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Early Days

Peter Jefferson was born on February 8, 1708 near present day Richmond, Virginia in a family of the colonial gentry (Randolph 18).  His grandfather, Thomas Jefferson, held the title of office surveyor of roads from 1687 until his death in 1697.  The elder Thomas Jefferson’s duties as surveyor included laying the best routes to churches and county courthouses as well as built and maintained bridges (Hickish 25).  The skills of his grandfather without a doubt would have an impact on Peter Jefferson’s future profession.  Peter Jefferson’s education as a young child consisted of his servant nursemaids, but he gained most of his knowledge from practical applications (Hickish 54).  For example, he would often accompany his father on numerous business transactions and he took over the management of his father’s plantation when he was eighteen (Hickish 60, 65).  Through the social prominence of his parents Jefferson became acquainted with men such as William Mayo, the county surveyor, and Thomas Randolph who’s son William would be a life long friend of Peter (Hickish 84). 

Peter Jefferson grew older he believed it to be politically and socially desirable to become associated with the gentry on the north side of the James River.  His good friend William Randolph suggested that he might pursue an area along the Rivanna River (Hickish 87).   While serving as justice of Goochland County Jefferson traveled in a northwest direction from Goochland (Hickish 88).  Jefferson encountered beautiful landscape as Edgar Hickish states, “The bottom lands were covered with a tall grass, which, when rippled by the stiff south wind, resembled a lake of green; and in the distance could be seen the smoke azure of the great Blue Ridge (Hickish 89).  Due to his position as justice Jefferson easily obtained a 2,000 acre tract of land on the north side of the James River (Hickish 91).  Jefferson scored an additional 200 acres from his good friend William Randolph for Henry Witherburne’s “biggest bowl of arrack punch (Hickish 93).”  William Mayo, a Jefferson family acquaintance, was the Goochland County surveyor and a map-maker both profitable businesses.  Jefferson was interested in Mayo’s skills and developed great respect for him when he visited his father after running the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina.  Peter Jefferson biographer Edgar Hickish addresses the possibility that Jefferson may have accompanied Mayo on surveying trips and he may have received mathematics instruction from Joshua Fry at the College of William and Mary (Hickish 95, 96). 

Early Albemarle

In 1737 Peter Jefferson joined his close friend William Randolph in a 50,000 land venture, which would be the first of many to follow (Hickish 112).  Around the same year Jefferson began to settle in Albemarle County.  According to his son Thomas’ autobiography he was the third or fourth settler in the region (Randolph).  Peter Jefferson, who already achieved social status, became even more prominent upon marrying Jane Randolph in 1739 (Randolph).  Jefferson’s family moved from Goochland County to Shadwell in Albemarle County in 1742 (Hickish 114).  Upon the death of William Mayo, Jefferson became the Goochland County surveyor and soon after the county divided one September 18, 1744 with half becoming Albemarle (Hickish 117, 118).

Loyal Land Company

Jefferson along with other land speculators including Dr. Thomas Walker, John Meriwether, and Joshua Fry formed the Loyal Land Company (Hickish 135).   The group petitioned for an area of land consisting of 800,000 (1,250 sq. mi.), which began at the North Carolina and Virginia line and ran north and west until the quantity of the grant had been reached.  The group had four years to complete the surveys for the land (Hickish 136).  Jefferson and Fry went to the eastern coast to a monument left my William Mayo in 1728 to begin the survey of the border.  In this aspect Jefferson’s family connection with Mayo proved invaluable, as he was familiar with the details of Mayo’s expedition and carried his map with him (Hickish 137).   The typical surveying duties included drawing up notes, making “reconnaissance” sketches, as well as naming streams and rivers.  The two men also had time to explore the countryside because much of it was part of their tract through the Loyal Land Company.  The survey culminated in a map of the border by both Jefferson and Fry, which appeared in Williamsburg on November 6, 1749(Hickish 139).


Legacy to Western Exploration

Peter Jefferson and his good friend and neighbor Joshua Fry began a partnership and were commissioned to create the newly established county lines between March 4th and the 16th in 1745 (Hickish 122-123).  In early September 1746 Joshua Fry and Jefferson teamed up again to survey the Fairfax line of the Northern Neck (Hickish 131).  Once the data was collected from the expedition Jefferson and colleague Robert Brooke drew the plat based on William Mayo’s earlier map and Jefferson added topographic features such as the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains (Hickish 132). 

While in Williamsburg Jefferson and Fry became aware of a request from the British Lords of Trade and Plantations to the Governor of Virginia for the creation of a comprehensive map of the Virginia Colony.  The two men were approved to complete the map on July 19, 1750. According to Hickish, Fry had long dreamed of mapping Virginia showing the “bays, navigable rivers, counties, parishes, and principle estates,” which he had proposed on December 15, 1738 to the House of Burgesses. The preliminary drawings were made at the Albemarle County’s surveyor’s office and the final draft was produced at Jefferson’s home Shadwell taking one year to complete and would be known as the “Fry-Jefferson Map” (Hickish 154).  The Council examined the map and could not determine “where the hand of Jefferson ceased and that of Fry commenced (Hickish 159).” 

Final Days

Peter Jefferson began to fall ill on June 25, 1757 and a slave was sent to Castle Hill to request the services of Dr. Thomas Walker (Hickish 237).  Walker made eleven visits to Shadwell before Jefferson passed away on August 17, 1757 (Hickish 245-246). Through family connections and self-advancement Peter Jefferson was considered an accomplished man of his day.  He acquired large tracts of land, led numerous surveying expeditions and created some of the most detailed and accurate maps of his day.  Jefferson’s talents and skills would greatly influence his son Thomas Jefferson who would follow in the footsteps of his father.


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