Thomas Wright was one of the foremost surveyors of the colonial period, serving across British North America. He was also an astronomer, judge, and a government official. Brought up in London, he studied at Christ’s Hospital, where he learned drawing and mathematics.
Wright ventured to North America for the first time in 1758. There, he continued his training as a surveyor, working with William Gerard de Brahm, then Surveyor General of Georgia. In 1763 he was appointed a deputy surveyor to Captain Samuel Holland, Surveyor General of the Northern District of North America. Wright was crucial to the surveys of St. John’s, Cape Breton, and the St. Lawrence River.
In 1767, Wright returned to England to ferry plans back to London. He sailed across the Atlantic again in 1769, having been assigned to observe the Transit of Venus from Quebec. He rejoined the survey of the Northern District, working with Holland in the Bay of Fundy and in New England.
Unlike many of Holland’s deputies, Wright was a civilian. He tried to secure a military commission, but was unsuccessful. Opportunity knocked when St. John’s Island was made a separate colony from neighboring Nova Scotia. Wright impressed incoming Governor Walter Patterson, who made Wright a member of the Council. An appointment as Surveyor General of the colony followed in 1773, although Wright continued to work with Holland as well. Due to the organization of landowners on St. John’s Island, meaning there was little Crown land to manage, Wright found himself with spare time to serve as a Supreme Court judge. His prominence meant that was taken prisoner at the beginning of the American Revolution, in 1775, when American privateers raided Charlottetown. He and a fellow official, Philipps Callbeck, were ordered to be released by General George Washington.
That same political prominence meant that Wright was also a target in colonial disputes. When St. John’s became a separate colony, it was supposed to support itself based on the collection of quitrents, or small annual fees paid by landowners. However, proprietors of the colony proved unwilling to pay, landing the colony in arrears. By 1781, Governor Patterson began to single out townships for their debts and selling them at auction.
These unpopular actions of Patterson’s harmed Wright’s career. He was suspended from both the Council and his position as Surveyor General in 1787. He was quickly reinstated, but the damage had been done. The landowners brought charges against Patterson and the Council; it was put before the British Privy Council in 1789. Wright defended himself at the trial and received a drubbing. He lost his Council position permanently but was allowed to maintain his role as Surveyor General due to the needs of his large family. Wright was not as active in local politics following the trial, although a Thomas Wright, either Wright himself or his son, served in the House of Assembly from 1797 to 1802.
Although several of Wright’s sons also worked as surveyors, the family still struggled. This was due in large part to the difficulties Wright had in obtaining his salary from the British Crown across his career. In St. John’s, his salary was to be paid by the quitrents, which were not reliably submitted. Once that system was abandoned, Wright complained that his salary had been unfairly reduced. The issue was not resolved until 1806.
Wright carried on with his work, however. He was a prominent member of the boundary commission established in 1796 to designate the border between the District of Maine and New Brunswick. As astronomer for the British delegation, Wright was returning to an area he had already surveyed over twenty years before. With his American counterpart, Wright took excellent observations, pinpointing the rivers in question. In the summer of 1797, Wright and Robert Pagan found the remains of early buildings built by Champlain and Du Gua de Monts in the early seventeenth century, proving which of the St. Croix Rivers was the original and which should therefore be used as the boundary.
He also published his findings. His Description of the island of Anticosti appeared in 1768. His correspondence with Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne resulted in an article on the satellite of Jupiter, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1774.
Wright died in 1812 after fifty years of active service. He had surveyed from Georgia to the Maritime Provinces. While not as famous as Holland and Des Barres, he is still an important figure in the surveying of British North America, especially of the St. Lawrence River Basin. Two of Wright's sons and a grandson followed him as Surveyors General of St. John's Island, meaning a Wright for in the position for the first eighty years of the colony's existence.