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Native Son

Why our city was named for Jared Mansfield

Jared Mansfield, Mathematical Genius

I remember as a kid, reading about how our town got the name Mansfield, and being somewhat underwhelmed that it was named after a guy who never even set foot here. And the history went on to say that it was given that name by the founders of the town because Mr. Mansfield was their boss.

So it seemed likely to me they were simply schmoozing for more work, and the whole Mansfield element of our being was rather random.

But then one day I started researching the man, and came to discover that Jared Mansfield was actually an amazing person, and that fate and history had combined quite appropriately to memorialize him on the US map.

And we can be very proud to wear his name.

Mansfield's Essays

Mansfield's Essays, was published in 1801, and shortly thereafter presented to Thomas Jefferson by a mutual friend.  The President knew he needed to get Mansfield on the government payroll, so he hired him as one of the first two teachers at the new Military Academy at West Point.

Jared Mansfield was quiet and reserved, with the calm confidence of understanding, and humility of genius that didn't even need to have his name printed on the title page of his own book.

In the preface, he apologizes for any grammatical errors, but excuses them gracefully by saying that correct grammar is not the point of the book; and the content has its own integrity which overshadows any such distracting considerations.

Jefferson letter

All of the correspondence between Jefferson and Mansfield shows clear evidence of the tremendous respect and admiration each held for the other.

New Haven CT

New Haven, Connecticut was the town where Jared Mansfield was born, went to school (Yale College, Class of 1777), and taught school in the 1780s & 90s.  As a typical New England community, New Haven had a public square which served as direct inspiration to the founders of Mansfield, Ohio, when designing their tribute to Jared.

Patriots and Loyalists

There was some political controversy when President Jefferson appointed Jared Mansfield to the post of Surveyor General of the United States: the man who was replaced in the job had been a hero of the American Revolution--Rufus Putnam--while Mansfield's family had clearly been supporters of the British through the War for Independence.  Jefferson defied public sentiment by naming a man to the position who was obviously more qualified for the job: advancing logic over politics, and promoting forgiveness and inclusion of former enemies.

The Founding Fathers

When you think of all those immortal names from American history who shaped the founding of our nation and its government, you will find them clearly memorialized in the ongoing government of Richland County. We have townships for Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Monroe.

Behind every one of those great men, there were dozens of brilliant and talented people upon whom they relied for guidance, support, and the implementation of their ideals.

One of these talented individuals, starring in a supporting role, was Jared Mansfield. He had no pretensions to politics or leadership, but he came to know most of these founders. He was particularly friendly with Thomas Jefferson.

Jared Mansfield had no particular aspirations to inspire history: he lived a humble life in his community as a teacher. He had a mind that never quit however, working the angles of math, and while he earned his living at a school in New Haven CT, he wrote a series of Essays, “Mathematical and Physical.”

Jefferson got a copy of Jared Mansfield’s book, and kept it in his library; and he admired the scholar so much, he asked him to take a major role in the unfoldment of America’s western destiny and growth.

Think for a moment about what a brilliant man Jefferson was, and how his reputation in early colonial America characterized him as a ceaseless scholar, a dedicated scientist and man wholly devoted to logic; how he had already met all the greatest minds of his generation on both sides of the Atlantic; and then read what he called Jared Mansfield after he read Mansfield’s Essays: a “masterful intellect,” praising the “clarity of logic he evinced, a mind of most orderly dimensions.” 

Jefferson was a fan. At the end of his life, he was still writing to Mansfield, “I assure you of my great & continued esteem & respect.”

The Man and his Field

So this is the string of events that led to us being Mansfield, Ohio:

 Thomas Jefferson was President, and he had recently acquired a half-billion acres of the North American continent where the United States was about to expand.

 The first, most critical step in getting this land into the hands of American farmers, was to have it all surveyed, mapped, platted and defined.

He had inherited a Surveyor General from previous administrations when he took office in 1801, but that surveyor was having problems drawing straight lines across the landscape.  It was a huge headache for the new nation because property claims were so unclear, it was costing the federal government millions in lawsuits.

Jefferson knew the absolute authority on drawing Earth lines was Jared Mansfield, because he had read Mansfield’s book.

 So he asked Mansfield to step into the role of Surveyor General.

Spherical wisdom

Diagrams from Mansfield's Essays, give evidence of the masterful understanding of spherical logic he brought to Earth applications.

The Northwest Territory awaiting Mansfield's surveyors

When Jared Mansfield was given the position of Surveyor General, the task at hand was mapping out the Northwest Territory, already begun, and scrambled, in Ohio by his predecessor.  

Using his astronomical calculations, he established the First Principal Meridian at the Ohio/Indiana border, and set the Baseline so that from that point west, townships and property lines run regular as graph paper.  There is actually one straight line that runs all the way from Arkansas to the Canadian border, through six states, based upon the system created by Mansfield.

When Mansfield accepted the position of Surveyor General, he moved from West Point to Marietta, and then to Cincinnati for the term of his appointment.  There is no evidence in his letters, diaries or accounts to suggest he ever set foot in Mansfield, Ohio, as his health was fragile and travel arduous.

West Point in 1802

When Jefferson offered Mansfield a teaching position at West Point in 1802, the job came with a military appointment as Captain of Engineers.  In the years following his work measuring America, Jared Mansfield returned to West Point in 1814 as a professor of Mathematics once again, his natural military progression having advanced him by then to the rank of Colonel Mansfield.

Col. Jared Mansfield by Thomas Sully c. 1820

Col. Jared Mansfield (1759-1830) sat for his portrait by the eminent American painter, Thomas Sully (1783-1872) at West Point, where this canvas hangs today.  After retiring from teaching at the Military Academy, Mansfield moved back to Cincinnati near his son.  He is buried in New Haven.

Jared Mansfield letter to Joseph Larwill

The closest Jared Mansfield got to our city was through correspondence with the surveyors who named the Richland County seat after him.  Joseph Larwill settled in Wooster; James Hedges stayed in Mansfield to the end of his life.

Empirical, Spherical Logic and GPS

The problem for surveyors graphing huge swaths of the continent, was that they needed to draw a nice flat map in a plat book with nice squared lines, but the Earth upon which they took their measurements and drove their stakes, was neither flat nor square. The planet is a sphere, and as you draw parallel lines south to north across the continent, these lines spread farther apart at the south and bunch up in the north.

If you’re making squares on a sphere, they don’t fit together right.

Jared Mansfield was a born mathematician. He had a genius for describing a sphere in numbers, angles, tangents; and he understood innately how to deal with all the difficulties inherent in defining squares on a round surface. One of his Essays covered navigating the oceans by using only the curve of the planet, the stars overhead, and basic equations. To him, it was simple math: a few lines on paper with a table of numbers, and he could locate anywhere on Earth.

So, with Jefferson’s blessing, Jared Mansfield literally wrote the book on surveying America.

As Surveyor General, he created the instruction plan for surveyors in the field, and it worked so well it became standard practice for the entire western expansion, clear to the Pacific coast. Then he hired the chain-men and map-makers who went out into the wilds of Ohio and Indiana.

Mansfield was the one who hired James Hedges and Joseph Larwill to survey the hills of Ohio that were to become Richland County.

When Hedges & Larwill founded a town in the wilderness, they named it after the man who was not merely their boss, but also their mentor, their hero: the man who they admired most, because he forged their way through the wilderness with only the power of his mind.

It’s not often that the hero of the story is a quiet math nerd, but in this case, it is absolutely true.  The proof stretches from here all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Jefferson's Library catalog with Mansfield's Essays

An apt tribute to Jared Mansfield is found in the Library of Congress even today. After the War of 1812, when government buildings burned, former President Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to the nation as the formal beginning of a new Library of Congress.  He went through the catalog of his books and numbered them in significance.  Under the chapter of Physico-Mathematics is listed his own personal copy of Mansfield's Essays.

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Timothy Brian McKee is a featured columnist on our site every Saturday with a column titled Native SonEvery Tuesday, he taps into his knowledge and collection of historical photos and bring us Then & Now, a brief glance at the way things were.