Jonathan Simpson

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"Jonathan Simpson was born in Virginia in 1787.   He died in Madison, Indiana in 1865 and is buried in Bardstown, Kentucky.   Mrs. Margaret Bridwell of Louisville, KY in the November 1947 publication of the magazine "Antiques" lists Jonathan Simpson of Bardstown as one of the silversmiths who made excellent handwrought silverware in Kentucky before 1820.  He also made a grandfather clock for William Heavenhill, the first white child born in Nelson County, Kentucky."

Reference:  Smart, Charles E.  The Makers Of Surveying Instruments In America Since 1700  Troy, New York:  Regal Art Press.  1962

Instrument shown is from the collection of the National Museum of American History, a division of the Smithsonian Institution


Jonathan Simpson

by Dave Krehbiel


Bardstown, Kentucky, is hardly a place you would identify with survey instrument making.  This southern town, dating back to 1780, was county seat of Nelson County, Virginia, until Kentucky's statehood in 1792.  It was the birthplace and home of Jonathan Moore Simpson, the son of Thomas Simpson and Abigail Moore.  Born November 2, 1787, Jonathan Simpson became a silversmith, clockmaker and survey instrument maker.


It is the author's belief that John Fitch1 had an influence on Jonathan Simpson's work.  John Fitch moved to Bardstown when Jonathan Simpson was 9 or 10 years old.  It's possible that John Fitch saw in Jonathan the same desire to learn that John had experienced at that age.  Jonathan Simpson may have been at John Fitch's side when John was working on Mr. Howell's brass works shop on his model steamboat.  John would have been able to share his stories with Jonathan and the others in the shop of his silversmithing skills and his experiences in land surveying.


Jonathan later apprenticed in silversmithing.  It is not known under whom he did his apprenticeship but it is possible it was under Felix Cachot, a monk and silversmith from France who moved to Bardstown in 1813 when he was released from his vows.  Jonathan married Elizabeth Linebaugh.  His brother-in-law, Jacob Rizer, was a prominent Kentucky rifle maker in Bardstown.  Jonathan and his wife had 3 children, two boys and one girl.  Their son Jonathan Jr. died when he was 23 years old.


During this time, Land Warrants were being surveyed in this part of Kentucky, the West was opening up, there was a need for surveying compasses.  Jonathan Simpson had the necessary skills and access to a brass works right in Bardstown.  Along with his silversmithing and clock making, he was able to produce surveying and mathematical instruments to meet the need.  His skills as a master silversmith and elaborate compass face engravings set him apart from the other instrument makers.


It is evident, from his work, that Simpson had access to a Goldsmith Chandlee compass.  It is also possible that he had access to the instruments of other makers.  Two of the Simpson instruments have the "L" and "T" tables and two have outkeepers. One outkeeper records the poles.  The other is an angle or bearing recording dial and is unique and known only to exist on the two Simpson compasses.  The unique outkeeper is a dial divided into 90 increments with numbering at 10 increment intervals.


It is interesting to note that three of the Simpson compasses contain engravings of Masonic symbols.  It was a common practice in that era for a person belonging to the Masonic Order to have his belongings identified in such a manner.  No doubt, the persons for whom these three instruments were made were Masons.


Only one of the seven known Simpson compasses is dated.  That date is 1821.  No records exist that would assist in the dating of his instruments.  The cover of one compass has the number "1" stamped in the center.  The engraving on this compass appears to be his early work.  Simpson's practice in Bardstown was from circa 1820-1845.  There is a compass at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis that reportedly was used in St. Louis in 1823.  Not enough information on compasses exist to where the Simpson compasses can be style dated.  Mr. Jeffery Lock, compass restorer and engraving analyst, has studied stylistic changes by other compass engravers, but his efforts to style date work is a work in progress.


1  Bedini, Silvio A., With Compass and Chain, Early American Surveyors and Their Instruments (Frederick, MD: Professional Surveyors Publishing Co., Inc., 2001), pp. 145, 291-2, 349, 540-6

Westcott, Thompson, The Life of John Fitch; The Inventor of the Steamboat, (Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1857)


Elgin, Dr. Richard L., L. S.; Professional Surveyor, vol 21, December 2001, pp. 16-22






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