What did George Washington do before he became President?

Our first president heads the list of many familiar historical figures who were surveyors.

A casual dinner-conversation question inspired my newly released book, George Washington; From Boy Surveyor To Soldier.

He was a surveyor?

I needed to satisfy my curiosity.

My digging disclosed it was after his father’s death that George discovered his father’s tools tucked aside in a storeroom. He must have been a curious fellow because he sat right down and began to read the notes written in his father’s hand.

I wondered: Had he already accompanied his father tramping across land, maybe carrying the cumbersome circumferentor, the surveyor’s compass of the day?

Artist sketch of George Washington, the surveyor. Image from the Long Branch Historic House and Farm.

So how did an individual become a surveyor back in the early years of this new country?

Many of the genteel landowners had their own surveying tools for private use, such as confirming boundaries, determining right-of-ways, laying out fields, and building sites.

George Washington, after his father died, taught himself. There were books as John Gibson’s Treatise on Surveying or John Love’s Geodesia, but most learned their profession on the job, as George did by studying his father’s notes and hands-on practice.

Our first president heads the list of many familiar historical figures who were surveyors, Thomas Jefferson among them. His chairmanship of the committee that established the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 resulted in the establishment of our country’s General Land Office in 1812.

Henry Thoreau also did surveying and advertised his services widely in the Concord, Massachusetts area. A surveyor by the name of William Burt invented the solar compass in the mid 1800s. This ingenious invention greatly improved measurements as it was not affected by the magnetism from vast deposits of ore underground.

In comparison with the electronic calculators and 3D laser scanners of modern use, the archaic tools of heavy poles and Gunter chains in George’s time must have helped develop both muscle and character.

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