The Surveyor/President George Washington Announces Appointment of the First U.S. Surveyor General

He also states his criteria for appointments to office: Merit and Qualifications

“It has always been my aim to fill offices with the most suitable characters I could obtain.”; Moreover, they must have the requisite qualifications, such as knowledge of science for scientific posts; These criteria were an innovation, contradicting the custom of royal governments to reward loyalists regardless of character or qualifications.

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The Surveyor/President George Washington Announces Appointment of the First U.S. Surveyor General

He also states his criteria for appointments to office: Merit and Qualifications

“It has always been my aim to fill offices with the most suitable characters I could obtain.”; Moreover, they must have the requisite qualifications, such as knowledge of science for scientific posts; These criteria were an innovation, contradicting the custom of royal governments to reward loyalists regardless of character or qualifications.

George Washington was an avid land surveyor throughout his life. During his early teenage years he was exposed to school exercises that taught the basics of surveying and land measuring. The educational training that Washington received was complemented by practical experience in the field. His first attempts at measuring land occurred in familiar territory at or near Mount Vernon. His first known survey, of the Ferry Farm, is dated 1747, and is still in existence. Washington’s big break as a surveyor came in 1748 when he was invited to join a survey party organized by his neighbor and friend, George William Fairfax. Fairfax assembled an experienced team to lay out lots within a large land tract along the western edge of Virginia. In addition to closely observing the work over the course of one month, Washington gained important experience living in the West. His career as a professional surveyor began in 1749 when he received a commission to become surveyor for the newly formed Culpeper County, Virginia. In this post he became the first official county surveyor in the colonies. At that time, Virginia was planning to promote expansion by offering speculators a thousand acres for every family they could convince to move to the colony. Before the land could be distributed, it was necessary to survey it. Washington immediately traveled to Culpeper, the county seat, to be sworn in. He completed his first survey within two days, measuring a tract of 400 acres. At age 17, he was well on his way to a lucrative career. In 1750 Washington was invited to assist in the surveying and platting of lands along the Shenandoah Valley, where he worked under experienced wilderness surveyors.

In October 1750 Washington abandoned his position as an official surveyor, but he continued to work diligently over the next two years as a surveyor, mainly in Frederick County. By 1752, he had completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres. Then his brother Lawrence Washington, who had served as adjutant of the Virginia militia, died, and George lobbied Lt. Governor Dinwiddie for appointment to his vacant post. George called upon a number of influential acquaintances to help secure this position. Though he had no prior military experience, Dinwiddie nonetheless appointed George Washington as adjutant for southern Virginia. In February 1753, the 21 year-old Washington began a new career as a major in the Virginia militia. Although Washington did not survey professionally after this date, he continued to utilize his surveying skills. He completed at least fifty more surveys, often for the purpose of acquiring new land for himself, defending his property boundaries, or dividing his holdings into profitable farms. He continued to survey as late as November 5, 1799.

To encourage settlement of the newly acquired Northwest Territory, on May 18, 1796, Congress passed the Public Land Act, which authorized the sale of these new federal lands in sections, consisting of 640 acres each, for the very low price of $2 per acre. This land must be surveyed in order for plots to be offered for sale, and the Act contained a provision for appointment of a United States Surveyor General to supervise the enormous project. To fill this role, Washington first turned to James Wood. Wood was a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army who commanded a regiment before being named superintendent of the Convention Army after the British surrender at Saratoga. Washington offered him the post of first U.S. Surveyor General, which Wood declined because of his election as the Governor of Virginia, a position he assumed on December 1, 1796.

Edward Carrington was a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, and was quartermaster to Nathaniel Greene during the latter’s southern campaign. After the war, Carrington became involved in politics in his native Virginia, and his friend George Washington often turned to him for advice on political events in their state. Washington named him the first U.S. Marshal for Virginia. With Wood declining, Carrington’s candidate for Surveyor General was Colonel Henry “Harry” Heth, a Virginian officer who was with General Montgomery at Quebec, where his bravery was noted. He then commanded a regiment in the Continental Army, and was with Washington at Valley Forge. A sketch of him is given by George Mason in a letter to his son, which states that Heth was a person of character. Heth’s grandson of the same name was a Confederate major general who some blame for starting the Battle of Gettysburg against Robert E. Lee’s inclination. However, by the time Carrington’s letter recommending Heth reached Washington, the President had already appointed a Surveyor General – General Rufus Putnam, originally from Massachusetts but as of 1788 from Ohio.

Rufus Putnam was a self-taught mathematician, geographer, and surveyor. During the Revolution, Washington named him to a number of engineering offices, including Chief of Engineers of the Works of New York, and his fortifications aided the Continental Army at Sewall’s Point, Providence, Newport, Dorchester Heights, Long Island, and West Point. In January 1783 he was commissioned as general. In 1788 Putnam led a group of Revolutionary veterans to settle the land in what became Ohio. These pioneers arrived at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers on April 7, 1788, where they established Marietta, Ohio as the first permanent United States settlement in the Northwest Territory. Putnam emerged as an important political leader in the Northwest Territory. President Washington appointed Putnam to a judgeship there in 1790. In October 1796, after Wood refused the post, Putnam was appointed by the President as the first Surveyor General of the United States, a position he held until 1803.

Autograph letter signed, as President, Mount Vernon, October 17, 1796, to Carrington, informing him the choice had already been made, but more importantly stating the criteria he used to select officeholders in the new American government. “Your favor of the 10th instant has been received. Since the refusal by General Wood of the office of Surveyor General, it has been offered to General Rufus Putnam, whom it is presumed will accept it. I do not recollect Col. Heth’s name was ever presented to me for this office. If it had, and any assurance could have been given of his scientific qualifications, he would have been eligible character in my estimation. As it has always been my aim to fill offices with the most suitable characters I could obtain, the aid of my friends to accomplish this desirable object has (where characters were unknown to me) always been required, and the opinion of no one has been acceptable than yours.”

Washington’s determination to make appointments based on merit, to appropriate and qualified applicants, was an innovation, contradicting as it did the custom among royalty everywhere to name loyalists regardless of suitability or qualifications. As the book “Professional Pathways to the Presidency” states, Washington “worked to appoint the best people for the office”. He therein set one of his most important precedents, and exercised it immediately in his Cabinet by appointing such divergent but meritorious personalities as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

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