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The Pioneer Cartographer

Simeon De Witt By Ezra Ames (c.1804)

Simeon De Witt was born in Wawarsing, Ulster County, New York on 25 December 1756. He was one of 14 children born to Dr. Andries and Jannetje (née Vernooy) De Witt.

Simeon attended the Dutch Reformed Church affiliated Queens College (now Rutgers University) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was the only graduate in the class of 1776. Simeon fled to New York City after the British captured New Brunswick.

He enlisted with the Continental Army early in the Revolutionary War.  He was stationed with General Philip Schuyler after Schuyler’s troops withdrew from Ticonderoga and prepared to make a stand at Saratoga. "My apprehensions were alarming indeed," Simeon wrote about the 1777 Battle of Saratoga. "But I resolved rather gloriously to perish in the tempest than ignobly to turn my back or stand an idle spectator … the critical moment big with the fate of my country, myself, when liberty and all seemed to hang in suspense." Although Simeon's regiment was part of the reserve and was never committed to the battle, he observed the flames and heard the artillery "shaking the worlds around us."

In July of 1777 General George Washington dispatched the following request to the Congress in Philadelphia: "A good geographer to survey the roads and take sketches of the country where the Army is to act would be extremely useful … ." Washington recommended Robert Erskine, a Scottish emigrant and proprietor of Ringwald Iron Works in Passaic County, New Jersey to be the first Geographer and Surveyor of the Army.

In an effort to prevent the British from advancing up the Hudson River, Erskine began by conducting surveys for the construction of fortifications in the Hudson Valley at West Point and Forts Montgomery and Constitution. 

In June 1778, having been trained as a surveyor by James Clinton, the husband of De Witt's Aunt Mary, Simeon was appointed as one of about half a dozen assistant geographers to Colonel Robert Erskine. With the help of his assistants forwarding data to him from various battle areas, Erskine began turning out the first accurate maps of many of these areas. On 2 October 1780, Robert Erskine died of a severe cold that he had contracted in September.  Simeon fashioned a gilt plate for Erskine’s coffin declaring "Geographer and Surveyor General to the Army of the United States of America."

Washington received many recommendations from his associates promoting one person or another to replace Erskine.  When General Anthony Wayne recommended John W. Watkins, Washington replied: "I think it but a piece of candor to declare that I think myself obliged in justice to Mr. DeWitt, who has been long and constantly in the office, [and of whose abilities I have] heard [Mr. Erskine speak in very high terms] to recommend him to the vacancy occasioned by Mr. Erskine’s death." Simeon was thus appointed the second Surveyor General of the United States.

On 29 August 1781, Washington issued a momentous order to Simeon: "Immediately upon receipt of this you will begin to survey the road (if it has not been done already) to Princeton, thence (through Maiden Head) to Trenton, thence to Philadelphia, thence to the head of Elk through Darby, Chester, Wilmington Christiana Bridge. At the head of Elk you will receive further orders. I need not observe to you the necessity of noting towns, villages and remarkable Houses and places but I must desire that you will give me the rough traces of your Surveys as you proceed on as I have reasons for desiring to know this as soon as possible." Simeon drew these maps that would guide Washington to battle, including the final engagement at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, when Lord Cornwallis’s army surrendered to Washington, historic event at which Simeon was present

Following the victory at Yorktown, Washington instructed Simeon to prepare maps from Williamsburg through King William, Bolling Green and back through Maryland.

Compass presented to Simeon by George Washington (Rutgers University)

After the American Revolutionary War, Simeon requested authorization from Washington to prepare a complete map of "The State of War in America." Although Washington strongly approved such an undertaking, the Continental Congress was not interested in funding a national mapping project.

In 1784, Simeon was appointed New York State Surveyor General. New York was one of the few states which had such an office. During his term, he mapped or re-mapped almost all of New York State.  Established, older cities and towns were re-mapped to include more recent development, naming of un-named streets, and layout of areas for new development.  Much of New York State had never been mapped, including most of Central New York.

During the Revolutionary War, since neither Congress nor New York State had much money, but they had a lot of land, Congress authorized the award of 100 acres to each volunteer who enlisted and served until discharged.  New York State added 500 acres to the 100 already authorized by Congress. The award of this much land, it was believed, would encourage settlement and development of the vast open spaces.

As a result, a Military Tract of about 1.8 million acres was designated in Central New York to meet this commitment. The land extended from Lake Ontario south to the southern end of Seneca Lake and from the east line of Onondaga County (Syracuse) to Seneca Lake.  It took Simeon until 1790 to issue the first sheets of his State Map of New York but in it he divided this huge Military Tract into 28 townships each containing 100 lots of 600 acres each.

He gave each of the townships an early Greek or Roman name.  Thus they were named: Aurelius, Brutus, Camillus, Cato, Cicero, Cincinnatus, Dryden, Fabius, Galen, Hannibal, Hector, Homer, Junius, Locke, Lysander, Manlius, Marcellus, Milton, Ovid, Pompey, Romulus, Scipio, Sempronius, Solon, Stirling, Tully, Ulysses and Virgil. Many of these names are still the names of related cities, villages and towns in Central New York today.  Other Roman and Greek names for municipalities in this area probably also came from Simeon such as the City of Rome, Ithaca and the town of Greece. The counties were primarily named for the Iroquois Indian Tribes as Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca were created along with Cortland. In 1790 the names of eligible soldiers were put into a box and a drawing was held to assign the plots.

After he had finished the Military Tract map, Simeon undertook a new survey of the city of Albany in 1794. He realized that many new streets had not been officially named. As was his custom in naming the towns in Central New York, he adopted a theme in naming Albany’s Streets. Most north – south running streets were named after birds: Eagle, Hawk, Swan, Dove, Lark, Robin, Quail, Swallow (Knox), Snipe (Lexington), while east – west streets were named after animals: Elk, Eagle, Deer (upper State Street), Beaver, Hare (upper Orange Street), Fox (Sheridan), Lion (Washington Ave.), Buffalo (Hudson), Tiger (Lancaster), Wolf (Madison).

In 1795, Simeon named the little settlement at the head of Cayuga Lake "Ithaca" after the hometown of ancient Greece’s hero Ulysses.  He was so taken with the area that he and his family members started purchasing large tracts of land.  For the next ten years Ithaca was a remote community but roads were being constructed.

In 1796, President George Washington wanted him to become the Surveyor General of the United States, but Simeon turned down the nomination. In 1784, Washington had written to Thomas Jefferson about Simeon "I can assure you, he is extremely modest, sensible, sober, discreet, and deserving of favors. He is esteemed a very good mathematician."

Simeon was almost six-foot tall, and was described by his son as having "a noble, serious face, resembling in some respects that of Genl Washington."

He was married three times. In 1789, he married Elizabeth Lynott (1767–1793), the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh Lynott, and they had two children. In 1799, he married Jane Varick Hardenbergh, a widow. Later, Simeon married Susan Linn in October 1810.

During his later years he built a home in Ithaca, and resided there until his death in 1834 at the age of seventy-nine. He had held the position of New York State Surveyor General for 50 years. He was buried on his estate, but his remains were later moved to Albany, where his remains are interred at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Simeon De Witt's Astrolabe (Front)

On 25 May 2010 the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History exhibited the oldest surviving Anglo-American star map, hand-drawn in 1780 by Simeon. The map shows the stars visible from his post in New Jersey. Simeon later said that drawing such a map fostered an appreciation of "the ever shifting scenery of the skies and all the gorgeous drapery of heaven."


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