George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Andrew Ellicott, 16 May 1789

From Andrew Ellicott

May 16th 1789


By the death of Mr Hutchins, the Office of Geographer to the United States has become vacant. In consequence of this event, I have by the advice of my Friends, thought proper to offer myself a Candidate to supply his place.

As the proper execution of this business, will involve with it, an extensive astronomical knowledge, in both Theory, and Practice, it is with the greatest diffidence that I now come forward; and was it not from the encouragement of some of our first scientific characters, I should never have made this application. That I am not a stranger to the business, will appear from my being employed for some years past, in running, and determining, the astronomical boundary lines, of the States of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. For these different employments, I never made any interest, and what is of more importance, they were procured at the instance of Gentlemen perfectly acquainted with the subject.

It may not be improper to observe, that Mr Rittenhouse,1 and myself, are the only practical surveyors, and astronomers, in the United States, who make our own Instruments; which appears to be a necessary qualification in this Country, where mechanics are few, and mathematical Instruments scarce.

Being perfectly satisfied, that your nominations to Office, will be directed with that uncommon judgment, and prudence, which has gained you the universal confidence of your Country, I have only to add, that I have the Honour to be, your Hbe Servt

Andrew Ellicott.2


Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820), was a Pennsylvanian who moved to Maryland around 1775 where he joined the Maryland militia and rose to the rank of major during the Revolution. Ellicott, who had studied mathematics in Philadelphia, in 1784 was added to the commission of surveyors assigned to complete the surveys for the Mason and Dixon Line. In 1785 he settled in Baltimore, taught mathematics, served in the Maryland legislature, and engaged in several expeditions to survey state boundaries. He moved to Philadelphia in 1789 and secured an appointment to run the southwestern boundary of New York. In 1791 he was employed to survey the land ceded by Maryland and Virginia for the new Federal City. Ellicott was one of several surveyors who sought the position left vacant by Thomas Hutchins’s death in 1789.

1Ellicott is referring to David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), who by 1789 was one of the new nation’s most prominent astronomers and mathematicians. Ellicott had served with Rittenhouse in 1783–84 in the survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Virginia.

2GW received a number of letters supporting Ellicott’s application. On 9 Aug. John Ewing wrote, in compliance with Ellicott’s request, from Philadelphia: “I have the Pleasure of informing your Excellency, that as I had an Opportunity of being acquainted with his Knowledge of Astronomy & the Method of making astronomical Observations for five Months, while we were engaged as Commissioners for the States of Pennsylvania & Virginia in settling their common Boundaries, His Genius was such, that altho he had not the Benefit of a liberal Education he was not only able to construct astronomical Instruments by his mechanical Skill, but that he was also able to use them when constructed with Precision, having a considerable Knowledge of Mathematics” (DLC:GW). David Rittenhouse testified, in a letter of 17 Aug., that Ellicott “was engaged as a Commissioner for ascertaining the boundary lines of this State, first by the State of Virginia and afterwards by Pennsylvania, for four Summers successively. And that his mechanical skill in the construction and use of Instruments, as well as his Mathematical abilities, was singularly usefull in that business” (DLC:GW). Another supporting letter came from Robert Patterson, professor of mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, assuring GW that “should You think proper to nominate him to this office, he will be found (so far as my judgement extends) every way well qualified for it, and do no dishonour to the Appointment” (10 Aug. 1789, DLC:GW). Robert Andrews, professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary, wrote from New York that he thought Ellicott not only possessed superior mathematical ability but “he is also in my opinion a man of firm Integrity” (22 Aug. 1789, DLC:GW). GW was saved from making a decision by the fact that the post of geographer of the United States was not continued under the new government. For Ellicott’s application to run the boundary between western New York and lands belonging to the United States, see his letter to GW, 20 Aug. 1789. In 1791, shortly before his appointment as surveyor for the Federal City, Ellicott applied to run the line between the United States and Creek territory (1 Feb. 1791, DLC:GW).

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