Surveyor General Rufus Putnam

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


by Norman C. Caldwell

This article relates to the pioneering surveyors of the Public Lands of the Territory and State of Michigan.

As research into background and historical events takes place, certain items come to light, such as the Commissioners of the General Land Office and various Surveyors General of the Territories. It is not intended to include these individuals in the forthcoming publication documenting the biographical information of the U.S. Deputy Surveyors in Michigan currently being developed. It is therefore being presented in this medium to lay the groundwork and build a foundation for future endeavors.

GENERAL RUFUS PUTNAM is one of the individuals to whom this country owes considerable homage and respect. His military and private service to the new country, the United States of America, with the knowledge and ability to overcome what we today would view as severe impediments, is awesome.

He was the first U. S. Surveyor General, serving from 1 October 1796 to 1803. He was born 9 April 1738 at Sutton, Massachusetts and married April 1761 to Elizabeth (D: 1762) a daughter of William Ayers, Esquire, of Brookfield, (Connecticut?). A second marriage was 10 January 1765 to Persis (B: 19 November 1737, D: 6 September 1820 at Marietta, Ohio) a daughter of Zebulon Rice of Westborough.

He died 4 May 1824 at Marietta, Ohio, with burial in the "Mounds Cemetery" so named for its proximity to one of the large ceremonial mounds he worked to preserve in the region.

His children were Ayres (B: 1762, D: 1762), Elizabeth (B: 19 November 1765, D: 8 November 1830), Persis (B: 6 June 1767, D: September 1822), Susanna (B: 5 August 1768), Abigail (B: 7 August 1770), William Rufus (B: 12 December 1771), Franklin (B: 27 May 1774, D: April 1776), Edwin (B: 19 January 1776), Patty (B: 25 November 1777) and Catherine (B: 17 October, D: March 1808).

Upon the death of his father, Rufus, at age seven, lived with his grandfather for two years until his mother remarried. His stepfather was John Sadler and they resided in Sutton where the family ran an inn.

At the age of 14 he chose his brother-in-law Jonathon Dudley as his guardian, then at 16 he apprenticed himself to Daniel Matthews of Brookfield as a millwright.

He enlisted in the military under Captain Ebenezer Learned, and arrived at Fort Edward 15 June 1757. There he volunteered to a company of Rangers, serving under Lieutenant Collins, and scouting the lower end of Lake Champlain. Upon return to the Fort he again volunteered for scout duty and served under Captain Israel Putnam (his cousin?).

On the 15 April 1758 he enlisted under Captain Whitcomb, traveling from Northampton to Greenbush where they built breastworks for the fort. After nearly four years of military service he returned to his farm and resumed the building of mills. It is reported that at this time he also began the study of the art of Surveying.

On the 10th of January 1773 he was a member of a party sent to Pensacola, Florida to explore that area for settlement. They were offered "warrants" in return for their prior military services. Nineteen townships were selected and laid out, a number of "New Englanders" emigrated to the area, and then Governor Chester received instructions to not sell the tracts. The colony was abandoned and the members left to shift for themselves.

On 19 April 1775 he enlisted in the Continental Army as a Lieutenant-Colonel, commanded by David Brewer, and their first engagement was at Roxbury. With his knowledge and skill as a millwright he was engaged mainly in the construction of fortifications at Roxbury, Sewall’s Point, Providence, Newport, Dorchester Heights, Long Island, West Point, and New York.

General Washington appointed him as his Engineer and the rank of Colonel on 11 August 1776.

On the 17th of December 1782 he resigned from the military and returned home to his family.

He was not permitted to remain in private life, as he was soon selected to survey the eastern lands of the State of Massachusetts and to negotiate a treaty with the Penobscot Indians in 1786.

General Rufus Putnam was one of the first Directors (with Reverend Manasseh Cutler, Major Winthrop Sargent, Captain Thomas Cushing, and Colonel John Brooks) that organized the Ohio Company. They directed the purchase and surveys of the Ohio Company lands. Four Surveyors and the supporting staff, consisting of Colonel Sproat, Colonel Meigs, Major Tupper and John Mathers (under the direction of Putnam & Cutler) landed at what was to become Marrietta, Ohio, on 7 April 1788 and commenced their activities to identify the new home sites.

Putnam became the Brigadier General in the regular army on 5 May 1792 and served in the Northwest Territory, his first assignment being to obtain a signed treaty with the Wabash Indians.

In 1798 he was a co-founder of the Muskingum Academy and in 1811 was appointed by the State Legislature as a Trustee of the Ohio University.

During his later years he resided with his daughter, Elizabeth, at Marietta, Ohio.

During his tenure as the Surveyor General of the State of Ohio and the Northwest Territories, he developed and instituted the "contract method" of surveys. This system would be followed for the next 110 years in the delineation of a rectangular survey system over the public lands of the United States. It would serve until the formation of the General Land Office in 1910, when federal employees resumed the task.

In 1805, his son, William Rufus Putnam of Marietta, Ohio, surveyed Ranges 8 & nine, Towns 5, 6, 7 & eight in Ohio.

No surveys were performed in Michigan during Rufus Putnam’s tenure, however, many of the techniques and procedures he developed and improved were passed along to his successors. We owe General Rufus Putnam considerable respect for his efforts in guiding the early surveys toward the system it is today.


White (I.P.)7, 16-18, 40, 90, 96.

History of the Putnam Family, pp.161-169.

Hildreth’s: Lives of the Early Settlers of Ohio.

Walker’s History of Athens County, Ohio.

Mary Cone: Life of Rufus Putnam.

History of Sutton, Massachusetts.

E.C. Dawes: Journal of Rufus Putnam.

Ohio Archaeology & History Quarterly, June 1888.

New England Genealogical Register, Vol. 42.

Essex Institute Historical Collection.




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