Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Considering Colonial Compasses

We get all kinds of interesting requests for research here at the Natick Historical Society. Following some recent research requests on Colonial surveyors I started looking into the tools that were used to describe, measure and survey land in our early history. The buying and selling of large plots of land was an important business throughout Colonial Massachusetts. Subdividing land and acquiring new property were especially important parts of the early years of Natick’s history, when European settlers parceled off and purchased land from the Native American residents. In the collection of the Natick Historical Society we have a number of different items that would have been used by surveyors:  chains, stakes, and compasses that would be used in different ways to determine the size, shape and characteristics of pieces of land. Two of these pieces, a pair of surveyors compasses manufactured in Boston in the mid-1700s, are especially striking.

John Dupee's  Surveyor's Compass
Thomas Greenough's Compass 

Detail of John Dupee's Compass, notice the specific directions to his shop in Boston

    These compasses or circumferentors to use the technical term, were created by Thomas Greenough and John Dupee respectively and both represent excellent examples of American Colonial craftsmanship. The compasses are generally similar in dimension and style, and both are approximately the same size and design, which was typical for compasses used for surveying. There are a few differences; Dupee’s compass is made of wood, which was more common in surveyor’s equipment. Greenough’s compass is made of brass, though he regularly worked with wood as well. Dupee’s wooden compass also has extensions at either end of the compass face that were useful in surveying to extend the North/South Axis when measuring angles, a feature Greenough’s compass lacks. Both men worked in Boston in the mid-1700s, and while Greenough was younger, they were contemporaries and worked in Boston during overlapping periods.

Deacon Thomas Greenough (born 1710) and his son, incidentally also named Thomas Greenough, produced a number of mechanical devices used for sea travel, navigation and surveying land. Both Greenough men worked making compasses and would label them, as our piece has been, with their name “T. Greenough,” though without a designation for Junior/Senior it is not easy to determine whether our piece was created by the father or son. Thomas Greenough, Senior was a Patriot and served on a Committee of Correspondence in the years leading up to the American Revolution in Boston. He died in 1785 and is buried at Copp’s Hill Burial ground in downtown Boston.

John Dupee’s life is not quite as well-documented. His shop was established in Boston in the early 1700s and only a few of his pieces still survive. Though the exact details of many parts of his life remain unknown a small part of his life’s story has survived. Born in France under the name Jean Dupuis, he fled France as a Huguenot refugee to Boston as many other Protestant Frenchmen were doing at the time, including Paul Revere’s father. Upon arriving in Boston Dupee anglicized his name. He married and had several children before his death in 1743. On his compass the arrow pointing north is marked with a Fleur de Lis, possibly an imported French style and possibly a nod to the maker’s birthplace.Around the face of the compass is also a maker’s mark giving credit to John Dupee along with rather odd instructions on where to find his shop. The Inscription reads “Made & Sold by John Dupee, North Side Swing Bridge Boston NE”. In a time before most businesses had individual addresses, they were instead referred to based on land marks or by an image on a sign that hung outside.

The Dupee compass is currently on display at the Historical Society’s museum. The Greenough compass can be seen by scheduling an appointment with me here at the Historical Society. For more information about Thomas Greenough, John Dupee or any of the other exciting pieces in our collection, feel free to send me an email at curator@natickhistoricalsociety.org