In surveying circles, Mount Rushmore is sometimes referred to as a sculpture representing "three surveyors and the other guy." The three surveyors are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. The non-surveyor is Teddy Roosevelt.

Washington, we are told, was an accomplished surveyor who received his surveying license from the College of William and Mary. I’m not sure what he had to do to get it; presumably he took and passed an examination, or perhaps actually studied at the college. We also know that he was mentored in his early years in surveying by Joshua Fry, a county surveyor.

Thomas Jefferson is referred to as an "accomplished surveyor." He was the son of a surveyor, and held the post of county surveyor for a while. Together with Benjamin Franklin, he is considered the co-author of a plan for the "Rectangular Surveys of the Public Domain." While president, he also directed Lewis and Clark on their Corps of Discovery of the Louisiana Purchase.

Lincoln was an assistant county surveyor, although he had no formal education in the subject. As an attorney, he practiced land law. While president, he was involved in refinement of the Public Land Survey System of the United States.

Between Jefferson and Lincoln, and since Lincoln, there haven’t been any other presidents who have indicated the knowledge or practice of surveying in their backgrounds. In a young country, the vast expanses of land, natural history, and mineral, timber, and water resources were all important to inventory and map. All the early presidents recognized the importance of this.

While the U.S. Public Land Survey System is often thought of as a system for methodically partitioning and describing real estate, and it is, one has only to review some of the notes of the original General Land Office surveyors to see that that the term "survey" meant more than mere delineation of land for the purpose of transfers. The Surveyor General’s instructions to the surveyors were quite specific about records they should keep about watercourses, mineral deposits, settlements, timber, salt licks, the arability of the land, and its appropriateness for settlement.

Even the plats show many of these details. There are enough details given to show that, if the deputy surveyors did their jobs honestly, they had to travel over more than the lines they demarcated on the land. The courses of rivers, the extent of vegetation, and the presence of outcrops are shown quite distant from those lines. The notes give even more detail. Frequently, every line of every section that was marked had at the very least a commentary on the fitness of the land for cultivation, settlement, development, or other use.

A common definition for surveying used by surveyors is "the measurement and location of points, lines, areas, and volumes on or near the earth’s surface." Webster’s definition of "survey" goes a bit further. The following paraphrased definitions apply: 1) to examine as to condition, situation, or value; 2) to determine or delineate the form, extent, or position of a tract of land; 3) to view or consider comprehensively; and 4) to inspect.

Many surveyors today seem to prefer a narrow definition of their profession. In most states, the licenses they possess codify that narrowness by stating that their regulated activities only pertain to the location and relocation of property boundary lines. While many states have changed or are reconsidering that narrow definition, many surveyors state that it is that narrowness that gives them uniqueness and stature. Others claim that while property boundary-related activities are a regulated and important part of their practice, their work involves much more, such as topographic surveys, planimetric surveys, engineering surveys, geologic surveys, construction stakeout surveys, and as-built surveys.

And then we have another group that takes an even wider view by including the word "mapping" in their activities. For some in this group, even that area known as geographical information systems (GIS) falls into their area of purview. There are probably other groups that view their field of endeavor with an even wider scope. For example, in England and many other countries, the business of real estate appraisal falls to surveyors, fitting correctly under the "value" case of definition 1 above.

What does any of this have to do with presidents of the United States? Many will state, when discussing Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln and their early careers in surveying, that the traits of a surveyor served them well in their path to and in the role of the presidency. This may be true, but the true implication is often lost because of the context—the narrowness—in which surveying is viewed today. I believe that these people possessed a broadness of vision about this country, its government, and the government’s role in its development. They may have been politicians, but they also understood economics, science, natural history, mathematics, and literature; they were Renaissance men. They understood how all of these elements combined or integrated, and when used as the context for running the government, benefited society in a way that was far better than by pursuing a direction based solely on the technocrat’s, politician’s, or businessman’s views.

Whether this broadness of view came from their training as surveyors, or whether the view helped them become surveyors, is a question for entertaining debates. But the lesson for surveyors is that they possessed a broad contextual vision.

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at

Posted in | January 29th, 2014 by

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