18-Year-Old George Washington Surveys a Lady’s Property (SOLD)
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One of Washington’s earliest surveys, this elegant document records a plot of land for Ann Dunbarr, a pioneer settler of the Lost River Valley in the Appalachian Mountains of present-day West Virginia. Washington signs in his official capacity as surveyor of Culpeper County. GEORGE WASHINGTON.
Autograph Document Signed, [Virginia], November 4, 1749. 1 p., 8 3/8 x 12¾ in. Docketed and initialed by Washington on verso.
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“Pursuant to a Warrant from the Proprietors Office to Me directed I have Survey'd for Ann Dunbarr Four hundred and twelve Acres and an half of Waste and Ungranted Land Situate in the County of Augusta and on the Lost River or Cacapehon and Bounded as followeth
Beginning at a Pine and white Oak on the Ridges of the Mountains and Westside the River and Run thence…this fourth Day of November 1749
Washington, having inherited his father’s valuable surveying instruments, began training in the profession at about age 15. Surveyors held a prestigious place in Virginia society, and the field attracted some of the most highly-educated men of the time (Thomas Jefferson is another noted example). The work was difficult but lucrative: In addition to being well paid, surveyors often found themselves well-positioned to invest in western lands.
Washington’s first dated survey was completed on August 18, 1747, and the young man’s connections with the influential Fairfax family helped him advance quickly. Just a few months before preparing this document, he was granted a commission from the College of William & Mary as surveyor for the newly-created frontier county of Culpeper, a position he held until November 1750. In addition to a license, Washington’s new role as a government official required him to swear an oath. As biographer James T. Flexner points out, “in those unfrequented areas, it was up to him to see that no fraud was done by making surveys larger or smaller than was stated in the deeds.”
In addition to new surveys, Flexner reports that Washington was also responsible for dividing major tracts into smaller parcels to sell or rent. He also identified the lots that would be most desirable after clearing and improving the land with roads.
Surveying the frontier was physically demanding work, often entailing travel into unexplored backcountry while braving the elements and a variety of other hazards. In a 1748 journal of his first surveying trip, Washington described riding on “the Worst Road that ever was trod by Man or Beast,” fording a flooded river, and having his bedding catch fire. His tent was “blown down by the Violentness of the Wind,” and he encountered lice, rattlesnakes, and an Indian war party, albeit “with only one Scalp.”
As recorded in Washington’s notebook in the Library of Congress, this is one of 14 surveys he prepared in November of 1749 for the settlers of a tract granted by Lord Fairfax in the Lost River Valley. At the left of the survey description, Washington recorded the names of his two “Cha[i]nmen” (assistants who stretched the surveyor’s chain to take measurements) as well as his “Marker,” Ann Dunbarr’s husband, John.
Long after he ended his surveying career, Washington continued creating field sketches and formal surveys for use in his own real estate endeavors. The profession’s precision flowed into Washington’s future works, and his knowledge of the land and map production helped the Continental Army stay one step ahead of the British during the Revolutionary War.
Fewer than 75 of the 199 professional surveys credited to the future president are known to survive, many of which are already in institutional collections.