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President Washington Unique Signed Appointment of First Surveyor General
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Simeon De Witt, scion of the famous Dutch New York political family, served as a surveyor in the Continental Army and Surveyor General of the State of New York from 1784 until his death in 1834. In 1796, Washington, himself an experienced surveyor, tapped De Witt to be the first U.S. Surveyor general under the Public Lands Act of 1796. Congress created the position to organize the Northwest Territory of the Ohio Valley and sell the land. Remarkably, though, De Witt declined Washington’s offer, and instead Brigadier General Rufus Putnam took the job.

GEORGE WASHINGTON. Manuscript Document Signed as President. Appointing Simeon De Witt Surveyor General of the United States. Philadelphia, Pa., May 30, 1796. 1 p., 14 x 10½ in. With wax seal of the United States.

Inventory #24241       Price: $28,000

Complete Transcript

George Washington President of the United States of America

            To all who shall see these Presents Greeting

Know Ye that reposing special trust and Confidence in the Integrity and Abilities of Simeon De Witt of New York, I have nominated and by and with the advice and Consent of the Senate do appoint him Surveyor General of the United States, and do authorize and empower him to execute and fulfil [sic] the duties of that office according to law and to have and to hold the said office with all the Powers, Privileges, and Emoluments to the same of Right appertaining during the pleasure of the President of the United States for the time being.

In Testimony whereof, I have caused these letters to be made patent and the Seal of the United States to be hereunto affixed. Given under my hand at the City of Philadelphia the Thirtieth day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety six, and of the Independence of the Untied States of America the Twentieth.

                                    [signed] G:o Washington

                                    [in Pickering’s hand] By the President of the United States

                                                                        Timothy Pickering/ Secretary of State

Historical Background

In 1787, the Confederation Congress created the first territory in the United States by organizing the Northwest Territory out of lands between the Ohio River to the south, the Great Lakes to the north, and the Mississippi River to the west. The British had acquired the land from French Canada at the close of the French and Indian War, and the United States lay claim to it in the Peace of Paris. Organizing and administering the territory was the American response to the British incursions, Indian attacks, and unchecked westward expansion. When the federal Constitution was ratified, the Northwest Ordinance was reaffirmed with minor modifications—though its original provision banning slavery in the territory remained intact.

On May 18, 1796, the Fourth Congress passed the Public Lands Act to sell surveyed parcels in the Northwest Territory. The Act created the position of Surveyor General to organize the land for sale. Simeon De Witt (1756-1834) was a natural choice. He graduated from Queens College (now Rutgers) in 1776 and began training as a surveyor under his uncle James Clinton. In 1778, he was named assistant to Continental Army Surveyor General Colonel Robert Erskine. Following Erskine’s death in 1780, De Witt was appointed Geographer and Surveyor of the Army. At war’s end, DeWitt was became Surveyor General of New York State, a position he held for 50 years until his death. Headquartered in Albany, De Witt was instrumental in mapping the “Empire State” in the years immediately following the Revolution.

As New York State Surveyor General, he created detailed maps of all of New York State, especially Western New York. His expertise in this area led to his appointment to the Erie Canal Commission in 1810 by his cousin DeWitt Clinton to study and plan the Erie Canal. Simeon De Witt was also on the three-man commission that decided on the present-day grid system of New York City. He also owned land in the Finger Lakes region and is credited as a founder of the city of Ithaca, New York.

Twice widowed, De Witt married, respectively, an Irish trader’s daughter, then Jane Varick Hardenberg—the niece of New York City mayor Richard Varick—and finally to Susan Linn. He helped found the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures in 1791, and later, he was vice-president and then president (1813 to 1823) what would become the Albany Institute of History and Art. He also served on the New York State Board of Regents and was named chancellor of the University of the State of New York in 1829. He also was a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Despite his pedigree, De Witt actually declined this presidential appointment as the first United States Surveyor General. Instead, Rufus Putnam had that honor. Putnam had served as Brigadier General in the Ohio Territory as well as on the Board of Directors of the Ohio Company, so despite being Washington’s second choice, his expertise in the land upon which he walked—and was charged with dividing up for sale—was second to none.

Timothy Pickering (1745-1829) joined the militia in 1766 and served in the American Revolution under George Washington, becoming adjutant general from 1777–78 and quartermaster general from 1780–85. He later served as U.S. postmaster general from 1791–95, Secretary of War in 1795, and Secretary of State from 1795–1800. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1803 to 1811 and in the House of Representatives from 1813 to 1817. A leader of the Federalist Party, he was a member of the Essex Junto, and he opposed the War of 1812. After retiring from politics, he turned to experimental farming and education.


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