For at least fifty-five years, Henry contributed to his income by surveying land. It was a
trade he had learned from his father, Henry Sr., who created the first map of Dutchess County in
1738. Henry Sr. most likely learned the trade from his own father, Gilbert, who had been taught
the trade by his father, Robert Livingston. Surveying was a popular occupation, since it could be
a pathway to financial success. For anyone interested in real estate speculation, it was a way to
get first-hand information, a way to get a jump on the competition.
To own property, you have to be able to specify the exact boundary lines of what you're
claiming. Specifying boundary lines sounds like it should be an exact science. Good luck. A
tree marking a corner can die or be chopped down. A creek used as a boundary line can change
course over the years. And how do you figure out how many acres are in a plot bounded by a
winding stream anyway? Say you want to divide a piece of property into two equal lots, how do
you compute the size of the lots when one has a hill on it?
Surveying land in the 18th and early 19th century required good problem solving skills, a
meticulous nature, a knowledge of the appropriate mathematics, and a strong enough
constitution, since many of Henry' surveys are dated December and February. A text from 1833
begins with logarithms, geometry, plane trigonometry, and shows how to choose the most
appropriate mathematical approach to use for each different surveying problem.
In the field, the
most important pieces of equipment were the surveying chain and the compass. The chain was
66 feet long. If you laid out a square that was the length of a chain on each side, the area
encompassed would be exactly one tenth of an acre, a great convenience for calculations.
made his surveys through forests and swamps, and over hill and over dale. Henry even did
surveys for land under the Hudson River!
And sometimes what he found was quite surprising.
For the New-York Magazine
If all the phenomena of nature were faithfully registered, besides the
satisfaction resulting to the public from novel relations, natural history would
receive important additions.
On the 18th day of the last month, I was surveying in the woods about a
mile west from Hudson's river, and eighty miles north of the city of New-York. At
noon, the sky being perfectly clear, and the sun shining hot, I remarked that the
whole forest glistened in a manner not less uncommon than beautiful.
I at first imagined it occasioned by either rain or dew, till, upon a
moment's reflection, I found it could not be the former, as there was not a cloud to
be seen, nor the latter, as it must long before have disappeared in a day so warm
and serene. Some of the company declared they had observed similar appearances
before, and called it honey-dew. Every green leaf on the trees, as well as those that
were dry under our feet, were covered with a substance perfectly transparent, and
in taste not inferior to dissolved sugar-candy. We could not refrain continually
drawing the foliage between our lips to taste a syrup that fresh from heaven.
The preceding night had been clear and still, and a small southern breeze
blew all morning. It is probably that this modern manna would have been
discernable by the taste in the morning, but it was not noticed till the heat of the
meridian sun gave it the appearance of an elegant varnish.
I have seen accounts of this phenomenon in the Connecticut newspapers,
which determine its extension above an hundred miles -- perhaps it has covered a
considerable part of North America. When it is considered that every leaf of every
tree, and each blade of grass upon the thousand hills of an extensive country was
perfectly candied over with the purest sugar, palpable to the touch, visible to the
eye, and poignant upon the palate, the quantity must have been prodigious.
R. June, 1791.
Walking the land with his father had taught Henry to recognize its value by understanding
how the land could be used, and it was this expertise of land valuation that led to his
appointments as commissioner of sequestration, commissioner of bankruptcy, and principal
And it was also what led John Jacob Astor to hire Henry for one of the great property
lawsuits of New York.
John Jacob Astor arrived in New York from Germany in 1783. Setting up shop in the
city, he sold German toys and knickknacks, musical instruments and furs. The latter was the
profit maker. The way to get furs at the lowest price was to go to the source and trade with the
Indians, then prepare and press the furs so that they could be sold at the highest prices. With the
profit from his fur trading, Astor turned to real estate, which was even more profitable. It was his
interest in the Philipse property that brought him together with Henry Livingston.
Because they were Tories, the estate of Roger Morris and his wife, Mary Philipse, which
encompassed about one third of Putnam County, was confiscated during the Revolution and sold
to small farmers. In 1809, Astor met the heirs of the Morris family and learned that the takeover
of the estate was arguably illegal because of the deed's small print. As the owners of only a life
interest in the property, rather than the property itself, the argument of the heirs was that the
property couldn't be confiscated. Astor thought enough of their argument to have it checked out
by his lawyers. They agreed with the reasoning, and Astor bought the land.
Because the property had been confiscated and sold, there were now 700 small farmers
living on, working and improving the land. Henry got the job of explaining Astor's claims to the
new owners. For 9 ½ days conferring with Astor, and 10 ½ days touring the properties, Henry
billed Astor a day rate of 28 shillings per day, which totaled, with expenses, 33-14-6 pounds.
Astor was not expecting the farmers to buy their land for a second time from him. What
Astor wanted was for the Legislature to pay him a profit on his purchase price, based on the
argument that the illegal confiscation was the state's error. In 1819, the Legislature agreed to
have a survey made. On May 1st, Henry wrote to the Surveyor General asking for the work. His
advantage, he argued, was that he had already surveyed a tract of land containing fifty of the
farms, as well as a number of individual pieces of land within the Philipse Patent. And even
though much of the land was under cultivation, and therefore had known boundaries, some of the
land was mountainous and rugged, so that knowledge of the original boundary monuments would
be invaluable, and there were few people still alive who knew them. Since Henry was a young
man during the Revolution and was now seventy years old, he was probably exaggerating that
there were even a few working surveyors around who had worked back then.
He got the job.