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The Cosmos in Miniature: The Remarkable Star Map of Simeon De Witt: Simeon De Witt's Star Map

Simeon De Witt

Simeon De Witt (1756–1834) came from a prominent, influential family in upstate New York. By the age of twenty-two, he had graduated from Queen’s College (later Rutgers University) in New Jersey, spent a short time in the Revolutionary army, then studied surveying with an uncle. When Robert Erskine, military geographer and surveyor general, sought help in drawing the maps needed by Gen. George Washington’s troops, De Witt welcomed the challenge. He moved to Erskine’s estate in New Jersey and worked with several other assistants.

Erskine died in 1780. De Witt hoped to succeed him, but there were other candidates for the job. In a letter to George Washington, De Witt explained that whoever was next appointed should not only be an experienced surveyor, but well-trained in astronomy. The star map may have been one way to demonstrate this training. De Witt soon was appointed surveyor general, and served in this capacity until the end of the Revolutionary War. Then, from 1784 to his death—for fifty years—he held the post of New York State surveyor general.

Topographic Map by Simeon De Witt

This topographic map, drawn by Simeon De Witt and his assistants in 1781, guided Continental troops on their way to attack British forces in Yorktown, Virginia. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Oil Portrait of Simeon De Witt by Ezra Ames

Oil Portrait of Simeon De Witt by Ezra Ames, about 1804. By this time De Witt was surveyor general for the state of New York. Courtesy of Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Gift of the Grandchildren of Simeon de Witt

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