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Written by Patrick Weissend, Curator of the Holland Land Office Museum
Theophilus Cazenove, the
Agent-General of the Holland Land
Company, hired Joseph Ellicott as
Chief Surveyor in July 1797.
Ellicott's experience included
surveying the company's land in
northwestern Pennsylvania.

After extinguishing the Seneca
Indians' claim to the land at the
Big Tree Treaty in September
1797, Ellicott was anxious to begin
the survey. He spent the fall of
1797 touring the boundaries of the
company's land.
Survey equipment similar to that used by Ellicott for the "Great Survey"
Photograph courtesy of the Holland Land Office Museum
He did the initial survey of the south shore of Lake Ontario to the mouth of the Niagara River and the
southwest beach of Lake Erie to the western boundary of New York State. During this hard journey, he
prepared a topographical map. After walking the final 200 miles through snow, Ellicott completed the
preparatory survey in mid-November.

Ellicott spent the winter of 1797-1798 in Philadelphia preparing for the expedition. His planning
would have impressed an army general. He planned to employ 150 men as surveyors, draftsmen, cooks,
ax men, and camp keepers. He made lists and requisitioned supplies essential for living in the woods.
The supplies included 5 boats, 2 ox teams, 35 packhorses, 1 00 pairs of horse- shoes, 200 blankets, 30
regimental tents, 70 falling axes, and 150 pairs of shoes. He also ordered his office supplies for his office
in the wild. To document his survey, Ellicott ordered 6 large folio blank books, 2 "grosses" of black lead
pencils, 1000 Dutch quills, and a gross of bindings.

Ellicott's objectives for the survey were to lay out the 3.3 million acres of company land bought from
Robert Morris, arrange the specific boundaries for the Seneca Indian Reservations, and subdivide all the
towns into six square miles. The surveyors were also to complete field books describing the land, waters,
mill seats, valleys, mines, minerals, and any other information that could be useful to the company.

One of the first obstacles Ellicott had to deal with was his
concern for accuracy because the United States lacked a
standard of measurement. Ellicott solved this by collecting a
number of rulers, determining the average, and designating
that as the figure for a one- foot length. Ellicott became the
first person to use the one-foot ruler that we use today.
The second obstacle was the need for a portable transit
instrument. Andrew Ellicott, Joseph's older brother, was using
the only one in the country in Florida where he was surveying
the boundary of the United States and Spanish lands. The
instrument is used to observe the transits of heavenly bodies,
essential for working in the deep woods where a compass would
not be as accurate. Joseph had his mechanically inclined
younger brother, Benjamin, build a new transit instrument for
use in Western New York.

The Great Survey started officially in March 1798. John
Thompson led one group in Buffalo, and Benjamin Ellicott
began in the southwest corner of the Phelps - Gorham
Purchase. Joseph Ellicott traveled between Canandaigua and
Buffalo, kept track of the groups, made essential decisions,
and worked the men to greater efforts. Benjamin's group, at
twelve miles west of the Phelps - Gorham southwest boundary
and along the Pennsylvania border, laid a stone marker
establishing the southeast boundary of the Holland Purchase.
He then moved north towards Williamsburg.

A Transit - Surveyor's instrument similar to
the one used by Joseph Ellicott.
Photograph courtesy of the Holland Land
Office Museum
At Williamsburg, Benjamin started his northward journey by boat up the Genesee River. The party
abandoned the water route soon after it was found too shallow and rapid. After many delays, Benjamin began
his journey from Williamsburg on July 5. Five months later, on December 3, the party reached Lake Ontario
after surveying ninety-four miles.

The first season Ellicott finished establishing the boundaries for the Seneca Indian Reservations.
Ellicott also broke the townships into 16 portions a mile and a half square called sections. Then they divided
each section into 12 lots. The lot was generally 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide, containing about 120 acres.
However, the size and shape of the lots were often changed where obstacles, such as streams were made the

Joseph Ellicott started the final task during the winter of 1798 - 1799. He began to put together the
comprehensive report of the findings of the Great Survey. Ellicott worked diligently and the great Survey
was finished almost two years later. The survey that started in March 1798, ended October 1800 and cost
the Holland Land Company $70,921.69 1/2.

Joseph Ellicott, Chief
Benjamin Ellicott
John Thompson
Richard M. Stoddard
George Burgess
James Dewey
David Ellicott
Aaron Oakford, Jr.
Augustus Porter
Seth Pease
James Smeadly
William Shepard
George Eggleston

RIGHT: Photograph of an original marker of the Holland Land Company.
LEFT: Joseph Ellicott's signature on surveying book
Courtesy of the Holland Land Office Museum
Patrick Weissend is the Curator of the Holland Land Office Museum on
Main Street in Batavia, NY. Built in 1815, the building is now the museum for Genesee County.
Open Tuesday thru Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
(716) 343- 4727