Thomas Wright was a surveyor, astronomer, politician, judge, and author. Wright was the Thomas Wright and Martha Bisse.
Wright studied drawing and mathematics at Christ’s Hospital in London. In 1758, he went to North America where he furthered his education with practical work under John William Gerard De Brahm, the surveyor general of Georgia. In 1763, he returned to America as deputy to Captain Samuel Johannes Holland, surveyor general of the Northern District of North America. Wright assisted in the survey of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island and Cape Breton Island and took charge of the survey of Anticosti. He returned to England in 1767 to deliver plans on which he had been working and two years later came out again to North America to observe the transit of Venus from Quebec. The survey of the Northern District continued, and Wright worked with Holland along the coast of the Bay of Fundy and in New England. During this time he requested a military commission but his application was unsuccessful. As a result, he offered to take the first civil employment in the colonies that would allow him to continue with the survey.
In 1769, St John’s Island was made a separate colony from Nova Scotia, and when Governor Walter Patterson arrived the following year he appointed Wright a member of the Council, even though Wright was absent much of each year on the survey. At Patterson’s request, Wright was appointed surveyor general of the colony in 1773, but he may have continued to work with Holland. The following year he became a judge of the Supreme Court on the death of Chief Justice John Duport, and he continued as an assistant judge after the arrival of Duport’s successor, Peter Stewart. His position as one of the senior members of the administration led to his being taken prisoner in 1775 by American privateers who raided Charlottetown, but he and the administrator, Phillips Callbeck, were soon released by order of General George Washington.
As a member of the Council, Wright almost unavoidably became entangled in the controversy over the land question. The British government had agreed to the establishment of a separate administration for St John’s Island on the condition that it be supported through the collection of quitrents. Proprietors were unwilling or unable to pay, however, and the colony soon found itself in financial difficulty. In 1781, Governor Patterson seized several townships for arrears of quitrents and had them sold at auction.
The resulting scandal associated with Patterson's actions wound up impacting Wright, who was briefly suspended from the Council and the post of surveyor general in 1787. The suspensions lasted only a few months, but Wright’s return to the administration was also of short duration. Led by Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale and Robert Clark, the proprietors brought criminal charges against Patterson and members of his government, and the case was finally heard before the British Privy Council in 1789. At the trial Wright presented his own defence and, according to MacDonald, “never was a human being made so ridiculous a figure. “Wright was removed from the Council and it was only by reason of his large family and his poverty that he was permitted to retain his post as surveyor general. The trial appears to have ended his direct participation in the government of the colony, although a Thomas Wright, either he or his eldest son, sat in the House of Assembly from 1797 to 1802.
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 179,0 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.
A year after the establishment in 1796 of a commission to determine the boundary between New Brunswick and the District of Maine (then part of Massachusetts), Wright was appointed astronomer for the British side. Wright had surveyed the entire area in 1772, and with Samuel Webber, the American astronomer, he now took highly accurate sightings to establish the exact location of the several rivers claimed to be the border. In the summer of 1797 he and Robert Pagan excavated a small island in the St Croix or Scoodic River and uncovered the remains of buildings erected by Pierre Du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in 1604. By establishing which of the three rivers referred to as the St Croix was in fact the St Croix of the exploration period, their findings to a great extent ended the boundary dispute.
At the time of his death in 1812 Wright had been active in surveying and mapping the Atlantic shore of North America for almost 50 years, covering the entire coast of what are now the Maritime provinces of Canada to as far south as Georgia. Surveyors who achieved more fame, such as Holland and Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, used his reports to prepare the first accurate maps of the region.
After Wright’s death the post of surveyor general went in turn to his sons Charles and George and to his grandson George, who held the position until 1854. For an 80-year period, then, the Island’s only surveyors general were members of the Wright family.