Education logo

Land Surveying Washington D.C. in 1791

by Pauline Parker about a year ago in vintage
Report Story

Based on the true story of Benjamin Banneker

Land Surveying Washington D.C. in 1791
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

He barreled up the front steps excited to study more math books and rapidly knocked on the golden stained oak door. George answered the door almost immediately. "Benjamin! Come in. I have to talk to you!" George Declared.

Benjamin stepped inside, removed his weathered hat, and took the papers that George had thrust at his chest. "What are these?"

George laughed. "Well, Benjamin, you're going to be part of a monumental achievement! You're leaving your family's tobacco farm for a while. This here is a letter from my cousin, Andrew Ellicot. He wanted me to join his team to map out the new Federal City. I decided to give you the leg up instead. The second letter is from Thomas Jefferson himself approving my recommendation for you to take my place. You'll be heading out in six days."

"Are you serious, Sir?" Benjamin raised his fist in exhilaration and smiled big at his best friend, neighbor, and mentor, Mr. George Ellicot.

"About as serious as a land dispute!" George chuckled. "I have six days to teach you how to use the theodolite, today I'll teach you setup and maintenance... Well get moving, we haven't got all day!"

Circa 1700s theodolite. Photo credit:


Benjamin had his accompanying horse, Jester packed with supplies, food, his gifted theodolite (and books), and his letters from the Thomas Jefferson; in recognition of his weather predictions for next year, and his acceptance into the surveying crew for the capitol. He would need to lay low on his half-day journey and be prepared for interrogations regarding the traveling of a black man without his master.

A brief goodbye to his family emanated a balanced concoction of joy and pain. Benjamin broke into a light sprint for a few steps, leaped up with a slight spin, swung his leg over Theo's saddle, and landed perfectly with a subtle creak of the leather. He was extremely fit for his age. Loosely gripping them with his three mid fingers, he gave a gentle wrist flex on the loosely gripped reins. Heading toward his new opportunity.


Benjamin broke Theo into a trot, tugging Jester by the lead rope, as they approached the encampment. He dismounted, quickly stretched out his back, and turned to see a man approaching him.

"You must be Mr. Benneker. I hope your journey was a pleasant one. George Ellicot told me all about your mathematical genius. I am George's cousin - Andrew Ellicot, second to Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant. He has been eager to meet you, you came highly recommended by George, and even an endorsement from Thomas Jefferson! This way." Andrew turned about and marched toward a tent set up near the middle of the camp.

He drew back the fabric and ushered Benjamin inside. "Sir, Mr. Benjamin Banneker." He saluted and in an orderly fashion walked out, leaving them for a one on one chat.

"We are undertaking an unprecedented task here. Only the best minds will see this through. I don't need slackers. I need sound men with the ability to read, write, and use common sense. If you don't fit that, I suggest you go back where you came from." Major L'Enfant glanced up from his unrolled detailed plan of the work scope ahead. Held down at the corners by small metal tools. The extent and detail of the plan were impressive to Benjamin.

"Sir, I am your man. I will do what I'm directed and will assist as requested. I look forward to the work at hand." Benjamin extended his hand in an effort to build rapport with his superior. It was reluctantly accepted. Benjamin got a boost of confidence from the firm grip they shared. "What should I do right now, Sir?"

The Major poked his finger to a point on the design drawing. "You can familiarize yourself with this drawing. We are right here. This future road points this way." His finger slid up a line on the plan while his other outstretched hand aimed straight out of the tent's entrance. "We start at 0600 hours after breakfast. Be ready to start."


Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant woke to the smell of fresh bread and the sizzling of eggs frying. He sat up on the edge of his cot, slid his feet into his boots, and put on his tunic. "Up and at 'em". He whispered to himself.

He placed his hands on his hips, leaned backward, straightened back up, and walked out of his tent with an apple in his mouth as he buttoned his tunic. With a small mouthful Pierre exclaimed "After I have coffee and some food, we will be laying out the perimeter stones at each vertex of the extent of this project. Any questions should be directed to Mr. Andrew Ellicot. Carry on."


Benjamin snaked along the Potowmac River north-westerly with a group of three other men under the command of Mr. Ellicot, utilizing a solid brass theodolite, tripod, surveying rod, steel chain, and turning points to maintain a traverse along the river's bank. Their goal - placing a marker indicating the northwest corner of the entire project.

Steel chain. Photo credit:

They made their fifth leg of the traverse, and the gentleman holding the rod picked up the foresight's turning point prematurely. The first half an hour of the day was wasted. Back to square one they went. They started back to the brass-capped monument placed at the camp with a recorded, precise, above sea level, elevation. Andrew, the lead surveyor for their crew, called upon Benjamin to be his replacement assistant, and he took the measuring rod to begin the survey again. Benjamin had to prove his skills now.

Antique Rodman's Rod. Photo credit:

Andrew peered through the scope of his instrument, rotated it to point at the rod which was sitting on the control point's brass cap. He then straightened up, peered over his instrument, and hollered. "Why are you rocking the rod back and forth. Keep it steady, Mr. Banneker." To which Benjamin replied: "The lowest measurement you read while I'm rocking it is the true elevation reading, Sir. Shall I proceed?"

Mr. Ellicot squinted in thought for a moment. "Carry on, good point!" He shouted. Benjamin finished the shot and briskly walked ahead to the next rob position, stomping over the rugged terrain. All the walking and stumbling associated with such a monumental task was problematic on the knees.

They continued their survey, made it to the northwestern boundary that intersected with the Potowmac river, and placed a stone, engraved with the year.

Nestled between the river and a nearby creek, the crew of five collected some water and took a much-needed break. Setting down their equipment, they felt both proud and confident of their first set marker. The men drank their water and refilled their canteens in preparation for the next surveyed point - a short leg along the creek, just beyond a sharp bend in the waterway. Benjamin suggested one long foresight across the meandering creek to shorten the number of traverse points. Andrew Ellicot agreed. He knew that the distance would interfere with the accurate tape measurement, however, Benjamin had proven his worth enough to trust he could calculate and apply a correction to the error rate.

An example of a traverse. Photo credit:


After another four full hours of traversing, the work crew spotted Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant and his group of five helpers. As they completed another leg each, they were only a few chains away from one another. "It all comes down to this, Mr. Banneker. A surveyor is only as good as his assistant you know!"

They placed the turning point about halfway between each crew's survey instrument and took their measurements consecutively. Each surveyor jotted down numbers in their notebooks and did some quick calculations while other crew members held taught their tapes and analyzed the exact distance.

"What elevation do you have, Andrew?" The Major queried.

"Eighty-three feet and four inches above sea level. You, Sir?" Andrew was cautious as he awaited a response.

"Eighty-nine feet and three inches." Major L'Enfant threw his arms up in disbelief and stepped away from his workers and Benjamin took a look at the calculations made by Andrew.

"Actually, Sir, I found an error. Our true elevation is eighty-nine feet and three inches." Benjamin scribbled out his answer and put faint lines to cross out the incorrect mathematics in their fieldbook.

"Okay men, we will head back to camp after a short break, and mark out key points of intersections along the way. Mr. Banneker, may I have a moment." The Major waved Benjamin over. "I am surprised by your knowledge of mathematics. It's been noted. You may well have saved us a day of work. Tomorrow you work with me. I'll have Andrew set you up in a tent tonight. I need you well-rested."

Benjamin gathered up his things, hauled them into his tent in one trip, and organized his space. He found some dried tobacco leaves neatly wrapped up in a square piece of cotton cloth, accompanied by banana leaves, and instantly recognized it as his mother's parting gift. After hiking all day on rough ground, Benjamin settled down on his piled blankets, extinguished his oil lamp, and nodded off quickly.


"SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!" Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant scalded after his initial shock of knocking over the tripod-mounted theodolite. "Looks like we will only have one crew today!"

"What happened, Major?" Inquired Benjamin as he studied the damage to the equipment.

"Can't you see?! I've broken the tripod and the instrument. The level bubble is broken. It'll take days to get it repaired." Major L'Enfant clutched at his hair. "God help up us. There goes my deadline."

"Actually, Sir, I have an extra theodolite. We can use that one and still have two crews. Only one tripod leg appears damaged. Luckily, you only need two adjustable tripod legs to three-dimensionally level the theodolite. I can have it fixed in five minutes if you can provide for me a piece of wood, some string, a saw, and a measuring tape." Benjamin strained his eyes from the sun that rose up above the mountains, silhouetting the Major.

"Get the man what he asked for." The Major directed. "Benjamin, you and I will be placing all the corners of the points of interest on our plan - depicted in yellow. These points will double up as our control points throughout the job."

Benjamin and the Major discussed the day's game plan and through mingled suggestions and ideas, they set out to begin the day's work. "Benjamin, you stay with me, here's my notes, you will do the writing and calculations today... you!" The Major pointed to Phillipe, a tall skinny man who previously carried wooden stakes and a hammer. "You can use a rod, no?"

"Yes, Sir!" Phillipe set down his load and rushed over to take hold of the measuring stick.

"Benjamin, keep a sharp pencil when you're writing... and don't smudge anything. You're not one of those wretched left-handers, are you?" The Major jokingly queried.

Benjamin chuckled. "No, Sir."

Major L'Enfant bent over and peered into the scope of his theodolite, Adjusted the focus to prevent parallax, and said; "Andrew tells me you corrected the tape sag error with math. What formula did you use?"

"Cs=(w^2Ls^3)/24P1^2, Sir." Benjamin casually replied.

"Very good, man!" L'Enfant cheered. "And where did you learn that?"

"Self-taught utilizing textbooks from Andrew Ellicot's cousin, George. That's also where I got our replacement theodolite. He's a great man." Benjamin praised.

"As are you, Sir. The angle is 178 degrees and 23 minutes. Distance is 30 feet on the nose. We will be using 30-foot intervals as much as possible today, so unless I specify otherwise, it's 30." The Major picked up the instrument - tripod and all - and strolled over toward the end of the tape. Hurry along, Benjamin, you're setting up the instrument this time."

Benjamin placed the notebook in his pocket, the pencil in his teeth, latched the plumb bob to the hook under the theodolite, maneuvered the two legs into position, and began fine-tuning his leveling by adjusting the two working legs, turning the brass knobs, and finally, slightly unscrewing the theodolite from the tripod plate and sliding it around until the plumb bob's point sat precisely over the 30-foot mark on the chain. One last check on the theodolite level bubble and he stepped back. "All set, Sir."

A plum bob. Photo credit:

Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant marched over to the setup. "Someone please fetch us five stone markers." They were heavy weighing in at fifty-five pounds apiece, each carved with Victoria on one half and 1791 on the other. A small bored hole was centered on the top to mark the EXACT spot of the control point.

"Sir, while you're preparing your notes for this, I will pace off the other stone locations and mark them with wooden stakes, so he knows where to drop them." Benjamin grabbed five stakes and the hammer and made his way along the approximate bearing of the next control point and paced out seventy-seven steps, his estimate for the next landmark's control point, and pounded in a wooden stake. He repeated this four more times and jogged back to the Major.

A Washington D.C. Capstone. Photo credit:

"Perfect timing, Benjamin. Have some water and then I'll be ready for you to take down the data." Major L'Enfant was sketching the next drawing of the new setup in the field book. "On second thought, I think I need you to supervise the stone placement. You can be my rodman for placing the stones."

"I'm not taking a direction from this nobody!" Phillipe rudely complained.

"Mr. Menet," the Major spoke calmly while fiddling around with his tools in preparation for the work ahead, "If you have a problem with Mr. Banneker, I suggest you pipe down. I don't have room on my team for problems and if I had to choose between you two, I wouldn't choose you to stay and work."

"Thank you, Major, for sticking up for me." Benjamin turned to Phillipe Minet and said;

"The color of the skin is in no way connected with strength of the mind or intellectual powers."

Benjamin stuck his hand out, inviting a handshake from Phillipe, which was hesitantly but respectfully obliged. Benjamin and Phillipe stretched the sixty-six-foot-long metal tape its full length approximately toward the first stone location. "We're going to need to chain four times for this first stone placement."

"Move left about on foot. Yup, let me check again, hold the plumb bob steady. Half a pole's width to your right. Perfect! Right there. place the stake and we'll double-check it." The Major double-checked the theodolite's level bubble and peered through the scope to confirm the angle. It indeed took three full chains, a partial chain, and four theodolite positions to place the borehole in the sandstone marker. It took the crew thirty-five minutes to complete the first and complete the mathematics and the checks. All five survey markers were placed in four hours.

"Mr. Banneker, would you mind taking a compass reading of this line, and meet up with the other survey crew to check that they are running on this same bearing. We need to make sure they're on the same page as us. Oh, and tell them to finish up with a traverse to the point we both met on yesterday. I'm going to do the same thing here. Phillipe, grab the rod, man." Benjamin took the compass and did as he was directed.

"Sir, their elevation tie to the back point we placed yesterday was sitting only one inch too low. Their angle down the street appears to be off but I calculated the angular error and their adjusting their work accordingly."

"Excellent work, man!" Major L'Enfant congradulated him. "You can head back to camp now, we are almost finished this leg. I expect the brandy to be ready for you and me when I return."

Benjamin nodded and made haste back to camp. He knew the crews wouldn't be back for at least an hour so he took some time to write a letter to his parents in Baltimore, hoping to send it along with the next passersby. He folded up his letter and got it ready for transport. While placing it in his pocket he noticed the tobacco and the small stack of banana leaves protruding from his satchel.

When Benjamin was all finished with rolling up some of his homegrown tobacco into six cigars a , he went on a search for some whiskey. He spotted an open wooden crate near the Major's tent and wandered over.

"Hello there. I was just on my way by your camp. There are a lot of tracks around here and I'm wondering; where's the trail to Baltimore?"

Benjamin glanced up from the crate to see a woman and daughter both on horseback, side-saddled, and well attired. "Sure, Miss. Head straight this way. I wonder... could you carry a letter with you? My mother sure would love to hear from me. Ask anyone you find to bring it to George Ellicot. He'll see it reaches them. I'd be eternally grateful." He grabbed the letter from his pocket and reached out politely.

"Definitely. We'll see to it." They turned their horses toward their indicated direction. "I wonder." The mother said, "Could I trade you two of your cigars for two bottles of my beer?"

Benjamin agreed and made the trade. "Mr. Banneker, who are these fine visitors?" Major L'Enfant mosied on over.

"I'm Ms. Peirce and this is my daughter, Isa. We have just been given valuable directions by this kind gentleman. Even made a trade." She stated.

"Beer, I see. Do you happen to have some more you'd trade? And Benjamin, I hope you have more cigars, those look delightful." The Major queried. "You know, this fine man wrote the Almanac for next year and even got recognition from the Office of the President of the United States. He's a crucial member of my team."

They made another exchange, more beer for a bottle of French brandy. The Major had nearly a full crate of the stuff so He had it to spare.

"Miss, before you go, could you pass on along with the letter a request for more tobacco sent back when possible. Thank you." The travelers continued on to Baltimore.


"Cheers, gentlemen. To continued success and prosperity." The men stood around a flickering fire, each with a beer. They raised them up high. "Benjamin, care to say a few words."

He froze, not knowing what he should say, then it came to him;

"I am of the African race, and in the color which is natural to them of the deepest dye; and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe."

The men sat in silence, each contemplating Benjamin's word for a moment, then they raised their stubby bottles of beer. "Aye, aye."


The laying out of the capital, directly onto the earth, by men in muddy boots and dusty hats was gigantic. Such an exciting and tangible thing to be a part of. The work continued for a few more months. Running street lines and pinpointing every intersection's precise corners - every one of which was directly mathematically linked to at least two of the forty official boundary markers, all stone pillars set in the ground with exact coordinates and elevations to the nearest inch - with dozens of pages of data recorded in official documentation, all in accordance with Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant's survey plan.


"Pierre. May I have a word with you please?" Benjamin limped into the Major's office tent. They had a strong bond of respect for one another. "Sir, I don't think I can continue much longer. It's my old knees. I am ailing and need to discontinue my over-exertion."

"I am troubled to hear this, Mr. Banneker. I can see you're struggling. You finished out today and I will relieve you of your duties. You can perform my calculations from your tent. Help yourself to the brandy, my friend." The Major started off to start the day's work but turned back. "Benjamin, I was waiting for a good time to show you this, but I have prepared a letter to the President outlining your personal achievements and advancements. You've done great work here and I'll be sorry to lose you." L'Enfant pursed his lips and turned about, heading toward his first survey shot of the day. "I can't finish this without you!" He shouted over his shoulder.

Benjamin replied, through cupped hands, and with a slight smirk;

"Presumption should never make us neglect that which appears easy to us, nor despair make us lose courage at the sight of difficulties."



Benjamin Banneker. What a pioneer in the field of mathematics, science, and astronomy. Although these instruments from the 1700s were primitive in comparison to equipment and methods implemented today, experts in the field of early surveying set the course toward improved accuracy, faster surveys, and more advanced methods. I commend Mr. Benjamin Banneker on his vital contribution to land surveying.


For accurate information on Benjamin Banneker's life and career:

Knowledge of early Land Surveying practices:

Survey Technician course completed at The Centre of Geographic Science (COGS) -2010

Basic information on Tobacco cultivation:

Benjamin Banneker Quotations:

Mathematical Formulas and other technical information:

Elementary Surveying - An Introduction to Geomatics, written by Paul R. Wolf and Charles D. Ghilani (2006)


About the author

Pauline Parker

I've always had a knack for writing, but never truly embraced it or stuck with it. These days, however, the magical world of creation with words is calling my name. Here I am, writing for the first time in so many years. Thank you, Vocal!

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2022 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.