Jeremiah Dixon's Biography

Oxford University Press National Dictionary of Biography

Name: Dixon, Jeremiah
Dates: 1733-1779
Active Date: 1773
Gender: Male
Field of Engineering, Construction, Naval
Interest: Architecture and Surveying, Science
and Mathematics, Space and Aviation
Occupation: Surveyor and astronomer
Place of Birth: Bishop Auckland, county Durham
Education: John Kipling's School in Barnard Castle
Death: Cockfield, county Durham
Spouse: Unmarried

Dixon, Jeremiah 1733-1779, surveyor and astronomer, was born in Bishop Auckland, county Durham, 27 July 1733, the fifth of the seven children of George Dixon, a well-to-do Quaker coalmine owner, and his wife Mary Hunter of Newcastle. He was educated at John Kipling's School in Barnard Castle, where he acquired an interest in mathematics and astronomy. While still a young man in south Durham, he made the acquaintance of the mathematician William Emerson, the instrument-maker John Bird, and the natural philosopher Thomas Wright [qq.v.].

In 1760 the Royal Society chose Charles Mason [q.v.] to go to Sumatra to observe the 1761 transit of Venus, and, probably on Bird's recommendation, Mason suggested Dixon should go as his assistant. An encounter with a French frigate delayed their final sailing so that they could not reach Sumatra in time. They therefore landed at the Cape of Good Hope, where the transit was successfully observed on 6 June 1761. On the passage home, they stopped at St Helena in October and, after discussion with Nevil Maskelyne [q.v.], who had observed the transit there, Dixon returned temporarily to the Cape with Maskelyne's clock to carry out gravity experiments.

Mason and Dixon eventually reached England early in 1762. In August 1763 Mason and Dixon signed an agreement with Thomas Penn and Frederick Calvert, seventh Baron Baltimore [qq.v.], hereditary proprietors of the provinces of Pennsylvania and Maryland, to go to North America to help local surveyors define the disputed boundary between the two provinces. Arriving in Philadelphia with their instruments in November, they began operations before Christmas 1763. When work for the proprietors on what was to become the famous Mason-Dixon line was complete late in 1766, they began on the Royal Society's behalf, at Dixon's suggestion, to measure a degree of the meridian on the Delmarva peninsula in Maryland and to make gravity measurements with a clock sent out by the Society, the same one that Maskelyne had had in St Helena and Dixon took to the Cape in 1761. They reported their task complete on 21 June 1768 and sailed for England on 11 September. Before leaving, they were both admitted as corresponding members of the American Society held in Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge.

In 1769 Dixon sailed to Norway with William Bayly [q.v.] in the Emerald to make observations of the transit of Venus on 3 June on the Royal Society's behalf. Dixon observed on Hammerfest Island, Bayly at North Cape, about sixty miles apart in case of cloudy weather. They reached England again on 30 July. Dixon returned to Durham, resuming his work as a surveyor. Among places he surveyed at this time were the park of Auckland Castle and Lanchester Common. He died unmarried in Cockfield, county Durham, 22 January 1779. He should not be confused with his contemporary, Jeremiah Dixon, FRS (1726-1782) of Gledhow, near Leeds, son-in-law of John Smeaton [q.v.].


H. W. Robinson, 'Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779)' a biographical note', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. xciv, June 1950, pp. 272-4; A. Hughlett Mason, 'The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon', Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. lxxvi, 1969; D. Howse, Nevil Maskelyne, the Seaman's Astronomer, 1989; C. C. Gillispie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. iii, 1970.

&copy Oxford University Press Dictionary of National Biography

An Israelite in whom there is no guile

Provided by Matthew Wiener:

H.P. Hollis:

Jeremiah Dixon (b.1733) and his elder brother, George, were the sons of Ralph Dixon, a colliery owner of Henknowle near Cockfield in Durham. In Hutchinson's "History and Antiquities of Durham," published about 1785, they are mentioned with admiration, and it is said, incorrectly, that they were the sons of an old and faithful servant under the Raby family. The statement is apparently based on the fact that a cousin (perhaps a distant one) of Ralph Dixon held a position as sterward of seneschal at Raby Castle, the seat of the Earl of Darlington, afterwards Duke of Cleveland, and was evidently esteemed, for the his portrait still hangs in the hall at the place with the inscription, "An Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile." [1]

Hollis apparently was just an astronomer (F.R.A.S.) who forwarded to the journal some of his reading. There are unfortunately some mistakes in the above, as adduced from H. W. Robinson:

Many members of the [Dixon] family bore the same Christian names and this has caused some confusions, as also have the intermarriages and other ramifications [eh!?]. These have misled some historians, and erroneous statements, conclusions, and traditions regarding the family have appeared in the printed local histories. The father of Jeremiah has been described as of various professions. In many references he is mentioned as the famous butler of Raby Castle, whereas in fact it was his [that is, I assume, the father's] uncle who held that position. ....
[JD's] father was George Dixon of Cockfield (1701-1755) and he was a coal-mine owner. [2]

Robinson goes on to quote GD's will, which mentions his oldest son George, and later the two sons Jeremiah and Ralph. William Emerson gets a mention, as do some other things that a reader of M&D will find highly interesting, and which I plan to mention at the relevant times.

Dixon's attire

Steven Maas quotes from the same article:

"There is a family tradition and it has appeared in print on many occasions that Dixon wore military uniform from 1760 until his death consisting of a long red coat and a cocked hat."
"Dixon merely adopted as ordinary dress a long red coat and — as so many people of the period did — a cocked hat. This has led historians to assume that he either held commissioned rank or that he wore military uniform without permission. A 'long red coat and cocked hat' had no significance."

Dixon and the Slave-Driver

More from H W Robinson: pp 272-4:

A story is told that one day, whilst in America, Dixon came across a slave driver mercilessly beating a poor black woman. Going up to him he said: "Thou must not do that!" He received the curt answer: "You be d....d! Mind your own business." Dixon's reply was: "If thou doesn't desist I'll thrash thee!" Then righteous wrath overcame his Quaker principles. He was a tall and powerful man, and an imposing figure, so without more ado he seized the slave-driver's whip and with it gave him the sound thrashing that he richly deserved. Dixon kept the whip a trophy and took it back with him to Cockfield, where it was long regarded as a family treasure. [3]


  1. H P Hollis "Jeremiah Dixon and his Brother", Journal of the British Astronomical Association, v 44, #8, 1934, pp 294-9
  2. H W Robinson "Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) — A Biographical Note", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, v94, #3, 1950 pp 272-274
  3. Ibid
Mason & Dixon Alpha Guide
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