Seth Pease 1764-1819

Astronomer Surveyor of the Public Lands, Part 2

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Seth Pease (1764-1819), a native of Connecticut, who trained not only as a surveyor but also as an astronomer, played a significant role in the division and settling of the lands that became public domain after the end of the American Revolution. He surveyed first in Massachusetts, then in Ohio for the Connecticut Land Company for parts of the city of Cleveland, then in New York State for the Holland Purchase.

Meanwhile, the land ownership dispute over the west Genesee lands had been resolved by an agreement on December 16, 1786 in Hartford, Connecticut, in which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was given preemption right to its claimed land, and the State of New York was granted jurisdiction over it. It was not final until September 15, 1787, however, when Robert Morris, a prominent land speculator, obtained title to the land from the Seneca Indians, who received $100,000 in trust and kept approximately 200,000 acres for their reservations. Purchase negotiations between Morris and the Holland Land Company included surveys of the four tracts, but when Morris found himself in dire financial straits due to unwise land investments, most of the bills were paid by the Holland Company. (See map caption, next page)

Two years later, more than six million acres of the preempted land were purchased by Nathaniel Gorham and Oliver Phelps, two businessmen from New England. When in 1790, however, these speculators found that they were unable to make regular payments, two-thirds of the land reverted to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1791, Robert Morris, purchased from Massachusetts more than five million acres in five tracts of the reverted land. During 1791-1792 he reserved Tract 1 for himself but sold Tracts 2 through 5 to six Dutch bankers; part of it is known as the Morris Tract. Oliver Phelps was a land developer and a director as well as the largest shareholder of the Connecticut Land Company, having invested $168,185. Pease already had done considerable surveying for him before working on the Connecticut Land Company.

Ellicott’s Expectations
In the winter of 1797 some of the Indians had begun to reconsider some of their requests relating to the location and size of certain reservations. As an example, the Buffalo Creek and the Cattaraugus Indians now desired more compact sites by the lake, and by the creek. The Alleghanies wanted to have their reservation laid out in half-mile strips on both sides of the river, a plan that would hurt the Indians and be detrimental to the proprietors of the adjoining lots. In January 1798 a council of the Buffalo Creek was held to discuss these issues, but many more consultations became necessary before the surveys could be made.

In 1797, after completing his work for the Connecticut Land Company, Pease had been surveying in the Schenectady area of New York, when he received a summons from Major Adam Hoops, Robert Morris’s surveyor. Hoops urged him to come as quickly as possible because he had a surveying job for him for the entire season. On July 19, 1798 Robert Morris arrived at Buffalo in company with Pease, whom he introduced as the surveyor on behalf of Major Hoops, and that he was to make a traverse of the shore of Lake Erie as well as the small lakes and other surveys necessary to ascertain the Eastern boundary line of the aforesaid one million five hundred thousand acres.

Pease was engaged in surveying on the Holland Purchase lands for the most part from July 1798 to January 1800 under instructions of Joseph Ellicott (1760-1826), agent of the Holland Land Company. During the active season of 1798, Pease worked with other surveyors in township, meridian line and reservation surveys, and in lake and river traverses.

Noted among Joseph Ellicott’s accounts are disbursements advanced to Hoops for payment of Pease, beginning on August 30 for $19.00, on October 1st for $41.50, on November 4th for $37.00, on November 10th for $15.00, January 3, 1799, $292.00. The entry on January 29, 1800 stated "To my assumption to pay Mr. Seth Pease’s Account for his assistance in making Surveys of large tracts, $431.69."

When Pease returned from the field on November 4, 1798, he found awaiting him a letter from Ellicott dated the next day containing further instructions. Pease was to:
"take twelve days of provision and go to the Niagara River and proceed to survey down the shore of the Lake and River to the great Falls of Niagara… ascertain the width of the River from the west side of the Fall to the east Fall, and also the width of the island that separates the waters at the summit…. Then repair to the landing opposite Queenstown, lay off the front street of the town and other streets…. Mark the corner of the blocks by stones. Also number the stone’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… Progressively to the out boundary of the town… lay out a cemetery…" [The letter continued] "When that business shall be finished, proceed to Tuscarora Village and there lay out two square miles of ground including that Castle, and if it is possible get the Indians to agree… to the boundary lines… repair at a convenient speed to Buffalo Creek where you probably will find other instructions."

Upon his return after completing this work, Pease found more instructions awaiting him from Ellicott in a letter of November 6, 1798. He was to lay down the New York reservation along the Niagara River, as stipulated by Simeon Witt, Surveyor General of New York State, in accordance with the law passed by the legislature on April 6, 1798. Pease was to make a map, and then he was to "calculate the contents of the water in Chatauqua Lake, as it would be necessary for Mr. Morris."

By means of a letter of December 12, 1798, from James Rees, who represented the several proprietors who had purchased land from Robert Morris along the eastern border of the Holland Purchase, Pease was informed that he was to re-survey the traverse of the Genesee River, because it had been incorrectly done the first time, and since it affected the boundary lines of the neighboring tracts. His instructions also specified that Pease was to run each of the boundary lines and fix up "durable posts at each corner of every tract, marked with the initials of the owner’s name." If he were to discover any deviation, he was to fix the posts in their correct location. Pease also was to "make careful field notes and prepare a large map of all tracts, and smaller maps of the individual tracts for the proprietors who shared his expense."

In addition, Pease was to survey the Canawagarus, Big Tree, Little Bears, Squacky Hill and Garedeau Reservations, each of which was to be at least two square miles. All of these had been previously surveyed by Augustus Porter for Robert Morris. Nevertheless, Joseph Ellicott, having become aware of some discrepancy of the eastern boundary line, ordered it to be corrected.

Early in January 1799 James Rees again contacted Pease, informing him that they were awaiting his services as soon as he was free to join them. Despite Ellicott’s careful planning and meticulous instructions, problems continued to arise, most of them beyond his control. The surveying party experienced every type of inclement weather, from rain, hail and snow to high winds, followed by a summer drought that delayed the work. Often the men of the surveying crew were forced to wade waist deep in mud and water through swamps, while at other camp locations water was exceedingly scarce. On August 1, 1799, Pease complained in his diary that "we camped with such water as we could procure by scratching down a hole made by a tree that had fallen down, which was muddy stuff at best."

At the next camp, the crew was unable to find any water at all. As a consequence of the working conditions, a number of the crew developed a recurring fever. Other men were claimed by injuries that occurred on the job, some became otherwise unfit for duty or left for home. The packhorses presented yet another problem, for some of them became ill with distemper and others ran off or just wandered away. On several occasions Ellicott had to pay for retrieval of runaway horses.

Ensuring Accuracy
Joseph Ellicott’s stringent expectations were based upon the unusually extreme care he took with his survey preparations. To ensure the accuracy of the measure of one foot, for example, which had not yet been standardized at that time, and to ascertain that each of his surveyors used an exactly matching unit, he attached to every field book a 12-inch brass ruler, a number of which he had arranged to have made for the purpose. He specified that the chains were to be carried horizontally, and that at the end of every six miles they were to be compared with a standard chain that was kept reserved for that purpose. The first chains by law were two-perch chains 16-1/2 feet to a perch but by regulation of 1815 measurements were reckoned in four-perch chains of 66 feet, or 80 to the mile.

Ellicott introduced a more comprehensive system of recording field notes that required exact descriptions of all topographical observations, and he specified that notes were to be taken on the ground. Features to be included were bodies of water, the nature of streams and rivers, the types of trees and variety of vegetation and the quality of the soil.

Ellicott was extremely particular about the specificity of surveying instruments. He did not trust the circumferentor that depended upon the magnetic needle because, as he explained, "that with the needle it would be impossible to run lines of their length to any tolerable degree of certainty." It was at this time, during the winter of 1797/98, that Joseph Ellicott arranged to have his brother Benjamin, who also was a surveyor on the project, construct a transit instrument because the only one in the United States that was transportable was the one his brother Andrew had made and was then using it at Natchez on the Mississippi River. In order to accommodate Benjamin’s instrument when it was completed, it became necessary to cut a vista through the forest that was wide enough to provide a clear and uninterrupted view.

The journals of both Pease and fellow surveyor Holley contained copious descriptive notes on the progress of their work. It was recorded, for example, that the first line they ran caused them much trouble and vexation because the land was flat and uninteresting, covered with small trees and a considerable amount of undergrowth instead of huge trees, so that it was impossible to sight at long range. Furthermore, they had been having a wet spring that had brought swollen streams, and often making the swamps totally impassable. Sometimes, when on their way to their destination, the crew divided up, with the surveyors wading the swamps while the cooks, supplies and horses and laborers were sent around. This resulted in more delay and distress before they met because since the surveyors always took the shortest route, they were the first to arrive at their destination. Wet, hungry and tired when they arrived, the surveyors then had to wait for the remainder of the party, which sometimes arrived hours later. The horses often wandered off at night, and the crew lost much precious time in corralling them. The insects were extremely troublesome, and the surveyors also complained of "earth gas" to which they attributed ague and the fever that came later.

The journal that Pease maintained also contained numerous professional observations. He noted observations he had made on the polar star to check the accuracy of the compass needles, and he also made observations of "several stars" to determine the 41st degree of latitude to fix the southwest corner of the Reserve. He noted that the latitude at noon on Lake Erie was "42 50′ north," and added that "on Examination of the Quadrant we found 180 measured 180 4′, by the Cetant," at Presque Isle.

Additional Occupations
In 1801, between trips he made back and forth to the Western Reserve, Pease developed a sideline to supplement his income by conducting a fur trading business with Israel Spencer, handling mink, otter, marten, muskrat and red and grey fox skins. They bought and sold furs, extending their trade as far as Portsmouth in New Hampshire and into New York State.

In 1806 Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Pease to run the remainder of the south line of the Western Reserve, as well as the west line. This he performed beginning in June 24, 1806. He started at the terminus of the first line of the Tuscarawas, and finished in June.

On April 27, 1807, Pease wrote a letter from Pittsburgh addressed to to his mother, brother and sister:
"I have only a moment to write you you already know the place of my destination and I am thus far on my way tither When in Nashville and just as I was leaving the place I conversed with two persons that were acquainted with brother Augustine and had I seen them sooner I might have had an opportunity of conversing with some people with whom he lived as these gentlemen pointed them out to me and have learned the particulars respecting him. I shall descend the river tomorrow in a very comfortable Boat and I hope with agreeable company and good stores."

He enclosed a bill for ten dollars to be divided equally half for his mother and half for his brother and sister but they were not to mention they had received it.

Pease served as Surveyor General of the Mississippi & Orleans Territory and ran the government survey of the southern boundary of Western Reserve lands west of the Cuyahoga River. By the Act of April 10, 1810, during the tenure of Gideon Granger as Postmaster General, the position of 2nd Assistant Postmaster General was created, and the position was first filled by Seth Pease. It is believed that he remained in that office until 1818 when he was succeeded by Phineas Bradley.

While he was in Philadelphia in late August 1819, Pease suddenly was taken ill. A letter dated August 30th from a local resident, Eli Rising, to Pease’s brother Joseph informed him of Pease’s condition:
"Ere this I presume you have rec’d a letter informing of your brother Seth’s sickness. I can now only say that he is yet alive, but thought by his Physicians and friends that there is no probability of his recovery. Indeed he is hardly expected to live from one hour to another. Alfred [Seth’s brother] is now with him, he arrived Saturday evening last as I did likewise myself after a few days absence when I found a most distressed house."

Seth’s last days were reported by his niece Charlotte Pease to his brother Joseph in a letter of September 14th. Apparently, before coming into Philadelphia, Pease had been staying in Germantown outside the city, boarding with a Mrs. Baker. When Pease’s niece met Mrs. Baker, the latter informed her that Pease had been very ill for two weeks and had intended to go into Philadelphia and to send for a doctor. He finally had come in by stage looking for the house of his friend, Mr. Rising, but Rising had moved since his last visit. As Pease was walking by, he was spotted by a member of the family who called to him. He was extremely ill and immediately was put to bed. Pease had been suffering from an extreme case of dysentery and was in constant considerable intolerable pain. Despite numerous visits from doctors that he received and medications they prescribed, Pease found relief only from taking large quantities of laudanum. He was unable to remain lying in one position for more than a few minutes. and frequently cast about so violently that often he threw himself onto the floor.

A few hours before Pease died,
"he asked for his trunk which was set on the bed & he took out his will and a Book containing figures & told us to preserve them. He did not express a wish to live or to die. He told us to write his family how sick was…"

Pease died at Philadelphia on September 1, 1819, at the age of fifty-five. His funeral
"was attended Thursday PM 4 o’clock. We did according to Alfred’s direction & it was conducted with that decency and respectability that his situation in life merited. He was buried in the Second Presbyterian church yard."

By the time of Pease’s death, the Western Reserve had become home to thousands of settlers, many of them Connecticut natives who had joined the great exodus hundreds of miles to the west to make their homes on land surveyed by Pease a quarter of a century earlier. His leadership and mathematical abilities were of critical importance in establishing the Connecticut Western Reserve as one of the high points in Ohio history. Regrettably there has been no published biography of Seth Pease, although no colonial American surveyor deserves one more.

Silvio Bedini is a Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of more than 300 articles and monographs published in scholarly periodicals, and has recently completed his 23rd book.

Editor’s Note: References for this article are available in the PDF.

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About the Author

Silvio A. Bedini

Silvio Bedini is a Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution where he served on the professional staff for twenty-five years. Retired since 1987, he actively continues to research and publish history-related books and articles. Bedini was born in the Colonial town of Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1917. After local schooling he matriculated at Columbia University, where his studies were interrupted by World War II. Volunteering for the U.S. Army Air Corps, he was subsequently transferred from Chicopee Falls Air Field to G-2 in Washington, D.C. He served three-and-a-half years and was honorably discharged as the War ended. Returning to Connecticut, he engaged in a family business for a few years, wrote for children's magazines and true science comics, and did research for publishers of encyclopedias. In 1958 he accepted an invitation to write a brochure about the history of his hometown for its 250th anniversary, a project that just three months later resulted in a 411-page book titled Ridgefield in Review. In 1961 he accepted the offer of a position in Washington, D.C. as curator at the Smithsonian Institution in the new Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), which was under construction. He recalls the swell of emotion that brought tears to his eyes as he walked toward the red-bricked Smithsonian “Castle” for his first day on the job, a place where he felt “at home” from the start. Over the next several years he was promoted from curator and Division Supervisor to Assistant Director and eventually Deputy Director of the museum. In addition to his position in administration, his subject field was antique scientific instruments. Subsequently he was offered a newly established position of Keeper of the Rare Books of the Smithsonian Institution, and succeeded in acquiring important collections of rare books in science and technology for its libraries. Bedini’s association with land surveyors began quite accidentally about twenty years ago when a new surveying trade journal was about to go to press and the editor needed an article on surveying history. At the last minute he was called upon to write it, a tradition he continued in almost every issue for the next two decades. For the most part, early American surveyors and instrument makers were among “the little men of science,” mostly forgotten and overlooked by scholarly historians, yet whose lives aroused in Bedini considerable interest. To recover the story of a surveyor's career almost always involves considerable research—for maps, surveying records, and vital statistics—in state, county and city archives as well as local histories, church records, and local cemeteries. His intensive research on various aspects of the history of science eventually led to the writing of more than 300 articles and monographs published in scholarly periodicals, and 22 books published in the United States and Europe. For his research and publications in 1962 Bedini received the Abbott Payson Award of the Society of the History of Technology, and in 1997 in Darmstadt, Germany he was awarded the Paul-Bunge-Preis at the General Assembly of the German Bunsen Society for Physical Chemistry "for the book of foremost quality on the history of scientific instruments." Three years later, in 2000, in Munich, Germany he was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci Medal, "the highest recognition from the Society of the History of Technology." His memberships include the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Society of American Historians, the Washington Academy of Sciences, the Scientific Instrument Society (London), the Astrolabe Society (Paris), the Surveyors Historical Society, and most recently, the DC Association of Land Surveyors, which extended to him an Honorary Membership in December 2003. Bedini is presently completing his twenty-third book. Contact Silvio Article List Below