Thomas Wright

Thomas Wright was Samuel Holland's first, and trusted, Deputy for the General Survey which started in 1764 after the end of the French/Indian war. Unlike many of the men who made up the survey team put together by Holland to complete the General Survey of the North American continent, the life of Thomas Wright is fairly well documented.

He was born in England in about 1740 and was well educated at Christ's Hospital school in London in drawing and mathematics. When he was 18 he went to North America where he furthered his education but returned to London in 1763. The following year he returned, this time to Canada to work under Samuel Holland at the start of the General Survey for the Lords of the Board of Trade. He married in 1769 and had 10 children.

Little is known of the early life of Thomas Wright. According to his own testimony, he studied drawing and mathematics at Christ’s Hospital in London and in 1758. Returning to England in 1763, he came out the following year as deputy to Captain Samuel Johannes Holland, surveyor general of the Northern District of North America. His first contribution was with the survey of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island and Cape Breton Island. He then took charge of the survey of Anticosti. He later worked with Holland along the coast of the Bay of Fundy and in New England and observed the transit of Venus from Quebec. During this time he requested a military commission but his application was unsuccessful.

Wright's contribution to the survey ceased more or less in 1773 when he decided to follow a different path, that of Surveyor General of St John's Island. For a couple of years he had been working only part of his time in support of Samuel Holland. In 1770 he had taken-up roles as a member of the Council and a judge on the Supreme Court for the new Colony of of St. John's. The business of land division; award and quitrents (rent) which was at the heart of the British model for settlement was, even by this time was an increasingly contentious issue between the British Government and local government. Wright found himself in the middle of the whole issue, including being prosecuted for his role in the administration. Although he continued in his role as Survey General with some success, he struggled financially and was not properly recompensed by the British government until 1806.

Wright was more successful in his professional activities. In 1788 he was given a vote of thanks by the assembly for his efforts as a surveyor and for his work, unpaid, as a judge. But Wright soon found that he had only routine tasks to perform as surveyor general, since the colony, because of its land-holding system, had little crown land. Several of his sons took up surveying, and by 1791 Wright was complaining to Lord Grenville, the Home secretary, “I wish but to be useful to the publick as well to my family, here I am of little to either.” Throughout his career Wright experienced difficulty in obtaining his salary, which was originally to have come from the quitrents. Once it was understood that the payment of salaries from quitrents was unworkable, adjustments were made, and Wright claimed that his salary was reduced in error. By 1790 he was pleading that he and his family were in desperate circumstances, and he requested a post in the proposed new colony of Upper Canada or elsewhere. No action was taken on the request and his salary was not adjusted until 1806.

In 1796 he was part of commission to determine the boundary between New Brunswick and the District of Maine (then part of Massachusetts) as the appointed astronomer for the British side.

Wright was a surveyor for 50 years and he worked throughout that time the whole way down the Eastern seaboard from Canada to Georgia. His reports and astronomical observations were invaluable and used by far more famous map makers of the time. Nevertheless, he is remembered far more for his rather unsuccessful political career.