Please excuse this writer as he blurs history slightly in describing early survey work on the Chesapeake Bay. It is his intention to breathe life into events that likely happened 165 years ago this summer.
R.D. Cutts stepped lightly ashore from the longboat carrying his transit and tripod. No wet feet this morning, he thought, and the men backed their oars and set out stroking for the far shore of wide, tidal St. Leonard Creek. He'd been doing this work for the Coast Survey since 1845 and knew the drill well.
It was now 1847, and earlier in the week the surveyors' topsail schooner Roger B. Taney, a revenue cutter, had eased into the creek.
The ship was named after Roger Brooke Taney, sitting fifth chief justice of the United States and a native son, born in Calvert County, MD.
Cutts had disembarked at a landing on its western shore. It lay at the end of a dirt track where tobacco hogsheads, produce and livestock were brought down to be loaded aboard ships. On the shore lay an old British cannonball, fired during the war of 1812. It looked to him like an 18-pounder, and someone had lashed crossed sticks and a rope cradle to it, turning it into a "killick" or improvised rowboat anchor.
Brewhouse, the old plantation adjacent this landing, was a modest home, and its mistress spoke to men from the Taney. She offered Cutts and his boatmen tea from Brewhouse's famous spring. The woman rarely failed to tell visitors that a daughter of this house, Margaret Mackall Smith, had married Gen. Zachary Taylor in 1810. Taylor, called "Old Rough and Ready," was making a name for himself in the ongoing Mexican War.
After crossing to the creek's eastern bank this morning, Cutts found a level spot on rising ground and set up his tripod. There was oyster shell under the thin grass, making a solid base upon which to embed the tripod's spear-tipped legs. Oysters were found in shallow beds all along this creek, which was bordered by sandy cliffs crumbling into tidewater. The sandy bottom with little wave action made good growing grounds for "cove oysters" which sat on the substrate simply for the picking. Indians had harvested oysters in the past.
Jacob Breeden now owned this land and was a slaveholder. There were some black men, he noted, working their way with hoes along the tobacco field up slope from him.
Midfield, he could see a break in the tillage lines, mostly straight uphill and down, where the plowman had worked around rubble and brick at an old home site dating from a hundred or more years ago. Slowly, one year at a time, he was straightening his lines, breaking up the old samel brick that had been wall, chimney or foundation, and turning under the pottery shards, nails and pipe stems of its long-gone occupants.
At the far end of the big field, Cutts could see an orchard, doing well, on the south-facing slope. Peaches were a successful crop here. All that was needed were the winds to stay fresh enough so the peaches would not spoil aboard a schooner sailing them to Baltimore. He drew the orchard on his field notebook, able to count just 15 trees visible from his position, but representing an unknown total.
He sketched the lay of the land in his field notes; Breeden's house with its commanding view toward the creek's mouth a mile off, and nine trees lining the dirt lane leading to it. His sketch of topography stopped where his eye could not see and he did not travel to extend it farther.
His crew had reached their designated location on the far shore. A man stood with his surveyor's stadia rod, waving an arm to signal he was ready to take data. The sun was on him, making his rod stand out, and at Cutts's back, not hampering his vision. Cutts leveled his instrument and its little telescope. He then sought and found the man and his rod. He waved his arms, signifying an acceptable data point and carefully noted in his book "West, 44 degrees 16 minutes north." This gave bearing to a wooded point of land on the far shore and also a cross reference for the point of land immediately to his right; part of his surveyor's triangulation of the entire shoreline.
The surveyors' work on this cruise of the Patuxent was to define the landscape surrounding the lower river. Their work was meticulous, down to recording the air temperature, which corrected the expansion of the iron chains used to measure distances ashore. The surveyors also controlled the measurements between these points by careful bearings.
Their labor would go on all day, as it had for weeks, while they surveyed their way along the shore, in and out of a score of tributary creeks, until they had mapped the entire lower perimeter of this, the sixth largest Chesapeake River.
During the War of 1812, the young United States realized the value of Chesapeake Bay as a maritime resource. The British blockade, which started in 1813, had interdicted U.S. naval activity and ended Baywide commerce for the better part of the war, crippling the Chesapeake's economy. This, and British depredations along the entire Bay, had wreaked havoc upon a very deeply displeased voting public.
Before the war, Thomas Jefferson had wisely anticipated the need for good navigational charts and detailed knowledge of both hazards and refuges. He commissioned a "Survey of the Coast" under Secretary of Commerce Albert Gallatin in 1807. But the War of 1812 began before the survey was started. In fact, the surveyors didn't even have instruments needed for the task until 1816, after ratification of the 1815 Treaty of Ghent.
In 1824, Majors J. J. Abert and J. Kearney, both topographical engineers, were sent out with a survey party under orders from the secretary of war, to find suitable sites for a new U.S. naval base. A survey of an early candidate — the lower Patuxent River — resulted in hundreds of soundings being taken on longboat transects across the main estuary and up the axis of its tidal tributaries. Around 40 were taken up the axis of St. Leonard Creek.
These soundings would not be published for a long time, but the Navy used them promptly. Plans were drawn up for forts at the river's mouth and lines of fire were established from Thomas Point and Point Patience to defend against ships ascending the river. The British had invaded here in 1814 with the St. Leonard Creek feint and then gone on to burn Washington, DC.
The new navy yard, however, was established at Norfolk, VA. No longer would U.S. warships be trapped and destroyed more than 100 miles upriver by a hostile naval blockade as they were in 1814.
In 1816, Swiss immigrant Ferdinand Hassler, a mathematics professor the West Point (NY) Military Academy, was tapped to head the new Office of Coast Survey. He set standards that established this agency as the U.S. government's first scientific organization.
He was succeeded by Alexander Dallas Bache, a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Bache, who served until 1867, shared Hassler's standards. He met often with the leading scientific minds of the day. With no formal recognition or designation, they called themselves "the scientific lazzeroni," a self-deprecating reference to Italian street bums and beggars. Under Abraham Lincoln's imprimatur, Bache and his lazzeroni founded the National Academy of Sciences, which functions today.
Bache continued the mission of surveying the U.S. coasts. His strategy was to hit important sites first, eventually connecting each part to form an integrated whole. In 1846, he sent a crew to Annapolis where just a year previous, 50 midshipmen and seven professors had founded the U.S. Naval Academy on the 10-acre grounds of Fort Severn.
While several Chesapeake sub regions were carefully mapped in the first few years, by 1855, a more global "progress chart" of the entire Bay was published, including its coastal approaches and those to the Delaware Bay. This, as its description implies, was still an interim product. Of course, each of today's charts is an "interim product" of an ever-changing environment and shoreline.
That 1847 morning on St. Leonard Creek, Cutts' survey party continued north along the shore to the next cove past Breeden's farm. The land, uninhabited in Cutts' time, had already been surveyed by the English colonists, was patented in 1669 and named Osborn Cove after its owner. As the survey longboat pulled along the eroding shoreline southwest of the cove's entrance, shell could be seen falling out of the cliff face and spilling down the sandy yellow bank.
This shell must have been left by native Indians much earlier because it was buried under a significant amount of soil. Forty feet up the cliff is a long way to carry oysters just for shucking, but the Indians had cooked them there, then cast the shell aside from the fire site.
Cutts sketched the topography around this cove, noting the odd sand spit which straggled out from the eroding southwestern cliff. He drew the high banks, and a widening of the cove is shown toward its inner end.
He stopped work right there, recording Osborn Cove by chance, then securely packed up the instruments and logbooks before the ship made sail, leaving St. Leonard Creek.
In 1849, the year after his Patuxent work was published under Bache's and his names, Cutts was sent to the Chester River to survey Rock Hall and the upper part of Kent Island.
He and his survey assistants, H. L. Whiting and J. C. Neilson, were clearly detail-oriented. They even recorded the direction of plow furrows! With little invention, a competent artist could paint a wonderfully accurate portrait of this landscape down to the copses of trees, marshy fringes and eroding shorelines as they appeared in 1849. The team also surveyed the Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor entrances with the same thorough techniques.
In 1851, Cutts was sent west to join the schooner, Baltimore, just acquired by the Survey for work on the Pacific Coast. At the end of Taylor's Mexican War, the terms of peace had agreed to honor the historic "ranchos" or estates in this still Spanish-speaking land, which had been long planted on California soil. Part of the task was defining these boundaries as new settlement occurred.
Cutts hacked through brush to climb Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, CA, where, using a firm stone ledge for his tripod, he replaced a flagpole planted the previous year as a starting point for surveyors in the surrounding valley. The survey of California was a complex process but ultimately, all property boundaries in northern California and Nevada were based upon Cutts' marker. His work is commemorated today with a copper peg driven into that ledge at the base of a concrete monument.
Alexander Bache's Office of Coast Survey became the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to accommodate the nation's need for equally excellent topographic maps. It is today's U.S. Geological Survey, in the Department of Interior, and a vital Chesapeake Bay Program partner.
The nautical mapping function, now immensely sophisticated and of increasing value to boaters and shippers, is performed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and another full partner in the effort to restore Chesapeake Bay.
Next month: Little Osborn Cove, included by chance in Cutts' map, would be further shaped by time and tide.