Exploring The Mystery of Famed Surveyor Thomas Freeman
Just who was the man who worked alongside famous U.S. surveyor Andrew Ellicott?
As the years passed, I began to understand more about Freeman as a surveyor and his connections with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t until I came across an individual with the name Constant Freeman who lived at the same time as Thomas Freeman that I had that “aha moment” and realized that this could be the cause of the confusion. I began to look further and found that the two Freemans were involved with Ellicott during the time of the survey of the U.S./Spain boundary line. Now I was on a mission and fixated on trying to settle the question of whether the surveyor Thomas Freeman deserved being given the “Major” title.
Thomas Freeman was a well-known and productive astronomer-surveyor during his life in the United States. After arriving in the U.S. in 1784,1 he came to the attention of George Washington, who hired him to be his land agent to survey his farms, collect rents and secure payments for lands sold.2 Washington also appointed Freeman to continue surveying the streets and boulevards of the nascent City of Washington after Andrew Ellicott moved on to other surveys.3 In 1796, Washington appointed Freeman as the surveyor of the United States/Spain international boundary line at the same time that he appointed Ellicott as commissioner of the expedition. From 1800 to 1805, Freeman was chosen to survey much of the Indian properties in the Northwest Territory, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.4 In 1806, Freeman was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to lead the Red River Expedition.5
Freeman played a large role in surveying many acres of land in Huntsville, Madison County, Ala., and his survey of the eponymous Freeman Line separated the northern and southern districts of the Mississippi Territory. In 1810, he was appointed Surveyor-General for the Southern District of the Mississippi Territory, stationed in Washington, the capital of the Mississippi Territory.6 At one time, during the Federal Land Sales in 1809, he was the largest land owner in Madison County, paying $18,000 for 8,500 acres.7 In November 1820, Freeman made a trip to visit a friend in Huntsville and became very ill. He prepared a Codicil to his Will on Nov. 7, 1821, and died the next day. He is buried in Huntsville.8
Constant Freeman was born in 1757 in Charlestown, Mass. He was an officer in the Continental Army from 1776 until 1783. He was a major in the 1st Artillerists and Engineers in 1795 and, during that time, was stationed in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., as an agent for the United States Army working with the local militias.
In March 1798, Major Constant Freeman stayed in Natchez, Miss. for a week visiting with Ellicott — and presumably Freeman — just prior to the American team going down the Mississippi for the start of the boundary survey.9 After arriving in New Orleans, Constant Freeman wrote a follow-up letter to Ellicott about that visit.10 Major Freeman was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1802 and, after the War of 1812, he was honorably discharged as a brevet colonel. Freeman served as Auditor of Treasury of the Navy Department in Washington, D.C., until his death in 1824.11, 12, 13
As Constant Freeman was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Thomas Freeman also received that same promotion by various authors.
OK, let’s start with some known facts:
- Thomas Freeman, according to his handwritten will, signed in Washington, Adams County, Miss. on May 8, 1820, was “born in Ireland and arrived in the United States in 1784, took the Oath of Allegiance and became a citizen of the United States in 1795 and have been employed in public service since 1793.”1 Freeman does not mention serving in the military in his will, yet he was proud enough to write that he became a United States citizen and was employed in public service. Of the dozen or more surviving letters written by him, including a 54-page letter he wrote to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering after he was dismissed by Ellicott from the U.S-Spain boundary expedition, there is not one mention of his military service, nor are any of those letters signed using a military rank
- The most thorough biography of Thomas Freeman is by Frances Roberts, published in 1987.4 Roberts’ only mention of any military rank associated with Freeman is when she quoted a diary entry General George Washington recorded Sept. 17, 1784 that he had “agreed this day with a Major Thomas Freeman to superintend my business over the Mountains, upon terms to be inserted in his Instructions.” Roberts only quotes Washington and does not provide any other reference to Freeman’s military service in her biography.
- There are several surviving letters addressed to Freeman from George Washington and letters from Washington to other persons in which Washington uses the title “Major” with Thomas Freeman’s name during the time Freeman worked for him. It is the use of the word “Major” by Washington when referring to Thomas Freeman which some authors use as conclusive evidence that Freeman had a military background, because “presidents can’t be wrong.” A possible explanation why Washington used the rank of major for Freeman is that Washington had just retired from the Continental Army and may have confused Thomas Freeman with Constant Freeman, who had served under “the immediate orders of General Washington in 1780.4 Other than the occasional letter addressed to him as Major Freeman by George Washington, there is never another letter addressed to Thomas Freeman from anyone during his lifetime using any military rank.
- A search of the “List of Officers of the Army of the United States from 1779-1900 does not mention Thomas Freeman but includes Constant Freeman’s military career numerous times.13, 14
- Because of the important role Thomas Freeman played in the early years of Madison County, Ala., a lengthy article in “A History of Early Settlement: Madison County Before Statehood, 1808-1819” contains information about him. The article’s only reference to Freeman being in the military is the following sentence: “He had served under General George Washington.” Thomas Freeman could not have served under General George Washington since according to his will, Freeman emigrated to the new United States in 17841 and Washington resigned his commission a year earlier when the United States military was disbanded at the end of the Revolutionary War.15
- The “History of Early Settlement: Madison County Before Statehood, 1808-1819” article also contains a biography of a Mr. John McCartney which mentions a Colonel Freeman: “Then he (McCartney) moved to Wilkes County, Georgia, where he enlisted in Captain Ellsboro’s Company in Colonel Freeman’s Georgia Regiment.” There is ample evidence that the only Freeman in Georgia during McCartney’s life was Major (not Colonel) Constant Freeman who was stationed between Charleston and Savannah from 1797 to 1804.11, 12, 13, 14 There is no surviving evidence that Thomas Freeman was ever in command of a Georgia Regiment.
- Captain Isaac Guion was the ranking United States military officer in Natchez from 1797 to 1799 and frequently wrote letters to his superior, Major Constant Freeman in New Orleans. In several of those letters, he also mentions Thomas Freeman. In a text of the history of Mississippi which includes letters of Captain Guion, the index to his letters separates the two Freemans with one index entry entitled “Mr. Freeman” and the second entry entitled “Major Constant Freeman.”16
- “The Letters and Papers of William Dunbar,” by Mrs. Dunbar Rowland (Eren Rowland) is a significant source of the confusion between Thomas and Constant Freeman and, at the same time, is the best evidence to clear up the confusion between them. Written in 1930, the 400-page book is divided into 100 pages of William Dunbar’s genealogy, daily observations of his plantation life and his entire 1798 Report to the Spanish government of his four month’s participation in the survey of the United States/Spain boundary line. Another 100 pages are devoted to Dunbar’s diary of the Dunbar-Hunter expedition up the Ouachita River from December 1804 to April 1805. The rest of the book consists of letters to and from Dunbar regarding various topics.
At the back of Rowland’s book is the index and under the entry of “Freeman, Lieut. Col. Thomas” are 19 letters. It is evident that Mrs. Rowland is unaware of a Constant Freeman and she confuses the matter further by now using the rank of Lieutenant Colonel with Thomas Freeman’s name. Careful reading of all the letters will clear up the confusion.
The 19 letters denoted in the index are easily divided into the first nine letters being related to the Dunbar-Hunter expedition up the Ouachita River in 1805 and the last 10 letters related to the Freeman-Custis expedition up the Red River in 1806.
The first nine letters are straight-forward and relate to Lieutenant Colonel Freeman in New Orleans. William Dunbar writes him asking for assistance in getting military boats and men to assist in the Dunbar-Hunter expedition. The rest of these nine letters are between Dunbar, Secretary of War Dearborn and President Jefferson, and concern Lieutenant Colonel Freeman regarding military matters and the Dunbar-Hunter expedition. The dates or these letters are between June 1804 and January 1806, a time when Lieutenant Colonel Constant Freeman was in New Orleans and Thomas Freeman was engaged by the federal government to perform surveys of Indian lands in Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. At no time is the name Thomas or Constant used in any of these letters.
The 10 letters — the second batch — are between Dunbar, President Jefferson and others in his administration concerning an exploration up the Red River to determine its course. Dunbar did not participate in the journey, but was intimately involved in its planning because of his knowledge of the lower Mississippi River and the Indian tribes in the area. President Jefferson chose Thomas Freeman as the surveyor for this expedition.
Perhaps the earliest attempt to clear up the confusion between the two men was made by Jefferson in a letter to Dunbar in January 1806: “You have probably known before this that the Col. Freeman thought of for the Red River expedition was a different person from the military officer. The one proposed for this expedition is now here and will be the bearer of this letter. He is well qualified for the geographical part of the business.”17 For the first time, there is acknowledgment of confusion between the two men, and from no less a luminary than the president of the United States. Inexplicably, however, in the same letter Jefferson continues using phrases such as “Col. Freeman’s party” and “Col. Freeman will communicate to you” referring to Thomas Freeman. Even presidents can be confused.
Having been corrected by the president of the United States, Dunbar doesn’t make that error again. There are three other letters Dunbar wrote to Jefferson about the Red River Expedition now using either Mr. Thomas Freeman or Mr. Freeman. Dunbar also writes Secretary of War Henry Dearborn using the title Mr. Freeman on two occasions and, in a third letter, clearly distinguishes between the Freemans with the following: “I have discovered another young man of talent, Lieut. Humphrey. This young gentleman is greatly recommended by Colo. (sic) Freeman.”18 Even Jefferson seems to have finally gotten it straight as seen in a letter he wrote to Thomas Freeman in 1805 just prior to the Red River Expedition: “Th. Jefferson asks the favor of Mr. Th. Freeman, as he will be in the mathematical shops in Philadelphia, to endeavour (sic) to procure for him an accurate compass for surveying.”19
It’s worth noting, too, another example of an author trying to avoid the confusion between the two Freemans is in the Letter Book of the second governor of the Mississippi Territory, W.C.C. Claiborne, edited by James William Bradley. He includes brief biographies of all significant persons who interacted with the governor, and the first line of his biography of Constant Freeman is clear: “Constant Freeman (1757-February 27, 1824) should not be confused, as he sometime is, with Thomas Freeman. Both men are associated with the lower Mississippi Valley. Thomas was born in Ireland. Constant Freeman was from the state of Massachusetts.”20
There are always at least two sides to any argument and, while I have presented evidence that supports my theory that authors have confused the two Freemans for over 200 years, the alternative needs to mentioned.
We need to know much more about the interesting person of Thomas Freeman, but there is very little information available about him. Questions need to be answered such as the date and location of his birth, his family background and his education, including how he became a surveyor and any marriages he had or whether he served in the Irish military. Perhaps the most intriguing question is how he came to the attention of the famous George Washington within months of his emigration. Who was Thomas Freeman?
In conclusion, I believe the preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that the surveyor Thomas Freeman never served in any United States military and is not entitled to any military rank. He often confused with Major Constant Freeman whose military record is plentiful. The record must be corrected and future biographers stop repeating the same erroneous mantra. The reader must read the preceding information and make a decision to answer the question of the mystery of Thomas Freeman.
- Thomas Freeman’s handwritten Will, May 8, 1820, Washington, Adams County, Mississippi
- The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Vol. 3, 1785-1786, W.W. Abbot, ed, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia
- Waldman, Carl, and Alan Wexler. “Freeman, Thomas.” Encyclopedia of Exploration: The Explorers Vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2004. American History Online.
- Roberts, Frances, C. Thomas Freeman-Surveyor of the Old Southwest, The Alabama Review, Vol. Xl, No. 3, July 1987
- Rowland, Dunbar, Mrs. (Eron Rowland), Life, Letters and Papers of William Dunbar of Elgin, Morayshire, Scotland and Natchez Mississippi, Pioneer Scientist of the Southern United States, Press of the Mississippi Historical Society, Jackson, Mississippi, 1930
- A History of Early Settlement: Madison County Before Statehood, 1808-1819, passim, The Huntsville Historical Review, The Huntsville-Madison County Historical Society, Huntsville, Alabama, 2008
- Dupre, Daniel, Transforming the Cotton Frontier, Madison County, Alabama, 1800-1840, P 27. Louisiana State Press, Baton Rouge and London, 1997
- Thomas Freeman’s handwritten Codicil to his Will November 7, 1821, Huntsville, Alabama, probated in Madison County, February 12, 1822
- Andrew Ellicott to Secretary of State Pickering, Natchez March 14, 1798. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, DC
- Constant Freeman to Andrew Ellicott, New Orleans, 28 March, 1798, National Archives, Maryland
- The Magazine of American History, Vol. II 1878, pp. 349-360
- The National Register, Vol. 3, p. 145
- List of Officers of the Army of the United States from 1779-1900, pp. 38-55, Artillerists and Engineers. Major Constant Freeman, February 28 1795, Organization of the Army June 1802, Regiment of Artillery. Lt. Col. Constant (April 1802 and Revolutionary Army), List of Army Officers 1805, 1806-1809, 1813. Field Officers, Constant Freeman, Lieutenant Colonel, Brevet Colonel, New Orleans
- Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, from its organization, September 29, 1789 to March 2, 1903
- Ferling, John E., The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, pp. 320-321, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville TN, 1988, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010
- Seventh Annual Report for the Director of the Department of Archives and History of The State of Mississippi from October 1, 1907 to October 1, 1908 with Accompanying Letters of Capt. Isaac Guion, Dunbar Rowland, LL.D., Director Nashville, Tenn (sic): Press of Brandon Printing Company, 1909
- op. cit., Life and Letters of William Dunbar, Jefferson to Dunbar, January 12, 1806, p.188
- ibid., pp. 190, 194-5, 350, 331-333
- Jefferson to Thomas Freeman, November 16, 1805, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1. General Correspondence
- Interim Appointment: W.C.C. Claiborne Letter Book, 1804-1805, edited with biographical sketches by Jared William Bradley, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2002
Bill Morton became fascinated with surveying history while writing his award-winning book about the boundaries of Georgia. His current book about Andrew Ellicott and the survey of the first international boundary between the United States and Spain will be released in Spring 2015. The author can be reached via www.wjmortonmdjd.com.