Ellicott named head of capital survey

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Ellicott named head of capital survey

July 18, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Major Andrew Ellicott came quickly from Philadelphia to Alexandria to begin the federal district survey in February 1791 and established his base camp at Jones Point.

Congress approved the decision to include Alexandria in the new federal district in March 1791. Anxious to get the survey started to establish the formal boundaries of the new capital, President George Washington wrote to his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in February. Jefferson notified Major Andrew Ellicott that he had been selected to conduct the survey the same day that he received Washington’s letter.

Apparently Ellicott was an obvious choice, since he had extensive surveying experience. He had surveyed the boundary between Pennsylvania and Virginia as well as the western boundary of New York. He owned surveying tools which have been identified as the "finest instruments in the country at that time." A long-time resident of Maryland, Ellicott had moved to Philadelphia in 1789 to be closer to the fledgling government and have a better opportunity to be involved in federal surveys.

When Ellicott received Jefferson’s request, he sent for his brothers to join him in Alexandria. The Ellicotts worked as a team in their survey projects, but no one in his family was available to assist at such short notice. Ellicott selected Benjamin Banneker, an African American from Maryland, who had great mathematical skill and was knowledgeable about astronomy.

Although sixty years old, Banneker accompanied Ellicott to Alexandria to begin the federal district survey. They arrived on February 7th and stayed at Wise’s Tavern at the corner of Cameron and Fairfax streets. On February 14th, Ellicott wrote Thomas Jefferson: "I arrived at this town on Monday last, but the cloudy weather prevented any observations being made until Friday which was very fine." Ellicott chose Hunting Creek as the base of operation, rather than staying farther north near Georgetown. The camp was set up on Jones Point.

The survey did not begin under positive circumstances, however. The variable February weather created difficulties. Banneker’s biographer, Silvio Bedini, notes that "As Major Ellicott went about making arrangements for the purchase of equipment for his field camp, hired hands and woodcutters, and horses,...he grumbled about the weather and the overcast that prevented him from making astronomical observations." While Ellicott preferred to have his base camp on the highest elevation with protection of trees, Jones Point did not offer such attributes.

Ellicott’s survey team did not meet his expectations either. Usually, Ellicott stayed in the main observatory tent in order to insure proper maintenance of the astronomical clock, while his younger family members ran the survey lines in the field. Since no one on his crew was experienced, Ellicott had to conduct the exhausting field work himself leaving the older Banneker to stay in camp. His crew consisted of only six untrained local men, rather than his 20 person experienced team.

To compound his problems, Ellicott became ill. He wrote his wife: "I have met with many difficulties for want of my old hands, and have in consequence a most severe attack of influenza worked for many days in extreme pain. I am now perfectly recovered, and as fat as you ever saw me... The President will be here next Monday...." Although Ellicott described his Jones Point base as "a most eligant [sic] Camp and things are in fine order", he moved his own quarters to Georgetown by mid-March. Banneker stayed at Jones Point to continue his observations for the federal survey.