Famous Vermonters


Words to Know



Surveyor General















            There were several Vermonters who were active in the study of geography and history in the late 1700's and the 1800's.  In this section, you will read:

        How Ira Allen, James Whitelaw, and John Johnson surveyed and mapped Vermont;

        Why Zadock Thompson and Abby Hemenway are famous for their studies of the state;

        How James Wilson's globes had an influence well beyond the borders of Vermont.


Ira Allen and James Whitelaw

            Today when you get in a car to travel around Vermont, you often take a map with you.  Can you imagine traveling around the state without a map or road signs to tell you the route numbers or the names of places?  In the late 1700's, new people were settling in different areas of Vermont.  Some towns had established town lines or boundaries, many others had none.  Few people had actually been out in the Vermont wilderness to measure the land and determine where one town ended and another began.  Vermont needed to be surveyed.  Once each town was surveyed, or measured, maps needed to be drawn.  Two of Vermont's early surveyors and map makers were Ira Allen and James Whitelaw.


            Ira Allen came to Vermont in 1770.  Ira Allen, his three brothers, and some other men had purchased several grants or pieces of land, in the Champlain Valley.  Allen needed to survey the land bought by all these men.


            James Whitelaw came to America in 1773 as a representative for a group of families from Scotland.  They wanted Whitelaw to find some good land for them to buy and settle in this country.  Whitelaw traveled through many of the colonies, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and as far south as Virginia and North Carolina.  He kept a journal of his travels.  Even though many of these states had good land for sale, Whitelaw liked the area around Ryegate on the Connecticut River the best.


            Throughout the 1770's, both New Hampshire and New York claimed Vermont, then called the New Hampshire Grants.  Many of the people who already lived in the Grants wanted to form their own state.  After independence in 1776, the new federal government refused to recognize Vermont as a new state.  In January, 1777, Vermonters declared their state as an independent republic.  Their next task was to set up a new government.  Ira Allen became the state's first Surveyor General.  He hired Whitelaw, along with several other Vermonters, to begin the work of surveying and mapping Vermont.


            These early surveyors faced hard work in Vermont's forested mountains.  They spent many days and sometimes weeks at a time in the wilds.  They carried their heavy 66-foot measuring chains and sighting instruments over hillsides and rough terrain.


            There were many teams of surveyors and often a team needed to finish one town line so that another town could be started.  In 1784, Whitelaw was surveying in the town of Brookfield.  On October 26, he wrote to Allen asking him to make sure the lines of Berlin were run by another team.  Whitelaw also said that he "should be glad they might be run by the middle of August as by that time I expect to be ready to run the lines of Williamstown and Northfield which are dependent thereon."  Whitelaw and his men were working northward and needed to have another team run a boundary line which would be their stopping point in Berlin.


            On 1787, Whitelaw replaced Allen as Vermont's Surveyor General.  Over the next seventeen years in this job he made many of Vermont's first official maps.  Over fifty of them still exist today.

To see a copy of an original Vermont map go to http://www.livgenmi.com/1895/VT/state.htm


John Johnson

            John Johnson was another famous surveyor who lived and worked in Vermont.  He cleared up many of the disputes that had started before Vermont entered the Union.  Johnson was born in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and came to Vermont at the age of 18.  His first activity in the state was constructing dams and mills along the Winooski River in Essex.  Johnson became well known as a bridge engineer, millwright, and surveyor.  He also constructed the Chittenden County Courthouse and the first building at the University of Vermont in Burlington.


            As a surveyor, Johnson became very well known around the country in the years after Vermont became a state.  During the War of 1812, he provided the U.S. Army with maps showing the best routes for military movement through the Champlain Valley.  He was chosen to lead a survey to establish the eastern portion of the international boundary between the United States and Canada.  After spending two difficult summers with his sons in the wilderness of northern Maine in 1817 and 1818, the project was called off due to disagreements between the United States and Great Britain.  Twenty-five years later when the surveying was begun again, all of his earlier work was accepted because it was of such high quality.


            Johnson served as the state's third Surveyor General.  Perhaps his greatest contributions to Vermont were the surveys of towns in the northern part of the state.  Many of these towns had confusing land claims that sometimes dated back to charters from New Hampshire.  The charters were confusing due to many poorly recorded or unrecorded land deals.  Some had been made by one of his predecessors, Ira Allen.  It took much effort on Johnson's part to straighten out these difficulties, some of which remained after Johnson's death.


            Johnson's detailed and beautifully drawn town maps proved a clear way for people to determine the history of ownership for plots of land.  Today these maps are located at the University of Vermont and provide geographers and historians with records of the land ownership in early Vermont.

Find out something else interesting about John Johnson at this web-site - http://www.uvm.edu/~histpres/HPJ/oldmill/omhist.html

Zadock Thompson


            While John Johnson was surveying and mapping Vermont, another Vermonter, Zadock Thompson, was studying the nature and geography of the state.  Later he published many books on both subjects.


            Thompson's childhood prepared him well to be a naturalist and writer.  He was born on May 23, 1796.  As a boy, Thompson was very sick.  He spent his time in quiet activities like walking around his hometown of Bridgewater, observing nature and collecting natural objects.  Soon he was classifying everything he could see in his environment such as rivers, lakes, animals, plants, and rocks.  He enjoyed writing down all of his observations.


            Although at first Thompson was too poor to go to college, he earned money by writing an almanac that combined information on the weather, seasons, and geography of Vermont.  With money from this book, he attended the University of Vermont and graduated in 1823.


            In 1824 he published A Gazetteer, which covered all of the state.  It was 312 pages of maps and descriptions of every town in the state.  Future authors of Vermont geographies got a great deal of information from his book.  (See a copy of this book at http://www.oldmapsbooks.com/Book_Pages/B03xx/B0346Verm.htm


            Zadock Thompson became a professor at the University of Vermont.  He taught there until his death in 1845.  While at UVM, he wrote many books, including a textbook for schools entitled The Geography and Geology of Vermont in which he told teachers, "pupils should be required to draw, from memory, the outline maps, upon the blackboard, or upon their slates.  Nothing else serves to imprint them so indelibly upon the mind!"


            Since this book was meant for upper grade students, he published a version for elementary students in 1849.  It was called The First Book of Geography for Vermont.  It had 74 pages and measured a tiny 3 inches by 5 inches!


            During this time he also wrote his most important book, The History of Vermont, Natural, Civil, and Statistical.  This was the first book of its kind to call attention to how people had changed and sometimes damaged the environment.  In it, he discussed the disappearing animals of Vermont, the panther, wolf, salmon, and others.  He criticized the lumber industry for the widespread practice of stripping whole mountainsides of trees.  Later, in 1853, Thompson was honored with the position of State Geologist and Naturalist.


            Throughout his life, Thompson continued the activities he had loved as a child, collecting and observing the nature of Vermont.  By closely watching all that was around him, Zadock Thompson provided Vermonters with the first close up look at their own state.


Abby Maria Hemenway

            In the middle of the 1800's, there were many older Vermonters who could still remember when Vermont first became a state.  Each person had stories about life in the New Hampshire Grants.  In an effort to preserve these memories, a remarkable woman blazed a trail into what had previously been a field only for men--Vermont history and geography.


            "Vermonters are New Englanders," wrote Hemenway, "and they naturally like to know a thing that interests them, from the beginning to the end."  Hemenway was talking about her reasons for writing the first volume of The Vermont Historical Gazetteer.  It was the start of a very long project.  Hemenway planned to write the history of every town in Vermont, "from beginning to end."  (Explore Hemenway's Gazetteer at this site http://www.rootsweb.com/~vtwindha/vt_gazetteer_v5_towns_of_windham.htm )


            Abby Maria Hemenway was born in 1828 in Ludlow, Vermont.  She taught school for a while, first in Vermont and then in Michigan.  She returned to Vermont after three years in Michigan and decided she liked to edit books and perhaps to write some of her own.  In 1858, at the age of thirty, she decided to write a series of town histories.


            Hemenway asked several people to support her project.  She needed help writing some of the town histories and hoped to receive donations to help finance her work.  At one point she asked for help from the faculty at Middlebury College, but was told that, "no woman could possibly do what forty men had tried to do for sixteen years and could not."  She was forced to seek help elsewhere.


            Although Hemenway did finally get the support she needed, her style of research, interviewing all the old people in the towns, and keeping lengthy notes, and her attention to detail, prevented the Gazetteer from being completed before her death.  In is ironic that, because of her decision to do the state alphabetically by county, her own home county of Windsor would be the only one she never completed.  The five volume set covers only the first thirteen Vermont counties.


            In addition to historical facts that she gathered from the towns' earlier settlers, she was able to shed much light on the local geography such as the rivers, mountains, soils, how various places got their names, early residents, and other information.  This geographic information is now history.  Researchers use Abby Hemenway's work to reconstruct what life was like from day to day in early Vermont.


James Wilson

            Well before the time of Thompson and Hemenway, there were colonial Vermonters exploring the world of geography.  James Wilson was interested in providing people with an accurate model of the whole earth.  Wilson was a Vermonter who became the first person in North America to make globes.


            James Wilson was born on March 15, 1763 in Londonderry, New Hampshire.  He worked on his father's farm and also learned the skills of blacksmithing, making metal tools, and other objects.  In 1795 he moved to Bradford, Vermont.  He first saw some globes at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and became interested in producing them himself.


            Wilson decided that he had to learn about world geography before he could make an accurate globe.  He purchased a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Reading the encyclopedia helped him make up for his lack of a formal education.


            In 1796 he made his first globe.  It was a solid wooden sphere covered with paper.  The countries were drawn on the paper with pen and ink.  This resulted in a rather heavy, crude globe.  Wilson knew he had to learn copper engraving to produce accurate and useful globes.  So he traveled to Connecticut and learned from an expert engraver and mapmaker, Amos Doolittle.  Then he could engrave his maps with copper, cut them, and glue the map onto a sphere.  (Want to see Wilson's original globe?  If yes, go to this site http://preserve.harvard.edu/exhibits/treasures/globe.html.)


            People became very anxious to have such well made globes for their own.  The globes were produced in sets.  The terrestrial globe showed the continents, countries, and oceans of the earth.  The celestial globe showed the patterns of the stars in the night sky.  His globes were made in three sizes.  The smallest, which sold for five dollars a pair, were only three inches in diameter.  By 1815, business was so good that Wilson decided that he should move to Albany, New York to make shipping of the globes easier.  Two of his sons had now joined the company.  He died at the age of 92 in 1855, but he had certainly left his mark on the study of geography in the 1800's.


Click here to find out about some famous Vermont Inventors 

This site has a good list of other famous Vermonters, http://www.1-800-vermont.com/about/famous.asp.  


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