John Gerard William De Brahm (1717-c1799) was among the most famous and important British Surveyors in Colonial America during the period between the French & Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. He was a man of many talents, described variously as a naturalist, geographer, skilled military engineer and surveyor, climatologist, navigator, meteorologist, and author of technical treatises.
De Brahm was born in Koblenz, Germany. He joined the army of Emperor Charles VII and rose to the rank of captain of engineers, but lost his military commission when he renounced his Roman Catholic faith after his marriage in 1745 to the heiress Wilhelmina, daughter of Baroness de Gera. Nearly desitute, he had the good fortune to attract the attention of Samuel Urlsperger, influential senior of the Evangelical Ministry of Augsburg and one of the two non-British trustees involved in the establishment of Georgia colony in North America. In 1751, Urlsperger placed De Brahm in charge of 156 German-speaking emigrants from Salzburg whom he led by way of England to Georgia, where they founded the colony of Bethany.
In 1752, De Brahm invited to Charleston by James Glen, governor of South Carolina to design and supervise the construction of system of fortifications for the City. He subsequently served as South Carolina’s surveyor of lands and traveled into Indian territory, now in Tennessee, to design and construct Fort Loudon deep in the midst of Overhill Cherokee county. In 1754, the King appointed De Brahm and Henry Yonge to serve jointly as the colony’s first two surveyors-general. Three years later De Brahm planned and established the city of Ebenezer on the Savannah River, constructed Fort George on Cockspur Island in the Savannah River, and worked on the design and construction of Savannah’s fortifications against the Indians. During this time, he took advantage of the opportunity to acquire extensive landholdings near Ebenezer and Savannah for himself.
As surveyor general of Georgia and later of South Carolina, De Brahm, performed the surveys and conducted the research, which culminated in 1757 with A Map of South Carolina and A Part Of Georgia, in which De Brahm incorporated earlier surveys by William Bull, John Gascoigne and Hugh Bryan. He sent a draft to the Board of Trade, where it was quickly approved and Thomas Jefferys employed to engrave the map.
His next project was the erection of Fort George on Cockspur Island in the Savannah River, and the design and construction of Savannah’s fortifications against the Indians.
After the 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War, De Brahm's responsibilities as surveyor general expanded. In 1764, the King appointed De Brahm surveyor-general of the newly created Southern District of North America and surveyor of lands in the government of the newly formed royal colony of East Florida. On of his chief assistants in this new position was Bernard Romans, with whom De Brahm reportedly had a contentious relationship, perhaps in part because Romans insisted upon credit for much of the work attributed to De Brahm. Samuel Holland was appointed surveyor-general to the Northern District. Florida was then virtually unknown to the British at that time.
De Brahm’s assignment was to map all the British Dominions South of the Potomac River. In early 1765, De Braham established his base of operations at Saint Augustine, Florida and began his major cartographic project—a survey of the coast from St. Augustine to the Cape of Florida. Sailing from Savannah in the schooner Augustine with three boats and other equipment, he embarked on a cruise lasting 18 weeks.
The making of the general surveys was carried forward amid several difficulties in the settled part of the interior of East Florida and on the east and west coasts of the province from 1765 to 1771. De Brahm’s plans to extend the survey to the Georgia coast and the Gulf of Mexico were not carried out. A sixty-ton schooner-rigged galley was built for the work in Florida in 1766, but was lost in a gale in January 1771. Other disasters at sea and sickness among the surveyors interfered with several of the surveying expeditions. Yet by 1771, the survey of the east coast had been completed, and the west coast had been surveyed from the tip of the peninsula as far north as the Bay of Tampa (Spiritu Santo). The St. Johns River was surveyed by water in 1766, and the environs of St. Augustine in the same year, as also the land from the capital across to Fort Picolata on the St. Johns. The land between St. Augustine and Cowford (Jacksonville), and between St. Augustine and the head of the St. Johns, was surveyed in 1768. Work was proceeding on the St. Marys River in 1770, when it was broken off because of sickness and the loss of an anchor.
De Brahm’s took his work very personally, overseeing most of the surveys, although the work on the West Coast was supervised by Bernard Romans. In sum, De Brahm’s work added substantially to an understanding and knowledge of the cartography and hydrography of the Florida region. During this same period, he acquired a grant of 10,000 acres in the province of Florida. It is also during this time that De Brahm produced his large map, printed by John Lewis and Samuel, Lewis, 1769, entitled A Plan of Part of the Coast of East Florida including St. Johns River. . . by William Gerard De Brahm.
De Brahm’s fortunes changed in October 1770. The difficulties in which De Brahm was involved in his provincial work arose partly from an inevitable confusion between the provincial and general surveys, partly from his own cantankerous disposition which clashed with that of Governor James Grant, and partly from the fact that the royal commission which he held for his provincial office, which was almost identical with his commission as Surveyor General of the Southern District, put him only under the orders of the King, the Treasury and the Board of Trade. This led him to argue that he was beyond the governor's control, though the governor, on the other hand, bore instructions regarding land grants, with which the provincial surveyor's office was principally concerned. Grant claimed that De Brahm was guilty of a variety of misdemeanors, including incivilities, overcharges and obstructing applications for lands. A significant part of the problem was De Brahm’s insistence upon conducting the surveying work personally, which significantly delayed the processing of grants and claims. De Brahm in turn would argue that several of his deputies were incompetent and that Grant had illegally had several surveys made by them without obtaining the necessary precepts from him, to the confusion of his office and the detriment of settlers who suffered from the resultant overlapping surveys and lack of visible boundary marks.
As a result of the Governor’s charges, De Brahm was ordered to London to stand trial and respond to the charges. As his successor Grant appointed Captain Frederick George Mulcaster, De Brahm’s son-in-law. Once back in London, De Brahm began to solicit the help of his patron, the Earl of Dartmouth, who succeeded Hillsborough as Secretary of State for American Affairs in 1772. 36 He had previously sent him, as a member of the Royal Society, a treatise on natural philosophy, and subsequently presented him with other fruits of his philosophical and scientific interests, such as a diagram of a "new invented copper Athanor'' (an alchemist's digesting furnace), an "Essay upon the Apocalipsin on the time and times passed present and to come," and observations on the transit of Saturn. However, it was not until August 1773 that he was summoned to attend the Treasury Board.
While in England, De Brahm completed work on his mariner’s guide, The Atlantic Pilot, which included two maps of Florid and a map of the Atlantic Ocean. Published in 1772, it was based in part on his extensive surveys of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. The Atlantic Pilot is important both for its treatment and mapping of the region and its observations on the Gulf Stream. From the available records, the title "Gulf Stream" was first used to identify the flowing waters off the southeast coast of Florida in 1768 or 1769 by De Brahm. In 1771, he requested permission to publish the Atlantic Pilot, which he proposed as a description of the waters of eastern Florida for the benefit of all ships sailing in these dangerous waters. The Atlantic Pilot, together with its charts, described the "Gulf Stream" and its flows and eddies, based on the information which De Brahm derived from data he had collected as the Surveyor General of East Florida, and the Southern District. De Brahm’s research predated Franklin's, though he is not generally considered to have "discovered" the Gulf Stream. One curious feature of the works is De Brahm’s decision to ignore many earlier names appearing on Spanish charts. For example, De Brahm renames Biscayne Bay as Sandwich Bay, after the Earl of Sandwich.
By June, 1772 De Brahm also was able to complete and deliver the surveys he had made of the coast as far north as the Jacksonville region. Next he submitted to the Board of Trade and Plantations his map of East Florida, accompanied by an elaborate report, and in 1774 he presented his memorial petitioning for reinstatement. In the same year he published two books, The Levelling Balance and Counter-Balance; or, The Method of Observing, by the Weight and Height of Mercury and another work entitled De Brahm’s Zonical Tables for the Twenty-Five Northern and Southern Climates.
In 1774, thanks to Dartmouth's patronage, Lord North restored De Brahm to his provincial office. However, he decided to devote himself, on his return to America, to the general survey and authorized Mulcaster to act as his deputy in East. In July he departed England with his second wife, sailing for Charleston on the H. M. Cherokee. De Brahm returned to the Southern colonies and to his position as surveyor general, where he produced more maps and his Report of the General Survey in the Southern District of North America, a comprehensive investigation of geography, natural history, and anthropology of the Southeast. After the death of his first wife, De Brahm wed Mary Drayton Fenwick, daughter of Thomas Drayton (1700-60) and widow of the South Carolina merchant-planter Edward Fenwick (1720-75) in 1776. This marriage allied him to both Whig and Loyalist families in the colony at a time when the American Revolution was about to explode upon the South. Despite his alliance by marriage to some of the leading families of the Revolution, his long career as a royal official kept him loyal to the British crown. He and his family were forced to leave the province in 1777 and his property was confiscated. Once the Revolution concluded he returned to Charleston and recovered some of his lost property, but never returned to engineering and cartography.
De Brahm was permitted to travel to France and Germany, after which he found his way once more to England. Late in the Revolution he petitioned London once more not to be superseded, but his request was ignored and he was left unprovided for from 1783 until the end of his life. Experiencing serious ill health during the next few years, it was not until 1791 that he was able to return to the United States, where he spent the remaining eight years of his life at an estate he purchased called Bellair in Bristol near Philadelphia. He had become a Quaker, and during this period he published several religious works, some described as madly mystical, including Time an Apparation of Eternity in 1791 and Apocalyptic Gnomon Points Out Eternity’s Divisibility in 1795. He died in about 1799; his will, dated 1796, was proved July 3, 1799.