Peter Jefferson

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Mary M. Root

"On the afternoon of February 1, 1770, Thomas Jefferson had dinner with his family at Shadwell before proceeding to Charlottesville. At some time after his departure, the house burned to the ground. A few books, his violin, and several beds were all that were saved from the blaze. As he later informed [a friend], he lost Ďevery paper I had in the world, and almost every book.í" [From Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science, by Silvio Bedini, p. 53.] Among the items that perished were the irreplaceable journals, field notes, maps and account books bequeathed him by his father, surveyor and explorer Peter Jefferson.

Peter Jefferson was the grandson of a surveyor, and the son of a "gentleman justice" who also served as sheriff and captain of militia. At the time of his fatherís death in 1731, Peterís share of the estate consisted of two slaves, some livestock and horses, and some undeveloped land in Goochland County. He moved to that property on Fine Creek, cleared land, built a house, and planted crops. Peter became one of the first justices of the peace and then sheriff of Goochland County. His closest friend was William Randolph, and they served as magistrates and militia officers together.

They also worked to acquire land; Peter had his eye on choice acreage on the Rivanna River, but when he went to file on 1000 acres, he discovered that William had two days earlier filed on 2400 acres, including the 400 acre piece on which Peter had hoped to build a house. William, learning of Peterís dismay, promptly sold him the 400 acres, 200 acres for cash and 200 acres in exchange for "Henry Weatherbournís biggest bowl of arrack punch."

Peter then married the tall and slender Jane Randolph (first cousin to William); he was 31years old, she was 19. They made their home at Fine Creek, and in the next two years became the parents of two daughters. Accompanied by some of his highly skilled slaves, Peter journeyed to his Rivanna property and began clearing the land and building his homestead. He named it "Shadwell" for the London parish in which his wife had been born. Their son Thomas was born there in 1743.

The next year, Peter was appointed surveyor of Goochland County and also became a member of the first county court in newly-formed Albemarle County.

The following year, Peter set out with Brooke, Lewis and Winslow to survey the Fairfax Line [ed. note: see pg. 13 this issue]. Sarah Hughes observes in her book, Surveyors and Statesmen: "Unlike the surveys of 1736-1737, where the chains had been laid along the banks of rivers, that of 1746 was obliged to plunge across an uninhabited and inhospitable countryside. From a spring in the Blue Ridge down into the Shenandoah Valley the way was easy; afterwards the surveyors climbed and descended range after range of the Alleghenie mountains to reach the headspring of the Potomac." Despite difficult terrain and conditions the surveyors persevered.

Joshua Fry was one of the royal commissioners on the Fairfax Line survey, and a neighbor and friend of Peter. Their friendship, by all accounts, involved a shared love of learning. A former professor of Mathematics at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Joshua Fry moved to Albemarle County "in order to raise a fortune for his family". He was one of the first magistrates and a county militia officer in the new county, but his chief occupation was surveying. For some years he was engaged in surveying lands in Albemarle, Goochland, and surrounding counties with Peter. In 1751 they produced the famous Fry/Jefferson Map "of the Most Inhabited Parts of Virginia", and in 1752 they surveyed the "Extended Dividing Line between Virginia & North Carolina".

In June 1757 Peter Jefferson became ill and never recovered. His death on August 17th at age forty-nine stunned everyone. Of his personal possessions, his will directed that his desk, bookcases, cherished books, maps, original surveying notes and journals, surveying instruments, and his account books as Albemarle Surveyor be given to his son Thomas. The devastating fire at Shadwell destroyed them all.



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