Andrew Ellicott was an American surveyor who changed the history of the U.S by mapping the territories west of the Appalachians, surveying the boundaries of the District of Columbia and planning the capital, Washington DC. He was undoubtedly one of the most influential surveyors of his time, although he turned down the Government’s offer of the position of Surveyor General – possibly due to their refusal to pay him for one of his most challenging land surveys.
Ellicott was born in Pennsylvania, in 1754. His parents were Quakers with a modest income. Ellicott went to the local Quaker school, where his talent for mechanics and mathematics was noticed. His family bought land on the Patapsco River, opened a milling business and founded the town of Ellicott’s Mills. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Ellicott enlisted and rose to the rank of major.
When the war ended, Ellicott returned to Ellicott’s Mills. In 1784, he was appointed to a group of surveyors tasked with completing the survey of the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania – a project which had been abandoned in 1767, and resulted in the establishment of the boundary which became known as the Mason-Dixon Line.
In 1785, Ellicott and his wife moved to Baltimore, where he taught at the Academy of Baltimore and was elected to the legislature. A year later, he was commissioned for a survey of the western border of Pennsylvania, establishing the Ellicott Line, which later became the principal meridian for the surveys of the Northwest Territory.
Ellicott was appointed to lead a number of other important land surveys, and in 1789, his family moved to Philadelphia. On the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, who he had met through earlier surveying projects, he secured a role with the new government, carrying out a detailed land survey between Pennsylvania and Lake Eerie, to establish a border between U.S territory and Western New York. During the survey, Ellicott carried out a highly accurate topographical survey of the Niagara River, including Niagara Falls, helping to establish his reputation for excellent standards in surveying.
In 1791, Ellicott worked for commissioners appointed by President George Washington to survey the boundaries of the Territory of Columbia – which would soon become the District of Columbia. Ellicott and his team marked the border with 40 boundary stones, placed one mile apart. Most of the stones are in the same positions today. During this period, Ellicott also worked with Peter Charles L’Enfant on plans for the construction of a new city, Washington DC. Following a series of disagreements with L’Enfant, Ellicott made major changes to the plans, including the removal of several plazas and the straightening of avenues and squares. Ellicott’s plans became the first for the capital city to be widely circulated, but he abandoned the project before its completion.
In 1794, Ellicott was hired to plan the city of Eerie, in Pennsylvania, and he spent the next two years planning a road to the site. Two years later, he became the U.S representative for the survey of the border between the U.S and the Spanish territories of Florida. He worked with Spanish commissioners for the following four years, eventually establishing another ‘Ellicott’s Line’, which remains the border between Florida and Alabama. One of his markers for the boundary has survived, known as Ellicott’s Stone.
Ellicott was not paid for his surveying work, and had to sell some of his possessions to support his family. The Government eventually agreed to give him access to the maps he had created during the survey, at which point he published his Journal of Andrew Ellicott, recalling the Florida survey in detail. When Thomas Jefferson offered Ellicott the position of Surveyor General, he turned it down – possibly due to the problems he had already experienced with the Government – and took a clerk’s job which allowed him to spend more time with his family. Ellicott died of a stroke in 1809, at his home in West Point.