Trials & Tribulations of Thomas Smith

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


by Hugh Beaumont Goebelle

A recent article by an Ontario Land Surveyor entitled "A Latvian Diary" reminded me of diaries of a different sort - those of the Canadian pioneer surveyors. Naturally, the problems encountered by early surveyors in the Upper Canadian wilderness (being the region of Canada bounded by Michigan, Ohio and New York) fill these records from cover to cover. Even today, if you ask anyone working in the industry, they will gladly detail the hardships of bush surveying complete with humorous anecdotes. The author, for one, tremendously enjoys listening to these fascinating stories. Unfortunately, being regaled by surveyors from the nineteenth century over a shot of rye whisky at the local pub is not possible! On the other hand, their diaries provide sufficiently humanizing insight into the working conditions encountered while establishing townships for settlement. Indeed, their bittersweet tales make their diaries well worth publishing.

Although many of us have enjoyed surveying in the hinterland at the height of black fly season, few of us have experienced the infinitely greater hardships associated with bush surveying over 150 years ago. These hardships included: wading through "dense swamps infested in the Summer with venomous flies and poisonous snakes"; choking down spoiled food; suffering drunkenness; crews "not worth much confidence in the wood;" and clearing virgin forests. Indeed, while shooting Polaris from base camp, the author has gazed at the satellites overhead which I had monitored earlier that day with G.P.S. receivers and begun to reflect upon the hardships faced by surveyors during the early nineteenth century. So as you sit inside your office worrying about the economy and other things beyond your control, remember the men who established the townships of this continent. Maybe you can reach a new perspective by comparing your problems with those encountered by one such pioneer surveyor while laying out a single township.

According to author and historian John A. Ladell, Thomas Smith lived in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked primarily as a notary. Although no records of his appointment to the post of Deputy Surveyor survive, Smith acted as a bona fide surveyor throughout his career. Unfortunately, neither the annual reports of the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors nor the Dictionary of Canadian Biography include any articles regarding his life. As a result, we know very little about this man except what he faithfully recorded in his letters which reveal volumes about this man, the profession and its history.

The story begins on December 6th, 1819, when Thomas Ridout, the Surveyor-General of Upper Canada, issued instructions to Smith to survey the township of Sombra. This township, originally known as Shawnese, lies along the eastern bank of the St. Clair River across from Port Huron, Michigan. Accordingly, Smith sent sleighs loaded with provisions and equipment to the nearby town of Baldoon on February 21st, 1820. Smith completed his final preparations six days later by adjusting his instruments to match the local magnetic variation and by comparing his chains to a standard. Finally, on February 28th, after preparing his field book and administering oaths to his chainmen, Smith began the survey of Sombra. Unfortunately, his careful preparations did nothing to circumvent the troubles which he and his crew experienced shortly after entering the field.

Employing reliable men quickly became a problem for Smith. By early April, only one of the three original party chiefs remained in the field. Smith discharged Mr. Ball without explanation and Mr. Caldwell quit citing the hardships involved in winter surveying. Smith revealed his concerns and something of his own character when he stated that "I am now convinced that nothing drove Caldwell away but the consciousness of his incorrectness - and which is too evident by his leaving his last line in concession 5 (which he knew would come in contact with other surveyed lines) without Posts or Numbers." Furthermore, Smith accused Caldwell of keeping "irregular" notes and of branding the posts in a "very indifferent manner." Indeed, Smith had hired Caldwell for only one reason - the political pressure applied by Mr. Francis Baby. Baby, as member of the powerful Family Compact (a clique of British officials and wealthy colonials which controlled the Legislative Council of Upper Canada), exerted tremendous influence over the awarding of survey contracts such as this one.

Friendly suggestions on behalf of prospective surveyors continued to create employment difficulties for Smith. For example, in order to replenish his diminished work force, Smith hired Mr. George Rankin who was the nephew of Captain Stuart - a man known to Smith. Not surprisingly, Rankin's contribution, or lack thereof, did not please Smith. Despite wishing to serve his surveying apprenticeship with Smith, Rankin "did not appear inclined to work, but wanted to be a surveyor all at once, without the trouble of being one." Smith further elaborated upon this diatribe by stating "I never suffer any talk where upon duty nor could I permit Mr. Rankin to interrupt the Surveyor, by looking through the compass and asking questions, or to hold any conversation with the chain-men, therefore after three or four days I got rid of him - he returned home." Even if Rankin had any inclination to live up to Smith's expectations, Smith wished to reserve himself for apprenticing his own nephew. After Smith's debilitating injuries (discussed later in this article), his nephew took up the task of completing the survey of Sombra. Indeed, Smith even hoped that his nephew would develop an interest in joining the profession thereafter.

The practice of employing and apprenticing members of one's own family was not uncommon in the early days of Upper Canada. In fact, the highest surveying office in the land set the tone for such actions. William Chewett, the Assistant Surveyor-General, apprenticed his own son James in 1819. Furthermore, Surveyor-General Ridout employed his son Samuel, a licensed surveyor, as a clerk in his office from 1802 to 1829.

Every township surveyor was well aware of the inherent inaccuracies of his work. The survey of Sombra township was no exception. On the other hand, Smith's overzealous surveying techniques prevented him from keeping this problem in proper perspective. Although his instructions detailed procedures typical to township surveying of the day, Smith, for reasons unknown, performed tasks beyond their import. In particular, he established the road allowances running north-south between sections (which he called "meridians") even though his instructions only required him to establish the road allowances running east-west between sections or "concessions." This breach of procedure led Smith to discover that posts on opposing sides of concessions did not precisely match-up. For example, commencing from his post at the intersection of the centre-lines of the respective road allowances between concessions 3 and 4 and meridian 1, Smith traversed northerly along the road allowance across concession 4. When he reached the road allowance between concessions 4 and 5, Smith discovered that his meridian line missed the opposing post by 32 links (or 1:1300). After repeating this procedure across concession 5, he found the meridian in error by 50 links (or 1:800) and feared that "the error may increase" if he went any further. Smith blamed Caldwell, an unreliable and former party chief, for these errors. When Caldwell left the survey, he had completed three road allowances between concessions plus half of two others. Smith believed that Caldwell's work was unreliable since Caldwell had run these lines without adhering to any of the following standard practices: "to keep the work compact, often to compare the chains, as they are liable to be stretched, and to correct this work at the close of every day, or as often as two surveys meet." Because he discovered these misclosures, Smith decided to re-survey all of Caldwell's work even though his misclosures did not exceed the accepted standards of accuracy (1:300) and even though the accuracy of township surveying did not interest Surveyor-General Ridout. This decision adversely affected the financial viability of the survey of Sombra.

The low, flat and wet conditions found in Sombra during late-winter compounded Smith's difficulties. Indeed, "after the days work was over, it often happened that the party had to travel some distance before a dry spot could be found to lie upon" if they could find any dry ground at all. In addition, with the reduction of his supervisory staff, Smith found himself in the field from March 12th to April 1st. Furthermore, Smith's instructions directed him to re-survey the northern shore of the Chanal Ecarte, which separated Walpole Island, and the eastern shore of the St. Clair River. This combination of wet conditions and mapping requirements proved to put the final damper on Smith's mental and physical health.

In order to map the shore, Smith traversed along the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, the ice was not strong enough to support him. Accordingly, "In running out the broken front [he] fell through the Ice in a swamp, and hurt [his] leg - no great pain was felt at the moment, but continually wading through icy water, cold got into the wound, together by lying on the wet ground without taking off [his] clothes for about twenty days. [He] was forced at last to quit the woods and [is] now lame at the house of Justice Jones at Baldoon, but hope it will be nothing." In the end, this injury was far from "nothing." Not only did Smith remember this job as "the most painful survey that [he] ever performed," Smith furthermore stated that his "health will not permit [him] to go through all the mechanic drudgery of surveying in this flat swampy country" any longer. Ultimately, showing concern for the future settlers of Sombra township, Smith warned Ridout emphatically that, in his opinion, "the greater part of the township is not habitable."

Financially, Smith's survey of Sombra township constituted a complete disaster. These troubles began with the inferior work carried out by Messrs. Ball, Caldwell and Rankin since Smith deemed it necessary to re-survey their portions of the township. In order to put the survey of Sombra back on schedule, Smith made the following sacrifice: "To hasten the Survey, and that no delay should be on [his] part for want of exertion, [he] made a sacrifice of [his] Remuneration, and perhaps something more, which if the winter had been favorable [he] should [have] something to the good." Continuing to support his position of financial hardship, Smith included in his letters "some intimation of the loss of time and extra expenses" which he incurred in Sombra. In the end, Smith made the following summary of events: "Enclosed is the Plan of the Shawnese Township with your diagram, which I am in haste to transmit, having delayed it much longer than I expected, owing to careless Surveyors, who have given me more trouble than if I had done all the work myself - also the Hurt I received in my leg tarded the work as well as the returns."

As a result, Smith requested more generous terms of payment with his returns to Ridout. According to the instructions, Ridout agreed to pay Smith the average compensation rate of the day - a gratuitous grant of four and one-half percent of the lands surveyed free from settlement duties. In addition to claiming 4,446 acres in accordance with his contract, Smith requested that his portion include lands of the highest possible quality in Sombra. Smith stated, in his own words and taking into account his injuries and extra expenses, that "I am in hopes of some indulgence, and have taken the liberty to mark the following lots in pencil, for if I was not to have some favor, my remuneration in this township would not be worth anything, my object therefore is to reimburse myself by making choice of such lots as probably may bring something, trusting that His Excellency [the Lieutenant-Governor] will be pleased to extend his indulgence."

Ever the optimist regarding future contracts, Smith concluded his correspondence with Ridout by stating that "In the next survey I shall not be under the necessity of laying out money for an equipment, tents, kettles, axes &c and hope to do better than I have in this and when the return is made shall hold myself in readiness for His Excellency's further commands." Although the Surveyor-General's Office had employed Smith previously throughout southwestern Upper Canada, no further contracts were forthcoming from the government. After completing the survey of Sombra Township, Smith returned to Detroit, Michigan, and faded into swampy obscurity shortly thereafter....



Ladell, John L. They Left Their Mark: Surveyors and Their Role in the Settlement of Ontario. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993.

Thomson, Don W. Men and Meridians: The History of Surveying and Mapping in Canada. Vol. 1. Ottawa: The Queen's Printer, 1966.

Instructions from the Office of the Surveyor-General to Thomas Smith, D.S., to survey the Township of Sombra (originally Shawnese) dated 6 December 1819. Instructions to Land Surveyors, Vol. 3, No. 335, pp. 413-417, Survey Records Office, Ministry of Natural Resources.

Plan of the Township of Sombra (originally Shawnese) by Thomas Smith, D.S., dated March 1820. Scale: 1 inch = 40 chains. Survey Records Office, Ministry of Natural Resources.

Field Notes of the survey of the Township of Sombra (originally Shawnese) by Thomas Smith, D.S., dated May 1820. Field Book No. 633, Survey Records Office, Ministry of Natural Resources.

Letter from Thomas Smith, D.S., to Thomas Ridout, Surveyor-General, dated 9 April 1820. Field Notes: Transcribed from Original Volumes, Vol. 10, pp. 590-593, Survey Records Office, Ministry Of Natural Resources. See also: Surveyors Letters, Vol. 31, No. 175, Ontario Archives, R.G.1., Series A-I-1.

Letter from Thomas Smith, D.S., to Thomas Ridout, Surveyor-General, dated 24 May 1820. Field Notes: Transcribed from Original Volumes, Vol. 10, pp. 594-595, Survey Records Office, Ministry Of Natural Resources. See also: Surveyors Letters, Vol. 31, No. 177, Ontario Archives, R.G.1., Series A-I-1.

Letter from Thomas Smith, D.S., to Thomas Ridout, Surveyor-General, dated 5 June 1820. Surveyors Letters, Vol. 31, No. 179, Ontario Archives, R.G.1., Series A-I-1.


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