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National Geographic Founder Helped Settle Disputes Over States’ Boundaries

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group.  They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo.  In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

Samuel Gannett is among National Geographic Society’s least-known founders—and it looks as if he is fated to remain so.  Just shy of 27 years old in 1888, Gannett appears to have taken little active role in the new organization, only contributing one brief report, “Recent Triangulation in the Cascades,” to the April 1896 National Geographic magazine.

Samuel Stinson Gannett was born on February 10, 1861 in Augusta, Maine to Joseph T. and Mary (Patterson) Gannett. He attended high school in Bath, Maine, as did his older cousin, Henry Gannett, before enrolling at Bowdoin College and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and his wife, Ella Cole, had three children—Malcolm, Eleanor, and Robert. In 1915, Eleanor married Clarence Birdseye, who later revolutionized the process of frozen food, drawing on observations he had made of the natives of Labrador while he was a fur trader.

Gannett spent his career as a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, traveling throughout the country to settle various boundary disputes. In 1906, he and cousin Henry co-authored Manual of Topographic Methods, but there is no evidence that they worked together on other projects. He authored a number of reports published by the Government Printing Office with such titles as Geographic Tables and Formulas, Results of Spirit Leveling in Ohio, 1898-1908, and Results of Spirit Leveling in West Virginia, 1896-1908. Spirit leveling involved using an instrument with partially-filled glass vials that allowed the surveyor to get a reading on height between two points on the ground. Although the technique was modernized in the 1920s, Gannett would have used a rather complicated spirit level during much of his fieldwork.

Two expeditions he made had long-lasting implications for the states involved. The first involved the Deakins Line on Maryland’s western boundary. Over the years, Maryland and Virginia, and later West Virginia, sparred over the various surveys of a 1632 grant from Charles I to Lord Baltimore. In 1912, Gannett and another surveyor, Julius Monroe, submitted their findings to the Supreme Court, which charged them with resurveying the Deakins Line.

In 1927 he began surveying an area on the Red River whose meridian kept moving over the course of four previous surveys. Gannett worked mostly at night to minimize the effect of shimmering heat waves. In 1930, the Supreme Court upheld the “Gannett Line” as the true meridian and Texas got to claim over 85,000 acres back from Oklahoma.

Gannett, who had resided in Washington, D.C. since 1882, died at Sibley Hospital on Saturday, August 5, 1939.