Hardships assailed District survey team
July 25, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
Benjamin Banneker lived on Jones Point where the southwest boundary of the District of Columbia
Jones Point was the focal point of the survey which delineated the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Although you do not see any remnants of the survey camp as you walk under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge or farther out toward the Potomac River, Major Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker set up their observation tent and precise surveying equipment there in February 1791.
By March after recovering from influenza, Ellicott removed himself to the comfort of Georgetown inn. From there he coordinated the survey team as it moved from Jones Point at the southern tip of the 10 mile square, first establishing the southwest and northwest boundaries in Virginia and then crossing the Potomac into Maryland to lay in the northeast and southwest lines. Banneker stayed at Jones Point and maintained the instruments, except when he attend meetings with Ellicott and the district commissioners.
Banneker remained in the observation tent most of the time, even sleeping there to assure the accuracy of the astronomical clock--a complicated task. The clock was housed in a wooden tall-case and had the finest movement that he had ever seen. Banneker’s biographer, Silvio Bedini, describes his responsibilities: "It was his duty to keep it wound, to check its rate by means of equal altitudes taken of the sun at periodic intervals with the transit and equal altitude instrument, and it was necessary to keep the temperature in its vicinity constant. For this purpose he had several thermometers placed at appropriate points from which he recorded the readings several times each day."
Bedini notes that Ellicott was always concerned about the clock because of the numerous problems in keeping its accuracy. Astrological clocks were very sensitive, "liable to derangement" due to ground vibrations as well as changing temperature and humidity. I can imagine that maintaining a constant environment in a tent here in February would be a problem! Ellicott built the clock used at Jones Point in 1784. He discovered that one way to reduce environmental problems was to mount the clock on a tree stump inside the observatory tent. While this clock has not survived over the years, many other items from the Jones Point survey camp have been preserved in the American Museum of History. More about the survey artifacts in another column.
Wintering in the observation tent and the unique demands of his job, left Banneker with little sleep and numerous pains. His schedule was exhausting, leaving only brief moments for sleep. Ellicott arrived from Georgetown daily at sunup, just as Banneker was completing his night time astronomical observations. First, Banneker reviewed the observations with Ellicott and then took periodic observations of the sun to maintain the clock’s correct time until mid-afternoon. This schedule continued seven days a week.
Hardships continued into the spring thaw with soggy ground, and Banneker went home to his Maryland farm in April. Ellicott wrote his wife in June: "I have found the weather in this country extremely hot, partly owing to the want of rain...we find but little fruit, except huckleberries." He also could not find men: "Laboring hands ...can scarcely be had at any rate...." When men did join the team, the job was dangerous. In August he wrote,"One of our Hands was killed...by the falling of a Tree...." In November he again noted to his wife: "I have had a number of men killed this summer one of whom was a worthy, ingenious, and truly valuable character, he has left a wife and three small children to lament his untimely fate...."
Pamela Cressey is the City Archaeologist.