Exactly 250 years ago, an army of 100 people, headed by axe-men but led by a chap from Cockfield, began hacking their way across the virgin territory of America

AS well as the axe-men , the army included tentmen, supply- men, horsemen, masons and cooks.

Plus, pointing the way were Native American guides, but up-front, scanning the skies, studying the stars and leading the line, was Jeremiah Dixon.

With his colleague, Charles Mason, from Gloucester, the Cockfield lad was laying down the Mason- Dixon line.

It was a five-year task. The line was 233 miles long. It marked the state boundary between Maryland, in the south, Delaware, in the east, and Pennsylvania, in the north.

But more than just a dead straight line on a map, the Mason- Dixon came to symbolise the gulf that caused the American Civil War: the states to the south, in “Dixie”, kept slaves; those to the north believed in freedom.

Today, in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, an exhibition opens commemorating the anniversary of this lad from a remote County Durham coal village writing himself into international history. The exhibition includes a diary that has just been attributed to Dixon’s partner-in-line, Charles Mason, which has been flown from America specially, and it includes a horsewhip which Jeremiah turned on a slaveowner, which has come up from Hull.

Jeremiah was born on October 27, 1733, in South Side, Bishop Auckland, but his Quaker family’s main place of residence was Garden House, Cockfield, from where he attended John Kipling’s academy in Barnard Castle.

Mr Kipling’s academy may not have been exceedingly good because, encouraged by his father, Jeremiah gained most of his learning experimenting in the family’s coalpits on the fell and studying the universe around them.

He once had an interview with some eminent London academics.

“Did you study mathematics at Oxford or Cambridge?”

they asked.

“At neither place,” replied Jeremiah, brusquely.

“Then at what public school did you get your rudiments?”

they asked.

“At no public school,” said Jeremiah.

“Then pray tell, at what particular seat of learning did you acquire them?” they asked, becoming increasingly exasperated. “In a pit cabin on Cockfield Fell,” replied Jeremiah.

The learning served him well, because on October 23, 1760, he signed a contract with the Royal Society to sail to Sumatra in Indonesia to observe the planet Venus pass in front of the sun. This was a rare celestial event, and the Royal Society astronomers hoped to gain enough measurements from the transit of Venus to work out the distance between the earth and the sun.

Jeremiah, 27, must have been extremely well regarded to land the contract, which paired him for the first time with Mason.

Or perhaps he was just desperate to get out of Cockfield.

Five days after he signed the contract, he was disowned by the Raby Quakers for “drinking to excess and keeping loose company”.

He soon found, though, that it was not that easy to escape Cockfield. For six weeks, the wrong kind of wind kept his ship, HMS Seahorse, in Portsmouth harbour and when finally it did get on its way, in the Bay of Biscay it was set upon by Le Grand, a French frigate.

The 160-strong crew of the Seahorse tried to out-run the attacker by throwing surplus heavy items overboard. They really must have been desperate because Jonathan Peacock, of Hamsterley, has worked out in the superb programme for the exhibition that they tossed over barrels containing 3,136 litres of water and 3,182 litres of beer (that’s 1,808 pints, which is a good session).

To no avail.

Le Grand’s 34 guns killed 11 crewmen, injured 38, and severely damaged Seahorse. It turned round and limped home.

For all Jeremiah’s learning in a Cockfield pit cabin, nothing could have prepared him for the sound and fury of a full scale sea battle. Once back on dry land, he and Mason “absolutely refused to proceed the voyage”.

The Royal Society was outraged.

The Northern Echo: A selfportrait
of George Dixon,
Jeremiah’s elder brother.
There is no known picture of
A selfportrait of George Dixon, Jeremiah’s elder brother. There is no known picture of Jeremiah

It said the refusal would “be a Reproach to the Nation in General, to the Royal Society in particular, and more especially and fatally to themselves... (it will) bring an indelible scandal upon their character and probably end in their utter Ruin...”.

This, and the Royal Society’s threat to recoup its £800 advance, brought Jeremiah to his senses, and he and Mason set sail again.

Because time was now short, they stopped in Capetown, South Africa, set up their observatory and watched as Venus passed in front of the sun.

Their data was as good as any received from around the world by the Royal Society, which used it to work out that the sun was 95 million miles away – pretty accurate, as modern computers calculate it to be 92.95 million miles.

The Society was so impressed that it recommended the two men to the Americans to solve a 180-year dispute.

The Northern Echo: Sections
of Jeremiah’s plan
of the Mason-
Dixon Line
Sections of Jeremiah’s plan of the Mason- Dixon Line

In 1632, Charles I gave Sir George Calvert, of Kiplin Hall, near Scorton, a large chunk of America that was to be called Maryland. In 1681, Charles II gave William Penn, a London Quaker, a large chunk of America that became known as Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, neither monarch satisfactorily defined where one chunk ended and the next began, so in 1750, George II tried to settle the dispute by decreeing that the boundary should run along the line of latitude 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

But where, precisely, was that line of latitude?

For 80 years, local men tried to draw the line on the ground, but the science proved too hard for them.

So, on August 4, 1763, Messrs Mason and Dixon signed a contract saying they would solve the dispute once and for all.

They sailed immediately, and began work in the November 250 years ago. They created a wooden observatory, calculated a precise starting point – today known as Stargazer’s Stone – and setoff.

The Northern Echo: A truck crosses the Mason-Dixon line near Gettysburg. Picture courtesy of Mike Dixon of Maryland
A truck crosses the Mason-Dixon line near Gettysburg. Picture courtesy of Mike Dixon of Maryland

Soon they had a 115-strong army following them. They had to hack through virgin forest, crash through frozen rivers, peer through terrible heat-hazes and forever be on their guard against attacks from unhappy householders – who found themselves on the wrong side of the line – and from irate native Americans, who didn’t want any line being slashed through their land.

It was slow work. Their prize instrument was a special telescope made by John Bird, a Bishop Auckland lad who is another of Memories’ favourites. It was so delicate, it had been transported on a featherbed.

Every mile as they went, Mason and Dixon planted a 600lb stone marker, brought with them from Dorset, to show where the line ran.

Today, these 250-year-old stones are among the US’ most prized historical relics.

But they never quite reached the end of the line.

Six groups of Native Americans had united to allow Mason and Dixon safe transit across their lands, but, on November 5, 1767, after 233 miles 17 chains and 48 links they came to a warpath. The native guides refused to cross. It was too dangerous to go any further.

The Northern Echo: Garden House, Cockfield, still stands.
It was the home of Jeremiah and George Dixon
Garden House, Cockfield, still stands. It was the home of Jeremiah and George Dixon

Thirty miles from their ultimate destination, Mason and Dixon gave up and came home.

They had, though, left an indelible mark on America.

Jeremiah had one last overseas adventure in him. In 1769, he sailed to Hammerfest in northern Norway to observe a second transit of Venus. Sadly, it was too cloudy for him to see very much, and he returned to Cockfield, his wanderlust apparently satiated.

He hired out his surveying skills to local landowners, notably Lord Barnard, of Raby Castle and the Bishop of Durham in Auckland Castle, and drew up detailed, beautiful maps of their territory – items which will be on display in the exhibition.

Aged only 46, Jeremiah died in Cockfield on January 22, 1779, and was buried in the Quaker graveyard behind the Friends Meeting House, in Staindrop. This suggests that the Quakers had forgiven his youthful, drunken indiscretion, even though he tried them sorely – he’d been elected a member of the Woolwich Academy and enjoyed wearing the academy’s militaristic uniform of a red coat and cocked hat, which cannot have endeared him to his pacifist elders.

And then there was the question of his unusual domestic arrangements.

The Northern Echo: Part of Jeremiah Dixon’s plan of Cockfield,
drawn for Lord Barnard in 1771
Part of Jeremiah Dixon’s plan of Cockfield, drawn for Lord Barnard in 1771

He died unmarried. In his will, he left his Staindrop properties to his brother Ralph, his other properties to his sister Elizabeth, and his houses in Bondgate, Bishop Auckland, he put into trust. His will stipulated: “Any profits becoming due from these premises shall go towards the maintenance of the two daughters of Margaret Bland, namely Mary and Elizabeth, until 21 at which age the said copyholds are to go to them equally.”

Perhaps Jeremiah was a kindly fellow who adopted the fatherless girls, or perhaps he was the father himself. Perhaps the answer to this last dilemma about the great astronomer Dixon is written in the stars…