George’s First Job

When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, they can stand in what were once the fields of the Washington family’s farm, where they grew tobacco and other crops. While living here, Augustine Washington, George’s father, taught his sons – George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles – to see opportunity in land.

Ferry Farm Aerial View

Aerial view of the present-day Washington house replica, work yard, hen yard, and archaeological digs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Joe Brooks, EagleOne Photography

Growing up at Ferry Farm, George Washington learned that land was wealth. He learned how to run a plantation and to manage the enslaved workers who lived and toiled on his family’s farms. He learned what crops to grow and livestock to raise, how to care for them, and how to put them to use.  George Washington was many things at different points in his life – diplomat, politician, general, president –  but, throughout his sixty plus years, he was always a farmer.

To George and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit.  In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.

Before growing anything on a farm, Washington and his fellow colonial-era farmers had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them.  If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.

Creating these boundaries was the job of a surveyor and being a surveyor was, after his lifelong work as a farmer, George Washington’s first job.

Young George Washington, Surveyor

An ink sketch from 1956 imaging a young George Washington surveying. Credit: National Park Service / Wikipedia

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines surveying as “determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface.”

Today, surveyors use the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite imagery, lasers, and other advanced digital equipment to do their work more quickly and more accurately. When George Washington was a surveyor, he used simple tools compared to today but, 200-years-ago, these simple tools were as advanced technologically speaking as today’s surveying equipment.  Indeed, in the 1700s, surveying was relatively brand new.  The word itself first appeared only in 1682.

Although a relatively new science, young George Washington was probably familiar with surveying from an early age.  His father Augustine owned “1 Set Surveyors Instruments,” according to the probate inventory made of Augustine’s property after his death in 1743.

The state-of-the-art instruments of a surveyor in the 1700s included a surveying compass on a tripod used to figure out the bearing and direction of a proposed boundary line.  A surveying compass included “sighting vanes” used to point “the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object” along boundary line.  These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.

Surveyor's Compass

Surveyor’s compass by David Rittenhouse, believed to be given to George Washington in 1782. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

Measuring the distance between these targets set the property’s boundaries as well as its acreage. These distances were measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen.  A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. “Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical.” These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.

Surveying Chain

Surveyor’s chain, c1830. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

George Washington began a survey by choosing a starting landmark as well as a landmark to travel towards.  He recorded the direction of the line using his surveying compass.  Then, to measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target.  As the surveyor, George constantly checked the compass to make sure the chainmen followed his line.  Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth.  Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.

Fifteen-year-old George Washington made one of his first surveys on February 27, 1747 when he measured out his older half-brother Lawrence’s turnip field at Mount Vernon. According to Ledger Book Zero, Washington bought a Gunter scale, essentially a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve the trigonometry problems common to surveying, from his cousin Baily on September 20, 1747.

Thirteen months later, on March 11, 1748, George accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, the Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  Young Washington kept a journal of his experiences.

In 1749, at age 17, George was commissioned the surveyor of the new county of Culpeper by the College of William & Mary, which appointed all county surveyors in Virginia This was unusual for someone this young to be appointed.  A year later, he began a two-year period of off-and-on trips throughout Virginia’s Frederick County, which at the time encompassed a vast swath of frontier land that today makes up nine separate counties in two states“By 1752, Washington completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.”

In the later 1750s, George began to focus his work life more on soldiering (the French and Indian War) and farming. He never completely stopped surveying or acquiring land, however. In 1771, he surveyed Ferry Farm in preparation to sell the property and he surveyed for the last time in 1799, the year he died.

In the colonial age, land was wealth and was how many colonials, including George Washington, made their living.  As such, early Americans wanted to know what land they owned as well as how much they owned.  Surveyors, like George Washington, measured the land and created boundaries so ownership would be clear.  “At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.”  Surveying was Washington’s first job and allowed him to begin to build vast amounts of land holdings and thus wealth. This wealth, in part, propelled him to the heights of colonial American society and politics.  He began this journey as a surveyor while living at Ferry Farm.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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“A time to be born… a time to plant”: Timing Labor in the Washington Family

Recently I was contemplating Augustine and Mary Washington’s family bible. Like many families at the time, the Washingtons recorded the births of their children on their bible’s end pages. As I casually perused the handwritten notes that I had read so many times, I discovered something that I had never noticed before: each of Mother Washington’s labors, while carefully recorded, was only done so to the nearest hour.  No minutes, no “…quarter after…,” no “…5:38…” were detailed. I quickly realized two things at once: 1) the Washingtons owned a timepiece, and, 2) that timepiece only possessed only one hand for determining the hour.

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Page in the Washington family bible listing births and deaths.

These times were clearly not chronicled using a sundial, given the arrival of George’s younger brother Samuel Washington on November 16 at three in the morning.  Clearly, at 3 am, there was no sunlight from which to read the early-hours culmination of Mary’s labor on a sundial! The timepiece used to record these births had to be a pocket watch, case clock, table-clock, or a wall clock.

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Page from the Sarrett family bible

Compare the Washington family’s biblical records with that of the Sarrett family.  John and Mary Sarrett recorded deliveries in their mid-eighteenth century bible as well.  However, recording the specific time was not deemed important during these happy occasions, or was perhaps not possible because they may not have owned a timepiece.

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Page from the Kings family bible

In Worcestershire, England, the mid-eighteenth century Kings family did record birth times. Carefully written
among the pages of their New Testament, the deliveries of their children were noted, with the day, month, date, and the nearest hour of their birth.  Sometimes, if the birth was not especially close to an hour, they improvised: daughter Anne was delivered “…between 4 and 5 in the afternoon….”

Solar Time Versus Clock Time

Luxuries such as watches became popular in England starting at the end of the seventeenth century, when advancements in manufacturing and technology made timepieces smaller and more accurate. A social climate that fostered the ownership of such elegant accessories and scientific instruments (such as sundials, compasses, scales, barometers, and clocks) evolved and thrived at this time (Priestley 2000:7; Shackel 1987:156-165). Their high cost, luxurious status, and the knowledge needed to read and understand scientific instruments limited their ownership to well-off, educated consumers. This began to change during the mid-1700s.

With their increased accuracy, consumers of these timepieces soon realized that standardized time did not match solar time: due to the earth’s tilted axis and elliptical orbit the days were not of equal length throughout the year. At the height of winter, the solar day is almost a quarter hour slower than the clock, but by mid-December the clock is that much faster than the solar day.

Some one-handed timepieces featured incremental marks that allowed minutes to be recorded with some degree of precision. Though the mechanical clock had existed for several centuries (Stephens 2002:20), most colonists had little need for measuring time to the nearest hour, much less to the minute. People organized the activities of their day according to the rising and setting of the sun and around the exigencies of weather and light that favored some tasks over others. In the United States today, we continue to tell time in relation to the middle of the day, noting whether the hour is a.m. – ante meridiem (before the middle of the day)- or p.m. – post meridiem (after the middle of the day). Since daylight provided the best conditions to do most tasks in an era when expensive candlelight, ethereal firelight, or moonlight provided the only other options, it made sense to arrange one’s tasks according to this crucial reference point. (That said, people in the 18th century were surprisingly active at night as we explored in this blog post last year.)

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Although from the 1500s instead of the 1700s, this tambour cased timepiece from Germany is a fine example of a pocket watch with only a single hour hand. Credit: British Museum, (No. 1958, 1201.2203)

At Monticello, Jefferson installed a clock at the entrance to the mansion house.  It was simultaneously visible from both the yard and the entrance hall with one significant difference: from the yard, the clock had a single, hour hand but the interior, household face featured three hands. This interior clock allowed time to be segmented to the nearest hour, minute, and second. While outdoor tasks were sufficiently general that timing to the hour was appropriate, indoor tasks could be scrutinized to the nearest second.

Augustine Washington’s Pocket Watch

There was no a wall clock, table clock, or a case clock like Jefferson’s in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory. Either the probate assessor missed the clock during his survey, or the times noted in the Washington family bible reflect the use of a pocket watch. Pocket watches were especially popular among those who invested in timepieces, outselling furniture, or ‘case,’ clocks throughout the 1700s.

Indeed, a splendid watch was noted in Father Washington’s probate inventory under the heading “plate.” The “plate’’ category represented items plated in silver, and included things such as teaspoons, soup spoons, and a sword. At £5, Augustine’s watch represented the single most expensive item of plate recorded in their home: over four-and-a-half times more expensive than Father Washington’s sword!

Augustine’s pocket watch allowed him to check the time and document the births of his and Mary’s children’s to the hour. By checking the time, he demonstrated his pride in the ownership of a timepiece and in the esoteric knowledge needed to properly read it..

George may have taken this very timepiece with him in the late winter/early spring of 1748 when he joined a team of surveyors hired by Fairfax to transform parts of the Shenandoah Valley into farm-sized lots (Flexner 1965:34-38). During his March travels, Washington noted:

Tuesday 15th. …It clearing about one oClock & our time being too Precious to Loose we a second time ventured out and worked hard till Night….
Wednesday 16th. We set out early & finish’d about one oClock….
Thursday 17th.  Rain’d till Ten oClock….
Wednesday 23d.  Rain’d till about two oClock….

George recorded all of the times only to the nearest hour, indicating a single-handed timepiece. I considered that he used a pocket sundial. However, since some of the times were recorded during rain events, and given the nature of backwoods surveying, it had to be a pocket watch: no member of the surveying team could have carried a bulky case clock around the valley and across swiftly-flowing rivers.

There’s a good chance that this pocket watch was the same elegant, silver-plated timepiece that his father proudly used to record George’s own birth. Surely George enjoyed showcasing his graceful, refined pocket watch amongst the more experienced backwoodsmen and surveyors with whom he traveled in 1748. It otherwise seems difficult to justify recording such trivial details to the nearest hour. The piercing gleam of the weak winter sun against his magnificent silver-plated pocket watch distinguished George as a sophisticated gentleman, despite the rustic conditions in which he was surrounded.

With their watches and clocks, Augustine, George, and others living in the 18th century now measured the fruits of their labors in greater detail and that labor became commodified, helping to usher in the modern era.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Dixon, Simon
2015 Who Owned the Wicked Bible?  University of Leicester Library Special Collections Staff Blog, October 23. http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/specialcollections/2015/10/23/who-owned-the-wicked-bible/

Flexner, James Thomas
1965 George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775). Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Priestley, Philip T.
2000 Early Watch Case Makers of England 1631-1720.  National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc, Cornerstone Printing Services, Lititz, Pennsylvania.

Shackel, Paul A.
1987  A Historical Archaeology of Personal Discipline.  Ph.D. dissertation, University of New York at Buffalo.

Stephens, Carlene E.
2002 On Time: How America has Learned to Live by the Clock.  Smithsonian Institution Press.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.