From the founding of the colony, Virginia's surveyors and
mapmakers charted westward expansion, internal development, and
natural resources. Colonial surveyors were generally literate
men who learned their craft from books on surveying or through
experience. Among Virginia's early surveyors were John Henry
(father of Patrick Henry), Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas
Jefferson), and George Washington. Surveyors, especially those
who were appointed as surveyors for a county, were key figures
in colonial society. George Washington was not the only surveyor
to use skill to increase his holdings of land, the basis of
wealth and social status in colonial Virginia.
Virginians' pattern of settling land in advance of surveying
was common to the southern colonies. A person interested in
acquiring a land patent was not required to choose land
contiguous to land already surveyed or land of a regular shape.
Surveys by metes and bounds created tracts that reflected the
owner's desire to choose the best land, no matter its location.
The resulting surveys were irregularly shaped. Surveying on the
frontier entailed considerable risk to the members of the
surveying party as they tramped through unexplored swamps and
forests and battled mosquitoes, disease, and snakes.
The Virginia Company of London appointed a surveyor general
for Virginia in 1621, and the crown continued to appoint
surveyors general after Virginia became a royal colony in 1624.
From 1693 until the Revolutionary War, the College of William
and Mary was responsible for the Office of the Surveyor General,
which appointed official surveyors and received one-sixth of the
fees that they collected. The new Commonwealth of Virginia
established the Land
Office on 22 June 1779, which continued the earlier practice
of transferring title to land only after a survey had been
Confusion arose in the case of the Northern Neck Proprietary,
more than five million acres controlled by the Fairfax family
from about 1685, which the colonial government was forced to
recognize after 1660. The Proprietary recognized titles granted
previously by the government but maintained a separate land
office until 1781. Surveys became part of the legal
documentation that determined the boundaries of the Proprietary.
Thomas, sixth baron Fairfax, retained control of the Proprietary
through the Revolutionary War because he was not recognized as a
British loyalist. At his death in 1781, however, the
Commonwealth of Virginia considered Fairfax's heirs as loyalists
and claimed control over the Proprietary. Ownership of Northern
Neck Proprietary was finally decided in favor of Virginia in
Vision of Empire
The Geography of
Educators' Lesson Plans