An unusually voluminous record of an 18th-century Bristol County, Massachusetts surveyor

John Crane (1731-1800), [Manuscript ciphering book, surveyor’s field books and other documents.] Berkeley and Norton, MA, 1748-1796.
Ciphering book (29 leaves) [with:] 191 leaves of field notes plus a few stray leaves, most blank [with:] map of the boundary of Norton [with:] 3pp document recording notes from a proprietors’ meeting. All in manuscript in ink on laid paper, with some material possibly in one or more other hands. Stab sewn, though broken in places. General toning and light soiling, a very few leaves ragged, but almost entirely legible.

An unusually voluminous record, nearly 400 pages in all, covering five decades of the education and surveying career of an 18th-century Bristol County, Massachusetts soldier and community leader.

John Crane was born in 1731 in the Bristol County, Massachusetts town of Berkeley, where he resided at least long enough to be educated. Some time in or after 1748 he moved a few miles south and east to the town of Norton, where he spent the remainder of his life. In 1754 he married Rachel Terry, with whom he had six children. Until 1772 he is described in the records as “Mr. John Crane”, thereafter as “Captain”, and indeed during the Revolution he served as a Captain in the 3rd Massachusetts (24th Continental) Regiment. Between 1771 and 1794 he held numerous town offices, including Assessor (6 times), Moderator (also 6 times), Selectman (11 times), and as its representative to the Massachusetts House of Representatives once, in 1789. He died in Norton in 1800.

Contents of the archive
The archive begins with a ciphering book signed and dated Berkeley [sic], Sept. 4, 1748. The book covers practical mathematics, such as the “Rule of Three”, “Interest upon Interest”, and “Barter”, usually with applications related to matters of local commerce, such as the doings of bricklayers, butchers, grocers and the like. There is no apparent reference to surveying; such material was likely contained in another ciphering book, long since perished.

The bulk of the archive consists of a large assemblage of Crane’s surveying field notes, some 191 leaves in all. The notes are (or were) bound in four sequential groups covering May 10, 1769 through February 12, 1773 (57 leaves); July 17, 1780 through September 14, 1784 (42 leaves), October 7, 1784 through perhaps April 1792 (76 leaves), and January 21[or 25], 1794 through March 26, 1796 (16 leaves). The group also has a few stray leaves, mostly blank but including a tantalizing loose title page bearing the title “John Crane Field Book Anno Domini 1762”. He would have been 30 or 31 at the time, though one imagines his surveying career began even earlier.

Crane’s surveying work ranged widely in Bristol County, Massachusetts; the field notes reflect surveys conducted in Attleboro, Berkley, Dartmouth, Easton, Freetown, Mansfield, Norton, Raynham and Taunton. The commissions reflect the circumstances of daily life in the 18th century, including for example the subdivision of property on the occasion of inheritance, the surveying of parcels in anticipation of sale, and the settling of boundary disputes.

The method used throughout is the “metes and bounds” approach in near-universal use among American land surveyors of Crane’s era. This entailed selecting a starting point and measuring a boundary as a continuous sequence of bearings and distances connecting known landmarks (usually marked stones or trees) around the perimeter until returning to the starting point. The method had particular appeal as it required little training and no more instrumentation than a compass and surveyor’s rod (16 ½ feet) or chain (66 feet). It was notoriously liable to inaccuracies introduced by human error, irregularities of terrain, and the shifting of landmarks by natural events or human subterfuge. All of which helps explain the number of surveys by Crane involving boundary disputes between landowners.

The archive includes a 3-page document relating to one of Crane’s commissions, the survey “of the Seventh Grate Lot, or Shear, in the Second division, of the Burnt-Ground Cedar Swamp” in Taunton. The proprietors had voted at a December 22, 1783 meeting to subdivide the parcel and distributed it by lot, then commissioned Crane and one Simeon Williams (1735-1800) to conduct the survey. Crane and Williams spent the rest of December on the survey, and this document is a copy of their report. It describes in detail each of the seven resulting lots, aligning with field notes recorded in the notebook for 1780-1784.

The archive also includes a metes-and-bounds survey of Norton’s boundaries, unsigned and undated but in a hand resembling that of the field books. It is docketed “J Shephard” on the verso, in a different hand. This was almost certainly Jacob Shepard (1741-1816), who marched with Norton men to Lexington on April 19, 1775 and rose through the ranks to become a Lieutenant. From 1788 to 1791 he served on the Select Board with Crane.

The survey shows simply the boundaries of the town, indicating borders with neighboring towns and the points where these are crossed by roads and streams. The scale of 200 rods to the inch raises the possibility that the survey was made in or just after 1794, in compliance with a Resolve of the Massachusetts General Court

“that the inhabitants of the several towns and districts in the Commonwealth … take or cause to be taken … accurate plans of their respective towns or districts, upon a scale of two hundred rods to an inch, and upon a survey hereafter actually to be made, or that has actually been made, within seven years next preceding this time … And it is further resolved, that there be inserted … the breadth of rivers, the number and reputed magnitude of ponds, the falls of water, mountains, manufactories, mills, mines and minerals, and of what sort, iron-works and furnaces …” [Resolves of the Massachusetts General Court, 1794, Chap. 101 (26 June, 1794)]

However the Massachusetts State Archives holds a 1794 survey of Norton executed by one Silas Cobb. The Cobb survey is both more thorough, including as it does interior features of the town, though its treatment of the town’s boundaries is strikingly similar—though not identical—to that on the survey offered here. The relationship between the two will for the moment have to remain a mystery, but in any event 18th-century manuscript surveys of Massachusetts towns are extremely rare on the market.

In all, a rich record of the activities of a prolific 18th-century surveyor in Bristol County, Massachusetts, with an intriguing survey of the Town of Norton, all worthy of further study. 

Background on Crane from George Faber Clark, History of the Town of Norton, Bristol County, Massachusetts (1859) and WikiTree.