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Isaac Briggs

Isaac Briggs (1763-1825) was a surveyor who worked in the District of Columbia and the Mississippi territory. He was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and received a master of arts in mathematics, engineering, astronomy, and surveying from the College of Pennsylvania. In 1789, Briggs became a member of the American Philosophical Society, and in 1791 became assistant surveyor to Andrew Ellicott in surveying the 10-mile-square area that became the District of Columbia.

Thomas Jefferson appointed Briggs as surveyor general of the Mississippi territory in 1803. In 1804, Congress decided to build a new post road from Washington through the Southern states to New Orleans instead of over the mountains and down the Ohio and Missouri Rivers. While visiting Washington, Briggs proposed to Jefferson that on his return to his post in Natchez, he make the necessary astronomical observations along the way. Jefferson approved of the idea. When Briggs reached New Orleans, ill with malaria, he petitioned Congress for reimbursement of his expenses, but Congress viewed his work as unauthorized by law. Jefferson gave him the money out of his own pocket, hoping Congress would repay him. In the end, Congress compensated Briggs only partially.

Primary Source References

1803 May 24. (Jefferson to W.C.C. Clairborne). " I have appointed Isaac Briggs of Maryland surveyor of the lands South of Tennissee. he is a quaker, a sound republican, & of a pure & unspotted character. in point of science in astronomy, geometry & mathematics he stands in a line with mr Ellicot, & second to no man in the US. he set out yesterday for his destination, and I recommend him to your particular patronage."1

1807 May 25. (Jefferson to Isaac Briggs). "I am really mortified that you should have been left to suffer in an undertaking wherein I was an agent. but you know with what expectations we concluded on it."2

1807 June 10. "Recd. from bk. US. an ord. on do. in Philada. for 200.D. in favr. Isaac Briggs on acct. of his expences in surveying the road to N. Orleans. Inclosd. to him. This is to be repaid if Congress allow him for it."3

1807 July 8. "Recd. from bank US. an ord. on do. at Philada. for 200.D. in favr. of Isaac Briggs, which I inclosed to him to be repaid as mentd. ante June 10."4

1816 February 26. (Jefferson to Alexander Dallas). "Should this case be reviewed, and a compensation be allowed mr Briggs for the use the public made of his labors, I will request that his claims may be considered without regard to what he has recieved from me, which I would wish him to retain as a further retribution for his sufferings and difficulties, which I am glad to contribute, believing him to be an honest and good man, and knowing that he is a very able one."5

- Gaye Wilson, 2/2000

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