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Stargazer’s Stone
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In 1750, the Court of Chancery established a bipartisan commission to survey and mark the boundaries per the 1732 agreement. The commissioners hired local surveyors to mark an east-west transpeninsular line from Fenwick Island to the Chesapeake in 1750-51, and then determine the middle point of this line, which would mark the southwest corner of the Three Lower Counties. As the survey team worked from Fenwick Island westward the rivers, swamps and dense vegetation made the work difficult, and there were continuing disputes, e.g., should distances be determined by horizontal measures or on the slopes of the terrain? Should the transpeninsular line stop at the Slaughter Creek estuary or continue across that peninsula, known as Taylor’s Island, to the open Chesapeake? Should the line stop at the inundated marsh line of the Chesapeake or at open water?
The transpeninsular survey and its middle point were not officially approved in London until 1760. In 1761, the colonial surveyors began running the north-south “tangency” line from the middle point toward a target tangent point on the twelve-mile arc. With poor equipment and some miscalculations, their first try at a tangency line passed a half-mile east of the target point on the arc. Their second try was 350 yards to the west. The disputants required much higher standards of accuracy, and they consulted the royal astronomer James Bradley at the Greenwich observatory for advice on getting the survey done right.

Bradley recommended Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to complete the boundary survey. Mason was Bradley’s assistant at the observatory, an Anglican widower with two sons. Dixon was a skilled surveyor from Durham, a Quaker bachelor whose Meeting had ousted him for his unwillingness to abstain from liquor. In 1761 Mason and Dixon had sailed together for Sumatra, but only made it to the Cape of Good Hope, to record a transit of Venus across the sun to support the Royal Society’s calculations of distance by parallax between the Earth and sun. Their major tasks in America would be to survey an exact tangent line running northward from the middle point of the transpeninsular line to a tangent point on the twelve-mile arc boundary around New Castle; the east-west boundary line running five degrees of longitude westward from the Delaware River along a line (actually an arc on the earth’s surface) of latitude passing fifteen miles south of the southernmost part of Philadelphia; and the north line from the arc tangency to a perpendicular intersection with the west line (Figure 6). It would be one of the great technological feats of the century

Mason and Dixon arrived in Philadelphia on November 15 th 1763 during a tense period. The Seven Years’ War had spilled over to North America as the French and Indian Wars, and although the Treaty of Paris, signed in February 1763, had put an official end to the hostilities, conflicts between colonists and Indians continued. The Iroquois League, or Six Nations (Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida and Tuscarora), had supported the British against their longtime enemies, the Cherokee, Huron, Algonquin and Ottawa, whom the French had supported in their attacks on colonists. Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa, had organized a large-scale attack on Fort Detroit on May 5th 1763, and some 200 settlers were massacred along the western frontier.

Local reaction to the news was brutal. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a mob of mostly Scots-Irish immigrants known as the “Paxton boys” attacked a small Conestoga Indian village in December, hacked their victims to death and scalping them. The remaining Conestogas were brought to the town jail for protection, but when the mob attacked the jail the regiment assigned to protect the Indians did nothing to stop them. The helpless Indians—men, women and children—were all hacked to pieces and scalped in their cells. The Paxton Boys then went after local Moravian Indians, who were taken to Philadelphia for protection. Enraged that the government would “protect Indians but not settlers,” about 500 Paxton Boys actually invaded Philadelphia on February 6, 1764, although Benjamin Franklin was able to calm the mob. Mason and Dixon were shocked at the violence, and Mason would visit the scene of the Lancaster murders a year later. As the survey progressed, racial violence and the relentless dispossession of Indians were frequent background themes.

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