Philadelphia Chapter Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation

Home Page Chapter News Chapter Membership Philadelphia Connection Especially for Educators More about Lewis and Clark The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation 2003 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia
Essays on the city of Philadelphia's role in the Expedition and full-length articles about Lewis's mentors




by Nancy M. Davis

In his lifetime, Andrew Ellicott earned a reputation as a man of integrity and ability. The man who loved the stars and science was known for his "honesty of purpose," a trait highly valued by those who commissioned him to survey the boundaries of states and countries. The accuracy of his work is demonstrated today by the lines themselves which in almost every instance remain unchanged. Add to this the difficulty posed by the inaccuracy of the instruments of the time and one must admire both the man and his methodology.

He was trusted by George Washington to survey the boundary between the US and Florida and at the same time spy on one of his own generals. Thomas Jefferson knew that Ellicott had run the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Ellicott had surveyed the nearly uninhabited wilderness of western Pennsylvania, had dealt with native Americans, and knew what it meant to take observations in difficult circumstances. Here was a worthy advisor for Meriwether Lewis.

Like Lewis, Ellicott was an oldest son. He was born on January 24, 1754, to Joseph and Judith (Bleaker) Ellicott, of Dutch and Quaker lineage. In 1770 his father and uncles bought a "large tract of wild land on the Patapsco River" and in 1774 founded the town of Ellicott Mills, now Ellicott City, MD. Ellicott had a minimal education, but as a youth he showed mechanical talents, and eventually studied in Philadelphia with Robert Patterson. The level of his mechanical abilities must have been apparent early in life for by the time he was fifteen his father allowed him to assist in the construction of a musical clock, one that played several melodies for the enjoyment of the Ellicott family. In his teens, Ellicott had taken to hand making transits. Then he fell in love, and at the age of 21, in 1775, Ellicott married Sarah Brown of Newtown, PA. and the couple moved to Ellicott Upper Mills in Maryland. They would have ten children together, nine surviving to adulthood...His many letters to her throughout their lives unabashedly reveal his love and concern for her, as well as his willingness and need to entrust her with his true thoughts and feelings, especially when politics made it imprudent to reveal them to others. His letters show his capacity for wit and sarcasm, and reveal a cultured man, a philosophical man, one who could read and speak French effortlessly. When Ellicott was 44 he said that art, literature and science were the very foundation of civilization and without them a man was fated to a life of ignorance and barbarism.

He was also a man of contradiction. Though raised in the Society of Friends, Ellicott enlisted in the Maryland militia shortly after his marriage, serving during the Revolutionary War. He attained the rank of major, a title many used to address or speak of him throughout his life. He seems to have always been content with his decision to serve in the military even though such service is not in keeping with Quaker philosophy. Perhaps more disturbing to Ellicott was that sometimes on surveys he would be forced to hire slaves because there was no other labor available, a difficult decision for he believed that slavery was a moral wrong and personally condemned it.

After the war, he returned to Fountainvale, the family home in Ellicott Upper Mills, and published a series of almanacs, ‘The United States Almanack.’ (The earliest known copy is dated 1782.) In 1784, he was appointed as the Virginia member of the group of surveyors to continue the Mason Dixon line from the point where it was dropped in 1767. This area was still largely uninhabited wilderness. As a youth, studying science and practical mechanics in Philadelphia, Ellicott had been impressed by Mason and Dixon, the two English mathematicians who had been sent to draw the long contested boundary between PA and Maryland.

After the death of his second son, in 1785, Ellicott moved his family to Baltimore, and lived on the east side of Liberty, south of and near Saratoga St. He taught mathematics at the Academy of Baltimore. In 1786, he served a term in the Maryland legislature and in the same year, was appointed a member of the PA commissions to run the west and north boundaries of PA. The commission to run the west boundary included David Rittenhouse and Andrew Porter as fellow PA commissioners. The commission for the north boundary included a visit to Philadelphia to meet NY commissioners General James Clinton and Mr. Simeon DeWitt. Ellicott observed the General to be "a thoughtfull old Gentleman" and Mr. DeWitt to be quite talented and observant for his years. His visits to Philadelphia included calls on Rittenhouse and Franklin and through them he met other members of the Philosophical Society. In 1788, he was appointed to survey the islands in the Ohio and the Allegheny Rivers within Pennsylvania boundaries.

In 1789, the Ellicotts moved to 16 N. 6th St. in Philadelphia. Ellicott enlisted the aid of Franklin to receive a position with the new federal government and George Washington appointed him to survey the land lying between PA and Lake Erie. The survey would determine whether the site of the present city of Erie, PA was then located in Western New York or in the territory of the United States. To determine the line, Ellicott used a transit and equal altitude instrument that he himself had made and the resulting state boundary line was very accurate. The instrument was then often used in important cases. While there he made the first topographical study of the Niagara River and Falls, and in a letter to Benjamin Rush, described the falls. His were the acknowledged measurements in books describing the falls for the next 80 years.

These first commissions provided him with the society of Benjamin Franklin, David Rittenhouse and other members of the Philosophical Society. But it would be the survey at Lake Erie that would establish his reputation, a reputation for accuracy that would lead him to Washington, DC to survey the land ceded by Virginia and Maryland for the new capitol. In February, he began the survey of the 10 square mile area designated as the new location for the federal seat of government. Ellicott had not agreed with the choice of location for the city, preferring Philadelphia, especially as he tramped through the last area to be surveyed for the new capitol. Not wanting to let President Washington know his true feelings, he instead wrote to his wife and told her that the land around Philadelphia could no more be compared to the land for the new capitol than a "crane to a stall-fed ox."

Serving under Superintendent L’Enfant as principal surveyor, he surveyed the land, and eventually laid out the streets and building sites. After Jefferson dismissed L’Enfant, Ellicott redrew the plan for the engraver incorporating Jefferson’s revisions and this plan became known as the Ellicott Plan.

In 1792 he was appointed Surveyor General of the United States. and in 1794, Governor Mifflin of Pennsylvania appointed him one of the commissioners to lay out the town of Presqu’Isle (Erie). He spent the next 2 years plotting out a road through the wildest part of PA, from Reading to Presqu'Isle. The next year, 1795, Ellicott was made superintendent of the building of Fort Erie, and was employed in laying out the towns of Erie, Franklin and Warren. He dealt with the native Americans in the area and made recommendations to Governor Mifflin as to the possibilities of the area for settlement.

It was George Washington who commissioned him to survey the border between the US and Florida in 1796. He traveled via the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers with a military escort. Although Spain managed to delay the commission one year, Ellicott proved to be competent diplomat. In 1798, while on the US/Florida survey, Ellicott sent a coded letter to the State Department describing information he had secretly received regarding the receipt by four Americans of annual stipends from Spain. One of the four Americans was General James Wilkinson. Ellicott's actions would later affect his own career. In 1799, he made the observation of the Florida coast by boat and "located the line with Spanish Commissioners." In May of 1799, he saw the transit of Mercury and on November 12, at Key Largo, he was awestruck as he witnessed hours of shooting stars, from 2 am until daylight. He said the stars lit up the sky and flew in every direction. He hired a sloop back to Philadelphia and ended up having to assist the instrument-shy captain with his own.

In 1800 he submitted his report of the US/Florida survey to the Adams administration, but he was never compensated, and later the administration refused him access to the charts he had made when Ellicott was publishing his journals. Thomas Jefferson would later release the charts to Ellicott. In 1803 he published his journals of the US/Florida survey with maps and observations. (The Journal of Andrew Ellicott, Late Commissioner on Behalf of the United States... 1796..1800). In the publication, he states a case in favor of the Louisiana Purchase as a method of keeping the western states as part of the US. It is the maps of the Mississippi that were included in this publication that Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin advises Nicholas King to use in making his new map of North America commissioned for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Two other events occurred in Ellicott's life in 1803. Governor McKean of Pennsylvania appointed him Secretary of the Pennsylvania Land Office requiring the Ellicott family to move to Lancaster, PA. And Thomas Jefferson consulted Ellicott for advise in planning the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ellicott responded to Jefferson with preliminary recommendations of equipment to be used on the expedition.

Andrew Ellicott was 49 when he accepted Jefferson's request to instruct Lewis in the taking of field and celestial observations. He made equipment recommendations to Jefferson while he was planning the expedition. He trained Lewis, regulated the expedition's chronometer and oversaw the construction of a sextant and portable horizon. In an effort to facilitate the expedition's ability to take accurate readings in difficult terrain, he developed a new type of artificial horizon for the sextant.

On March 6th 1803 Ellicott wrote to Jefferson, happily agreeing to see and train Meriwether Lewis in the art of celestial and field observations. He recommended an Arnold chronometer for the expedition and explained that for Lewis practice will be most important in developing the skill of deftly taking observations. He noted that the calculations would be made after the return of the expedition and that this was not an unusual practice. He went on to discuss artificial horizons and methodologies for determining accurate latitude and longitude. Ellicott corresponds with Jefferson on April 18th that although an order for a sextant and portable horizon had come to him from someone else, he sensed it was in fact for Captain Lewis and had arranged for the instrument to be made locally with his supervision. In this letter Ellicott referred to publishing his journal from the Florida survey and went on to describe plans to publish "a small treatise on practical astronomy as connected with geography for the use of such persons as may be exploring our extensive western regions..."

On April 20, 1803, Meriwether Lewis wrote Jefferson that he had arrived in Lancaster, had called upon Ellicott, and had begun taking observations with Ellicott’s guidance. Lewis described Ellicott as "extremely friendly and attentive... and is disposed to render me every aid in his power...". Ellicott taught Lewis how to use a sextant and octant and take observations. By the month of May, 1803, both Ellicott and Robert Patterson had become convinced that the theodolite would be too fragile for the expedition and would actually be more inaccurate in obtaining longitude that the sextant. To Lewis they additionally recommended two sextants, two artificial horizons, one good Arnold’s chronometer, one surveyor’s compass, with a ball and socket and two pole chain and one set plotting instruments

Ellicott continued to serve as the Secretary of the PA Land Office until 1808 when he was removed by incoming Governor Snyder whose political party was a supporter of General Wilkinson. His removal from office is perhaps not surprising since, in the late 1790's, Ellicott had submitted evidence to the State Department of Wilkinson's intrigues with Spain in the southern territory. Ellicott was angry enough about his removal from office to anonymously publish criticisms of Governor Snyder and his supporters in the newspaper.

In the winter of 1810 to 1811, Ellicott spent much time in Washington on ‘Wilkinson's business’ and Ellicott wrote to his brother "...Mr. and Mrs. Madison treated me with the greatest respect, and attention, and consulted me confidentially on some very important points. I am convinced Mr. Madison, would oblige me with pleasure, and is only deterred from the fear of offending the present ruling power in this state, whose animosity appears to know no bounds." That spring, Snyder's administration continued to harass him when, by formal resolution, they denied him the use of the commonwealth's telescope which when entrusted to him as Secretary of PA Land Office he had sent to London to be repaired. He writes in a letter "On its being returned it was set up and made use of both for making astronomical observations and to gratify the curiosity of such members of the legislature as had a desire to view the stars and planets But when Mr. Snyder became governor the scene was changed, science and literature became obnoxious to men whose uncultivated minds could not comprehend their use to society. So thought and so acted the goths and vandals when they first invaded Italy...The telescope of the commonwealth is now useless and being in the hands of ignorant incompetent persons who neither know its use nor how to manage it when set up, will if science should ever again be revived in Pennsylvania, have once more to be sent to Europe to be repaired. Fortunately having an accromatic telescope of my own my observations have not been entirely suspended." When friends in Philadelphia planned to build an observatory as an extension to the University and Philosophical Society on State House land, with Ellicott as director, the lower State House proposed a resolution to sell the property. The plan was abandoned.

In 1811 he was commissioned to run the line of Georgia's northern boundary, and leaving in July and returning in May of 1812. During the survey he and his team slept on the ground, even in winter. On Christmas Day they cleared timber. When they climbed the Chatoga mountain their clothes and skin were torn by briars until, as Ellicott says "the blood trickled off the ends of all my fingers." When the survey was finished Ellicott, at the age of 57, walked almost 200 miles on foot to meet with the Governor of Georgia. Throughout his career, Ellicott experienced difficulties in collecting his salary and expenses for surveys. For all his renown, he often had to endure financial embarrassment. The Georgia survey was no different. When Ellicott’s survey determined that the state’s northern boundary had been set 18 miles too far to the north, the Governor and the State of Georgia only ever managed to render enough money to cover personal expenses, never compensating Ellicott with the contracted amount of three thousand dollars.

Not long after, in 1813, Ellicott moved to New York State, having accepted a position at the relatively new West Point Academy as professor of mathematics. He had confessed to his brother in a letter a few years earlier that he felt more attached to his home in Lancaster than any other. He loved his garden, and was proud of the grape vines and fruit trees, especially the peaches, that he had worked so hard to encourage. In 1817, he traveled to Montreal, Canada to make astronomical observations to fulfill requirements of the Treaty of Ghent.

The end of his life came suddenly. He had shown no sign of ill health or slowing down. But at the age of 66, Ellicott was stricken with apoplexy on August 25th, 1820, after a visit to New York to see his daughter and son-in-law, the Griffiths. He died at home in West Point three days later, August 28, 1820. He was survived by his wife and nine children.

A friend said of him that he "was always looking up at the stars." Astronomy was the love of Ellicott's life excluding his very obvious affection for Sarah. The quality of his survey work raised the level of American surveying and cartography. More important was the accuracy of his work and the integrity of his character to the formation and stability of a young, growing nation.


Visit the Ellicott house in Lancaster, PA
Updated August 26, 2001