He arrived on the northern Gulf Coast during the summer of 1764, his orders to chart “with great care and attention, the hitherto unknown Coast of that extensive country.” England had just acquired the area by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War, and formed it into a new colony called West Florida. All of the European powers expected another war soon, and the British Admiralty considered the colony’s existing Spanish and French maps woefully inadequate to the challenges that would likely impose.
By any measure, George Gauld was an excellent choice to remedy the situation. He was Scottish-born and educated at King’s College in Aberdeen, where he had studied mathematics, Greek, natural history and astronomy. He joined the Royal Navy at 25 in 1757 as a schoolmaster and was assigned the unenviable task of teaching the navigational arts to boisterous midshipmen. Gauld’s superiors soon appreciated his geographical genius and assigned him to conduct trials of John Harrison’s newly invented chronometer, which made it possible to measure longitude at sea, a major navigational improvement. Thus, by the time he sailed into Pensacola Bay in 1764, Gauld was an experienced cartographer equipped with the finest tools of the trade, from surveying chains to theodolites, compasses, quadrants and “Mr. Harrison’s timepiece.”
Gauld’s first priority was to chart Pensacola Bay, the location of the new colony’s capital, but by the winter of 1768, he had moved west to Mobile Bay. His survey vessel was the armed light draught schooner Sir Edward Hawke, Lt. Charles Warburton commanding. Gauld’s preferred methodology was to have Warburton anchor the Hawke in a safe place and then probe the coasts and inlets on board a longboat crewed by a dozen hardy Jack Tars, their compensation for the tedious duty a double rum ration. Gauld sketched the land forms and made frequent soundings with a lead line to determine the locations and depths of shoals, as well as deeper water where ships might safely maneuver. The work involved discomfort aplenty and sometimes genuine peril. On one occasion, a barreling norther swept the longboat well out of the Bay, and the men spent hours at the oars to regain the schooner.
Throughout his survey, Gauld kept a journal describing locales familiar to anyone who has visited the area in more recent times. Of Dauphin Island, where the Hawke sat snugly in what is now Pelican Bay, Gauld wrote that it was “covered with thick pines” at the east end. He noted a few semi-ruinous French houses on the island’s north side, “near which are large hillocks of oyster shells now covered with dwarf cedar and live oak.” Modern residents will instantly recognize this description of what is currently Indian Shell Mound Park at 2 N. Iberville Drive, a marvelous bird-watching spot. Gauld was alert to the coast’s long human history, writing, “There are many such vestiges of the ancient inhabitants.”
Mobile Bay’s three-and-a-half-mile-wide mouth exhibits a complicated bathymetry, and Gauld crisscrossed it repeatedly in order to precisely chart its dangers. He found the bar, or entrance, to be only 15 feet deep but with a fall-off seaward to 50 feet, which “occasions a constant swell with a heavy sea when it blows from southward,” something to which local mariners can attest. Inside the Bay proper, Gauld reported a “tolerable good anchorage” some 30 feet deep but considered its broad sweep daunting. “It is at best an open roadstead,” he remarked, “the bay being too large to afford much shelter.”
On March 20, Gauld returned to Pensacola so the schooner could provision. Wharf side, Warburton took on “936 pounds of bread, 168 pieces of Beef, 224 pieces of Pork, 125 pounds Butter & 8 bushels Pease” for the hard-working crew and had the Hawke back in Mobile Bay by the first of April. Gauld carefully studied the Bay’s eastern shore on this trip, penetrating the Bon Secour, Fish and Magnolia Rivers and skirting “Point humide,” as he called Mullet Point, and the “Red Cliff,” or Montrose, where there were several small plantations. Next, he crossed the Bay and had Warburton anchor the Hawke at the mouth of the Mobile River. The proximity to town encouraged a little misbehavior among the men, but navy discipline held sway, and Warburton flogged two sailors, one for theft and another for “Mutiny and impertinence.”
Ashore, Gauld rambled the riverbank and wrote that Mobile was “of a pretty regular oblong figure” with “a small regular fort now called Fort Charlotte built of brick, and a neat square of barracks for the officers and soldiers.” Despite its small size, Mobile’s Indian trade was considerable. Gauld claimed that the town exported “skins and furs” worth 15,000 pounds sterling annually to the London market but that this constituted the extent of its economy. He was leery of the Delta’s broad marshes and swamps, which he declared subjected the populace to “fevers and agues in the hot seasons,” an observation amply justified by the area’s frightful colonial mortality statistics.
By early May, Gauld had covered every inch of Mobile Bay and jogged farther west into the Mississippi Sound. During the Hawke’s Pensacola returns, he refined his drawings, eventually sending them off to London. Everyone who viewed the charts was impressed. The colony’s governor enthused that they were “really worth seeing, being surveyed with great accuracy, and neatly drawn,” and the American Philosophical Society, with Benjamin Franklin as its president, elected Gauld to its membership in 1770. Unfortunately, Gauld did not live to see his completed survey published. He died in England in 1782, shortly after his capture during the Spanish Siege of Pensacola. He was buried at the Whitefield’s Tabernacle cemetery off Tottenham Court Road, London. His grieving friends provided a simple gravestone chiseled with a pithy and accurate tribute: “A man of real abilities without ostentation, a sincere friend without flattery, and religious without hypocrisy or superstition.”
Finally, 21 years after Gauld’s death, the London geographer and printer William Fadden posthumously published “An Accurate Chart of the Coast of West Florida, and the Coast of Louisiana,” consisting of four large, handsomely engraved sheets stitched together. When fully opened out, the chart measures over 10 feet long and details 850 nautical miles of the northern Gulf Coast, including Mobile Bay. It represents a stunning achievement and a worthy legacy for the intrepid Scottish surveyor who knew these waters so well.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”