been spending increasing amounts of time. Early in 1748, with as few as three practice surveys under his belt, George Washington accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip west across the Blue Ridge Mountains to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax, 6th Baron Cameron. Although the surveys were actually performed by the more experienced members of the party, the trip was Washington's formal initiation into the field and led him to pursue surveying as a profession. The trip also marked the beginning of a lifelong relationship between Washington and the powerful and influential Fairfax family that gave the young surveyor access to the upper echelons of Virginia society.

The Fairfax Connection

A survey of the northern neck of Virginia, 1747

In the Northern Neck of Virginia, the extensive region between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, land matters were governed by the Proprietor, Lord Fairfax, and his Virginia representative and first cousin, William Fairfax, through the Northern Neck Proprietary Office. In 1649 King Charles II of England had deeded five million acres lying between the rivers to a group of loyal supporters, including the Fairfax family. Through death and marriage the land was consolidated under one man, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, who established his seat at Belvoir, approximately four miles upstream from Mount Vernon. Later, he moved west of the Blue Ridge Mountains to Greenway Court in Frederick (now Clarke) County, Virginia.4

Prospective settlers in the Northern Neck were required to obtain a survey warrant from the Northern Neck Proprietary Office for a set amount of acreage in a specific location. The survey warrant, issued directly from the Northern Neck Land Office to the county surveyor, instructed the surveyor to make a "just and true" survey of the land, thereby officially determining and limiting its boundaries. Because they were responsible for laying out the land claims, surveyors had a unique role in Virginia society. Their appointments guaranteed a certain social prominence, since nearly all parties interested in gaining title to an area of land were required to deal with the surveyor. Surveyors were also among the best-educated Virginians and were often in the best position to purchase land for themselves. It was not unusual for surveyors to acquire large estates from the many opportunities they had to patent land in their own names. Additionally, their intimate knowledge of the land and official capacity as representatives of large land holders such as the Fairfaxes made their participation politically and practically essential to large land companies such as the Loyal Land Company of Virginia, the Ohio Company, and the Mississippi Land Company.5

In July 1749, at seventeen years of age and largely through the Fairfax influence that he had cultivated, Washington secured an appointment as county surveyor for the newly created frontier county of Culpeper, where he served until November 1750. He then continued to work in the Northern Neck with the permission of the Fairfax family from November 1750 to November 1752.6 During his three years on the frontier he established a reputation for fairness, honesty, and dependability, while earning a very decent living. Philander Chase, the current editor of the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, writes that frontier surveyors "could earn an annual cash income that was exceeded only by the colony's finest trial lawyers."7 From the records documenting the 199 professional surveys attributed to Washington it is clear that he did not confine himself to Culpeper County, even while he served as its official surveyor. Rather, Washington did the majority of his surveying in Frederick and Hampshire Counties, the westernmost counties of the Northern Neck. Partly because of his close relationship with the Fairfax family, he may have had a distinct advantage over other Northern Neck surveyors

Culpeper, the Frontier, and Alexandria

George Washington's survey of the site of Belhaven (Alexandria) Virginia, 1748.

Of the 199 surveys credited to Washington, fewer than seventy-five are extant today.8 All display a finished, stylized, and symmetrical appearance. The Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress has several examples of Washington surveys, including a November 17, 1750, survey plat for John Lindsey of 460 acres along the Great Cacapon River, on which Washington used the initials "S.C.C.," Surveyor of Culpeper County, to denote his official role. This is one of the last survey plats Washington prepared in his capacity as county surveyor.

In addition to the public surveys he made on the western frontiers of the Northern Neck, Washington prepared two remarkable maps of the area that became the city of Alexandria, Virginia, on the Potomac River. The earliest is the Plat of the Land whereon now Stands the Town of Alexandria, drawn in 1748. As the title suggests, this map is a simple outline of the future town, with the land area annotated as "Area 51 acres, 3 Roods, 31 Perch." The site map shows the location of existing structures such as a tobacco-inspection warehouse and includes notes on the land within the proposed town limits indicating its suitability for use. The map also provides soundings and shoal locations in the river, information vital to the operation of any port city. The absence of a street grid suggests that the map may have been drawn sometime between March 1748 and July 1749, when the town of Alexandria was formally incorporated.

Plan of Alexandria, Now Belhaven, 1749

The second map, entitled Plan of Alexandria, Now Belhaven, includes a street grid but, as the title suggests, may have been made just before the town's incorporation, when it was still known by its earlier name of Belhaven. This map may have been used for the sale of lots, which took place on July 14 and 15, 1749. It lists the name of the holder of each lot, its location, and the price paid for it. The names of Washington's older half brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, of William Fairfax, and of George William Fairfax appear on the list.

Based on these maps, some have erroneously concluded that Washington personally designed or was at least heavily involved in the city's formation. While both maps are clearly in Washington's hand, no documentary evidence supports this claim. As he had with the maps he prepared during his first surveying trip, Washington probably derived or copied these from originals drawn by someone else--in this case John West Jr., Deputy Surveyor of Fairfax County, who is generally credited with the actual surveys. 9

The French and Indian War

Washington's decisive involvement in the French and Indian War, in which he served as lieutenant colonel of the newly formed Virginia Regiment, was due in part to the backcountry knowledge and map-making skills he had gained from surveying. In 1753, one year before Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie called for additional troops under Washington's command to defend Virginia's Ohio Valley frontier, Washington was chosen to deliver an ultimatum to the French at Fort Le Boeuf (site of present-day Waterford, Pennsylvania), insisting that they withdraw from the valley. When his report of this venture, The Journal of Major George Washington, was printed in Williamsburg and then reprinted in London, it catapulted him onto the world stage.

Although an engraved map was issued with the London edition of his journal, Washington prepared a sketch map of his journey to accompany the original publication.10 There are three known manuscript versions of this historically important map, two housed in the British Public Record Office and one in a private collection. Although older published maps were available to British colonial interests, this sketch map alone represents the state of geographical knowledge at the outbreak of the war. Together with Washington's report, the map dramatically illustrates the French threat in the Ohio Valley. It also contains one of the first references to the construction of a strategic fort at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, the site of present-day Pittsburgh. Washington's role in beginning the French and Indian War seems to have been inescapable. He not only volunteered to deliver the message to the French authorities but produced a propaganda map highlighting the French threat and ambushed a French detachment in the war's first skirmish in 1754.

Edward Redmond
Senior Reference Librarian
Geography and Map Division
Library of Congress
Washington, DC


4. Josiah Look Dickinson, The Fairfax Proprietary: The Northern Neck, the Fairfax Manors, and the Beginnings of Warren County. (Front Royal, VA: The Warren Press, 1959) p. 1.
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5. Sarah Hughes, Surveyors and Statesmen: Land Measuring in Colonial Virginia (Richmond: Virginia Surveyors Association and The Virginia Association of Surveyors, 1979), p. 163.
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6. Hughes, 93.
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7. Philander Chase, "A Stake in the West: George Washington As Backcountry Surveyor and Landholder," in George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry, ed. Warren Hofstra (Madison, Wis.: Madison House Publishers, 1998), 161.
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8. Ibid, 160.; Redmond, p. 18
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9. P.L. Phillips, "Washington as Surveyor and Map Maker," Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, 55 (March 1921):115-32.
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10. The map that appeared in the London edition of Washington's journal was Thomas Jefferys's 1754 Map of the Western Parts of the Colony of Virginia. This map is apparently an enlarged version of an earlier map engraved by John Gibson with the same title (Geography and Map Division call number G3880 1754 .M Vault) that was published in the London Magazine, June 1754. For a reproduction of Jefferys's map as well as other maps relating to the French and Indian War, see Seymour I. Schwartz, The French and Indian War,1754-1763: The Imperial Struggle for North America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
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